The re-opening of Ely House as the London outpost of Austrian gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, was always going to be about the space. Built by Robert Taylor in 1776, the former bishops’ mansion in the centre of Mayfair is Grade 1 listed meaning its conversion by architect Annabelle Seldorf was a question of removing subdivisions and stripping back to original features, rather than remodelling, the two large floors now used for exhibitions. It’s appropriate, then, that Oliver Beer’s ‘New Music and Sculpture’ – one of the gallery’s four inaugural exhibitions – relates intimately to the building.
While there’s room for as much of Beer’s work here as in his excellent contemporaneous exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, the undoubted attention grabber is Composition for London (2017), a new performance ‘duet’ for the building and a group of singers. The piece is part of the Paris-based British artist’s Resonance Project (2007–ongoing), which explores how the voice relates to architecture and the specific frequencies that different buildings produce according to their dimensions and geometry. Ely House is grand, but the epiphany is democratic: Beer has previously worked in car parks and a similar effect – which the artist describes as ‘singing exactly the right note and tone to force the building to take on the energy of your voice’ – can be produced by rubbing a wine glass. In Beer’s choral composition, performed regularly during the show’s three-month run, four vocalists use the building as a soundbox. The frequencies they find together create a ‘diabolus in musica’ – a dissonant combination of notes believed in the Middle Ages to be associated with the devil and which you may have heard at the start of either Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) or The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ (1981). ‘Taylor built them in without he or the Bishop realizing it,’ says Beer, relishing the irony.
The themes of both the satanic chord and the sounds of unexpected spaces carry into Devils (2017), a live installation for which Beer fitted 16 antique and modern vessels with microphones and a feedback system. It’s less interesting musically than Composition for London, meaning the visual roll call of vessels – a cat teapot, a Congolese mask, a Japanese toad – becomes the piece’s focus. The show also turns outwards:Outside In (2013) is a lead-crystal ear trumpet attached to the window halfway up the stairs. Put your ear to it and you can hear the street’s sounds magnified, adding to the frequencies of Ely House’s particular space.
Those works are sculptures formed primarily by sound, whereas Beer’s ‘Two-Dimensional Sculptures’ (2014–ongoing) take the form of paintings. The method is simple and effective: Beer slices objects in half and embeds them in a plaster structure with the cut side facing out such that they appear as drawings of themselves. We see a flat ‘image’ of, for example, a pipe against a white background. However, unlike Magritte’s painted pipe that is not one, this image of a pipe is a pipe – or, at least, half of one. Beer’s move is close to Marcel Broodthaers’s when, in Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1971–72 version), he showed a pipe labelled ‘fig 2’, as if it were illustrating itself.
There’s another kind of resonance at work here, too, as this was Beer’s grandfather’s pipe. Indeed, the ‘founding piece’ of the artist’s practice (on show at IKON) might well be Oma’s Kitchen Floor (2008), his wall-hanging of the linoleum that bears the traces of 40 years of his grandmother’s movements: a combination of personal memories, lives recorded and inhabited architecture. Other sliced objects include violins played by Beer’s friends, guns collected by his father and A Shoe I Wore (2017). So the work is personal, too, though Beer’s process of dissection is more clinical than passionate and I found the biographical links more of a distraction from than an enhancement of the formal languages in play.
The gallery’s three further inaugural exhibitions showcase classic works from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, respectively. In very different ways, all four shows feature strategies for dealing with the autobiographical. Early drawings by Joseph Beuys show the artist, in the mid 1950s, developing the personal language that he would later turn towards myth. Highlights from the Marzona Collection of minimal art – with Lee Lozano making a welcome incursion alongside Judd, Flavin, Carl Andre et al. – set out to exclude personal readings, only for possibilities to seep back in. And Gilbert & George, with their photographic drinking pieces (1972–73), in which double exposure, distortion and blurring suggest inebriation, present a deliberately arch take on themselves as artists. The four shows work together well, creating the overall impression of a museum with a lively project space.
Main image: Oliver Beer, Devils, 2017. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris, Salzburg; photograph: Steve White