Sliced exactly through the middle and then set flush in canvas, Oliver Beer’s camera looks more like a drawing than a sculpture. This is one of Beer’s “dissected objects”, a series in which personal possessions (his camera, his father’s ‘Soviet Shotgun’) and used items (a pipe, a lightbulb) are guillotined and installed as two-dimensional representations of themselves. The title shared by the two camera-segments, ‘Autoportrait 50mm’, suggests in this instance we should search for something further within these frames: a portrait of the artist.
Beer’s practice is diverse – encompassing film, sound, and sculpture – and perhaps more easily related by sensibility than subject matter. His home video, ‘Mum’s Continuous Note’, which welcomes us into the exhibition, serves as our induction. Beer’s mother is engaged to teach us to hear ‘the many notes within the note’; how a single, sustained tone can seem to modulate when others jostle next to it. Beer requests from us what he demands of himself: an attentiveness, equal parts sensitivity and curiosity.
Since 2007 this has entailed coaxing buildings to sing for him. Among the earliest works exhibited is film documentation of ‘Pay and Display’ in which Beer conducts a choir to the frequencies at which a multistorey car park in Birmingham becomes a vast musical instrument, resounding with their voices. Originally commissioned by Ikon, the film is a reminder that this exhibition is a twofold homecoming: a return to a gallery that has supported his career since its start, and a sojourn back in Britain for the Paris-based artist.
It therefore seems apt that so much of the work references his parents and grandparents – albeit often obliquely. Consider the five polished train rails set vertically against the wall: even knowing the title, ‘Family’, they remain somewhat inscrutable. Learning that Beer’s father had a railway in their garden, they take on a more personal inflection, but still seem to exemplify a certain dispassionateness in Beer’s work, an almost clinical quality, derived from the precision and coolness of his practice. Objects, sounds, film: all are cut with a surgeon’s tender cruelty.
When the linoleum floor of his grandmother’s kitchen is mounted on the wall, worn with a lifetime’s movements, Beer’s economy of means fosters a touching poignancy trimmed of sentimentality. Similarly his ‘Reanimation’ of a song from Disney’s ‘Jungle Book’, each frame re-drawn by a child, evokes youth’s transience without mawkishness. Only his alphabetical re-assemblage of ‘I Have A Dream’ feels misjudged – arbitrary, too detached – in this politically freighted moment, the noble sentiment of Martin Luther King’s speech lost to a nonsensical stammer.
Inside that cleft camera perhaps we have discovered something of Beer, an artist who dismembers as he strives to remember, who anatomises the objects he wants to know better. Art might denude of function, but only apparently sacrifices depth. Through persistent interrogation of the limits of seeing and hearing, Beer pursues a more profound understanding of the silence and emptiness found when we take things apart.