Oliver Beer left Sevenoaks in 2004 as an aspiring artist, and in 2009 won the Saatchi New Sensations Prize for his short films.
Oliver was subsequently featured on Channel 4's Three Minute Wonder. At the age of 24, his accomplishments in the art world are unprecedented. Oliver visited the school on Wednesday 4 November 2009 to help Old Sennockian film director Paul Greengrass open the new Digital Imaging Studio.
GA: Did anything from your experience at Sevenoaks particularly inspire your choice of career?
OB: I was given so much freedom here, so much space, so many resources, so much encouragement and really so few restrictions, that what may have been just an adolescent whim to become an artist was never questioned. Without the benefits of my time here in the Sixth Form I really don't think I'd be where I am right now.
GA: Was there a particular teacher who inspired you throughout your career at Sevenoaks?
OB: I've no need to name names per se, simply because there were enough good teachers. I was given a lot of leeway by staff but I think it's probably harder now with the IB and the associated pressures, just in terms of the time that you can devote to a single subject.
I remember I used to stay at school every night until 7pm or 8pm working on sculptures. I'm not sure if I was still at Sevenoaks when I did this, I think I was, but I was furious that the Pope had been saying 'no condoms in Africa'. So I thought I'd use my new-found sculpting ability to make a rye stand, made a really big bust of the Pope, huge and grizzled and lifelike, and it was my every intention to cast him in latex. I never got round to casting him so for the last five years I've had this huge Pope sitting in my shed. Maybe I should do that still.
GA: Looking through some of your work, I noticed that a lot of it is based around the mathematics of acoustics. So how did you first come across this idea to exploit the resonant frequencies of certain architectural spaces?
OB: I first found out that you could find the resonant frequency of anything in Physics lessons, with Miss Connolly. About the same time, Mr Young had taught me about the diabolus in musica ('the Devil in music'), which was a specific interval that had essentially been banned during the Renaissance, because it was such a discordant tone that it was associated with the 'unholy'. So I decided to go around Kent and find two churches whose resonant frequencies were exactly at this 'unholy' interval, and eventually I succeeded. There is something intuitive and absolutely perfect about how we can identify with music and harmony, and how even in a shower or a subway or whatever it might be, something in your mind is hardwired to recognise this perfect mathematical series. I worked in a monastery on an incredible hill in Rome a couple of years ago with a Bulgarian folk choir, the local parishioners and some of the monks. The way they made that building sing and the way they sang back was so unique, and it was so moving to see them redefine their relationships with this place that they knew so well. I feel like I'm nearing a sort of saturation point, almost gaining closure on that particular series. However, I'd like to take it into the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's. Imagine the whole cupola of St Paul's resounding like an upturned wine glass, and a community choir of two or three thousand people creating their noise. I've done pieces which distil the text and the actual words through these harmonics, so the meaning of the Lord's Prayer will come back to you in that mathematical series. And there is something quite chilling about that.
GA: You recently did a film for Channel 4. So how did that come about?
OB: I applied for the competition when I graduated, but I had completely forgotten that I had applied when I got a phone call telling me that I was one of the final four and they wanted to make a documentary about what I had done. The film that actually won me the competition was based on the Samaritans' training process.
I trained as a Samaritan a few years ago, and I was struck at the time by this incredible scene where these people had decided to sit down to learn how to listen to each other. They create role-plays for trainees to practise on, and it's ultimately a really bizarre piece of pre-existent realist theatre. There are so many instances where these people are role-playing and creating something absolutely incredible, but it's never recognised as art or artifice, and so I recreated the training process with my own scenarios, my own actors, but genuine trainees, actually going in and learning how to be Samaritans. I started off the process by setting up a huge film rig around them so we didn't have to film retakes and it could carry on as normal. Then this woman tells the story of her mother, who's dying from Alzheimer's, and how she can't cope.
The whole thing is shot oppressively close, and it focuses on the reactions of all the trainees as they're listening to her, and you really see their physical responses to her situation, her pain, her words.The way they twiddle their thumbs and touch their faces in empathy is all absolutely ruthlessly caught, and the poor trainees had no idea I had such a strong zoom.
Grant Arnold, 2010
This article was originally published in the Sennockian 2009-10. Oliver returned to Sevenoaks in 2011 for a residency which was a major collaboration between art and music. The images below are taken from his second film work of the residency.