By Nancy Durrant
Pick up that empty mug perched next to your laptop on the kitchen table. Feels nice doesn’t it? Decent weight, you’ve always liked that pattern. But what does it sound like?
This modestly magical installation by the artist Oliver Beer starts with the perfectly true but also slightly mind-bending principle that every vessel, be it a casserole dish or a vase, kettle or cow-creamer, has a note – a musical note, which, unless the vessel is broken, will never change, even if it survives for centuries. Beer studies the intrinsic relationships between form and sound, and the music inherent in the material world, creating artworks that reveal the hidden acoustic properties of objects, bodies and architectural sites.
This latest installation, a site-specific commission for the London Mithraeum Bloomberg Space entitled Albion Waves, is his largest to date, and represents an evolution from his landmark solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2019. For that project he placed microphones inside thirty-two sculptures, utilitarian containers, and decorative objects from the museum’s holdings, from Art Nouveau vases to a Copper Age storage jar, to create a Vessel Orchestra, an audible portrait of the Met collection.
Albion Waves takes its inspiration from the 14,000 Roman artefacts that were discovered on the Bloomberg site during the 2012-2014 archaeological excavations (the Temple of Mithras, an important archaeological site that lies beneath the space, has been carefully preserved and is well worth a visit). The main artwork, The Shape of Sound, features 28 vessels, a diverse selection of British ceramics spanning the past 2,000 years, suspended at different heights in the centre of the space, with a microphone inside each one, and a motion sensor above it.
As the visitor moves around the space these sensors are triggered (bigger, more decisive movements work best, so be bold, but obviously not too bold, since you might as well be in a china shop), and each unique note rings out, allowing the viewer to “play” the pots (including, yes, a cow creamer) as an instrument. It’s half-haunting, half-soothing, and though each individual note has its own inherent beauty, the music won’t always be harmonious – much like the voices of Britain.
If you love a pot, which I do, it’s worth taking a moment, while others dance carefully around the installation to peruse the full list of vessels, which traverse the centuries and the UK, and together reflect cultural and social changes in Britain’s material history. The oldest vessel is an elegant Roman pot, dating from the same era as the temple downstairs, and representing a moment of technological evolution in British ceramics. A 19th century spirit jug bears the potter’s mark of Doulton and Watts – the same brand for which the 12-year-old Charles Dickens spent hours pasting labels on pots while his father languished in a debtor’s prison, informing the writer’s later searing depictions of contemporary poverty.
A 1937 loving cup designed by Charles Noke and Harry Fenton for the coronation of George VI and Elizabeth celebrates monarchy and empire – a reminder that pottery can also be propaganda, while two gorgeous vases, made by Chris Bramble and his daughter Freya Bramble-Carter respectively, represent succeeding generations of British studio potters, and evoke personal heritage and the natural world. Historically, the ceramic tradition has more often gone from father to son, so this pairing is particularly pleasing.