A review by Orit Gat, on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Albion Waves’ on view at Bloomberg Space, London, from February 9 to July 15, 2023
My dad worked with satellites. His office was full of photographs of satellite dishes against desert landscapes, ancient ruins, and rural communities. He loved the image of the new technology he worked on against the world as we already knew it. This romantic side of my dad was the first thing that came to my mind when walking into Bloomberg Space. The site of the company’s shiny new office building in central London was the place where ancient ruins, a temple of the cult of mystery god Mithras, were once found.
When Bloomberg established its headquarters there, the company also preserved the temple, bringing it back to where it once stood (it was actually moved 100 meters away from its original location to allow for development of the site in the 1950s), adding a light and sound show that helps contemporary viewers imagine the presence of people in Roman London almost 2000 years ago. About 14000 artifacts were found when the site was excavated, many of which are in the nearby Museum of London, and some are displayed here, in a vitrine the size of an entire wall.
It’s that wall of ancient things—a copper and enamel brooch, a single leather sandal, a silver coin, a cup—that echoes with Oliver Beer’s installation at Bloomberg Space, ‘Albion Waves’. In the main exhibition gallery, a floor above the ancient temple, Beer hung twenty-eight vessels from the ceiling. They’re not ancient—well, two of them are second-century vases, but the rest include an ice bucket from the Savoy Hotel in London, a cow-shaped cream jug, and a Victorian frog vase. Together, these objects tell a material history of Britain, but they also become musical instruments. Each of these objects hosts a microphone fitted with motion detectors, so that when viewers move under and between these suspended vessels, they activate the sound installation, essentially playing the artwork like an instrument. The sound is echoey—like listening to a seashell, or running a wet finger along the rim of a wine glass, Beer describes in the exhibition’s press release, and adds: “Every vessel that’s ever been made in the history of object making is also constantly quietly resonating its own unchanging musical note, determined by its form.”
I take notes while moving through the installation. Stop, look up (a small light above each microphone comes on when it registers your motion), try to think whether I know the right words to describe what it feels like to walk among the mics. Surely, they would come from the world of dance: choreography, movement, pace, rhythm. To activate the installation feels like playing and listening to music at once. It’s lonely and beautiful if you’re alone in the space, making your own harmony with body, space, and art. But it’s lovely to see the joy and surprise on other visitors’ faces as they move through, coming together, becoming an improvisatory orchestra.
Along with the vessels is a series of Resonance Paintings, using the sound from the installation to make the paintings: a fine blue powder was set on the canvases and the vibrations from the sound moved the pigment around, creating the images. The paintings feel like they are in correspondence with French artist Yves Klein’s Anthropometries paintings. Except in Klein’s paintings, the female models were turned intro “brushes”, imprinting their nude bodies on the canvas, while in Beer’s paintings, motion becomes image in a much more abstracted and less embodied way. The result feels like the whole ocean—it has waves, and a history of motion—but still hints at bodies: Resonance Painting (The Pull of You) looks a bit like two lungs, Resonance Painting (Deep Sea Diver) is wormy, or like a school of fish. Or, perhaps not bodies, just something very alive.
I walk on the ground floor and beneath me is this remnant of the ancient world. A place where people also listened to music, also danced, and lived alongside art. It would take a cynic to be in this space and not think about universalizing ideas, about shared experiences. Someone whose heart was broken 2000 years ago also walked along these roads. And I think about how Beer describes the sound and paintings both using versions of word “resonant.” That word—vibrant, pulsating, evocative—like a relationship to history that makes a contemporary viewer so conscious of it. Like the layers of earth that covered this temple and the layers of material used to build the office complex above it. Somehow Beer’s installation cuts through all these histories, not suggesting they can be unified, only that they live on.
Photograph: Marcus Leith