Open Your Mouth: Oliver Beer Debuts a New Instrument at Independent Brussels

Oliver Beer's performance at Independent Brussels.
Oliver Beer's performance at Independent Brussels.

"It really didn’t feel like an art fair for that moment," Oliver Beer tells me by telephone. The artist is referring to the premiere of his latest work, Composition for Mouths (Songs My Mother Taught Me), whose sonorous apparition filled the entirety of the Vanderborght building this weekend during Independent Brussels's first fall edition. A kind of collaboration with local singers, the performance centered around an instrument of Beer's own invention: two mouths clasped together to form one booming, nasal conch.

While this sonic combination is so ingeniously simple that it reads at first as adaptation, the technique is seemingly unique to Beer. "I spent a good amount of time researching different ways voices have been used in tandem like this. I found an Inuit tradition that involves singing directly into another's face, but nothing I discovered involved turning two voices into one instrument," Beer says. "Of course I'd be thrilled to find another example. I'm constantly learning from others.'

When asked how easy it is to find performers willing to effectively kiss for this body strumming hum, I can hear Beer’s smile crack. "I've found most professionals are keen to try it," Beer says. "It's a chance for them to develop a new skill, a chance to try a new voice."

This exchange is mutual in more than one way. The duets derive from the singers’ earliest ditties which the artist then merges into one. "The score they perform is the meeting of these memories and my own," Beer explains. The two melodies and the artist’s intervention set a new beat.

Beer finds the most rewarding part of this journey in the diversity of experience. "Our earliest memories often reflect our heritage or our mothers," the artist says. "Brussels is a very culturally diverse place which allowed for a more eclectic mix. One woman remembered a sad and beautiful Polish children's song, while another a Catalan hymn."

Beer isn't just mining his performers’ past. Composition for Mouths (Songs My Mother Taught Me) is just one piece of a larger solo presentation that Beer undertook with Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac for Independent. Upstairs at their static booth, Beer's two- and three-dimensional works, depending on who you ask, speak to his own nostalgia. The bulwark of the installation consists of a series of muted white and black collages that the artist created by sinking fragments of personal effects into resin. Several pieces wink at Duchamp. “My grandfather always loved pipes,” Beer explains.

Beer’s materials include instruments of all kinds from violins to train tracks, but the one thing they have in common comes through Beer’s hand—the poetic divorce of form and function. It seems the artist sees a certain beauty in the destruction of the expected and brings his audiences along for the entropic ride. The road feels familiar but the views and sounds offer a new environment explore. This summer, Beer will take his visions to the Met Breuer with a work titled Vessel Orchestra—we will wait with bated breath until then, lips locked together.