Gallery  April 4, 2024  Megan D Robinson

Oliver Beer Creates Music from Irresistible Cat-Shaped Objects

Photo by Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of Almine Rech. 

Installation view of Oliver Beer's Resonance PaintingsCat Orchestra at Almine Rech Tribeca, March 14, 2024

Based in London and Paris, multi-disciplinary artist Oliver Beer creates innovative installations, collaborations, and canvases that give voice or visual expression to the musical frequencies all things have. Beer’s latest solo exhibition, Resonance PaintingsCat Orchestra, which is on view at Almine Rech‘s Tribeca gallery, explores the frequencies of vessels shaped like cats.

His 2023 installation, Vessel Orchestra, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, was the first sound-based installation The Met ever commissioned, and it made quite a splash. Resonance PaintingsCat Orchestra continues the artist’s investigation into sounds made by vessels. On the upper floor of the gallery, a variety of vessels—in the form of cat sculptures, set on white pedestalsare placed around a synthesizer.

The vessels range from classically illustrated teapots and formal sculptures to emblems of pop culture such as the waving Japanese Lucky Cat figurine and Tom, the cartoon cat, from Tom & Jerry. A microphone in each vessel feeds to a note on the synthesizer, so, when the keyboard is played, the music is a symphony of the signature notes of the vessels. 

Photo: Oliver Beer Studio © Oliver Beer Courtesy of the Artist and Almine Rech

Installation view of Oliver Beer's Resonance PaintingsCat Orchestra at Almine Rech Tribeca. Detail: Bronze guardian lion, Thailand; Chester Cat teapot, USA; floral cat figurine, Cornwall, UK; 'Maneki-neko' lucky cat, Japan; seated Imari cat, China; black cat vase, New Jersey, USA; seated roaring tiger, Italy)

This ‘orchestra’ was inspired by the 17th century German philosopher Athanasius Kircher, who envisioned a disturbing “Katzenklavier” (cat organ), using real cats. Instead of torturing cats to produce sound, Beer’s version sets the innate sound of these cat vessels free. 

Beer sorted through thousands of cat vessels from all over the world to find thirty-seven “that sing in tune with each other.” He enjoys the fact that “because of the universal nature of the relationship of music and form, harmony and form, none of those objects can avoid singing.” Beer finds the sound they make magical. “The resonance of these things is so surprising and yet so evident when we hear it, so self-evident.”

The show opened with a collaborative performance between Beer and vocalist Holland Andrews. Beer says it was an incredible experience. “We gelled musically immediately, and wrote the music that we played in just a couple of sessions.” The packed audience was enthusiastic. “It was such a lovely thing to see these objects that I've been collecting for so many months and years, finally able to sing to somebody,” Beer says. “It was really gorgeous.” 

An artist to watch, Beer’s work has been included in notable exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum and MoMA PS1, London’s Mithraeum, the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, and the Venice Biennale. With degrees in musical composition, visual arts, and cinema from educational institutions in London, Oxford and Paris, Beer blends his interests into astounding, multi-faceted art.

Photo by Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of Almine Rech.

Installation view of Oliver Beer's Resonance PaintingsCat Orchestra at Almine Rech Tribeca, March 14, 2024.

Beer’s fascination with the frequencies of spaces and objects began young. “I always had this slightly uncanny sensitivity to sound and harmony,” Beer explains. “Ever since I was a kid, I could hear what key a room was in.” Comparing a room to a seashell, Beer explains, “Ambient sound is always filtered through the geometry of an empty space. So as you walk through a building, you're actually walking through a whole series of musical harmonies–musical notes that belong to each of those empty spaces.” Beer learned early “how to make a building sing just by using my voice very quietly to stimulate those harmonies.” 

Beer loves that “every object in the history of object making—if it's hollow—has got a musical note. That means every pot, every ceramic vessel, every metal vessel and every wooden vessel has an inherent musical harmony inside it.” He finds it fascinating that architects are unknowingly  building musical harmonies when designing a building, while ceramicists and potters are creating musical notes that will never change, as the note is tied to the geometry of the form. Beer hopes his work will set off a lightbulb moment for viewers and listeners, helping them realize the music “held within all of these different things,” to realize that we are surrounded and enveloped by the music in every object and vessel.

Also upstairs, Beer’s Resonance Paintings are a series of cobalt images on canvas. Using extremely fine pigment on a horizontal canvas positioned above a speaker, Beer has learned to paint with sound, allowing his eyes to be superseded by his ears. Capturing the visual expression of music, he reveals the beautiful geometric shape of a sound wave, creating a “magical, almost shamanic moment, where the world is speaking to you, singing to you in a way that it always has, but you've never heard.”

Oliver Beer’s Resonance Paintings—Cat Orchestra is on view at Almine Rech Tribeca through April 27, 2024.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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