Ishara Art Foundation recently hosted a talk in Dubai with the UK based artist-composer Haroon Mirza, as part of its current exhibition, ‘Notations on Time’ which features. his ‘Light Work xlix’ (2022).
This was Mirza’s first public interaction in the UAE during which he shared with the audience the evolution of his art practice, underpinned by his interest in energy and power in their various forms.
Mirza considers electricity as his primary artistic medium, creating from it visual, sculptural, acoustic, and performative compositions in time and space.
Born in 1977 in London, Mirza has a BA in painting from Winchester School of Art, and MAs in critical practice and theory from Goldsmiths College, London, and in fine art from Chelsea College of Art and Design.
Sabih Ahmed, Associate Director and Curator at Ishara Art Foundation, in his introductory remarks referred to Mirza’s ‘Light Work xlix’ featured on the mezzanine floor of the gallery as a light installation, which is actually quite phenomenal … you’re looking at neon lights on the floor. But the work is actually on the ceiling, a white light effect as calibration of certain frequencies and energies and electricity in a certain way. And that's really what excited us to have Haroon in the ‘Notations on Time’ exhibition.”
“The show is really about how do we experience time? How do we read time? Where do we read time? And how does time get registered in our bodies, in the ecosystem, in machines? And in organic life on the planet as well as on cosmic scales. There’s an interest in various kinds of scales that is both measured in particles and waves.”
Moderated by art critic and editor Jyoti Dhar, the talk offered insights into the ideas, questions, research, and explorations that underlie Mirza’s practice.
Mirza’s work has been exhibited in far corners of the world, including the Gulf, and most recently in Saudi Arabia.
Mirza, in his presentation took the audience through different bodies of work, practice, and an overview of the basic principles as it evolved up to the present.
But then it is also interesting that even a decade ago, Mirza’s installation ‘Falling Rope,’ 2013 (LED, LED controllers, LCD monitor, speakers, media player, and cables) was featured at the Sharjah Biennial 11 in 2013. The work was inspired by a 1907 photograph by Herbert Ponting of Shiraito (literally, 'falling string') Waterfall, in Fujinomiya, with Mount Fuji in the background.
“So you know, I’m not new to the region in that sense, but it’s true that I’ve never really spent time here.”
Recalling the early days, he said. “Even though I am known as an artist who worked with electricity as the primary medium, it took me a while to kind of come to that realization. I thought I was using electronics to make music. I was producing sounds from hacking household objects. And I was layering those sounds and organizing in some way to sort of create these auditory compositions.”
Mirza describes it as a kind of curatorial practice and also a practice of composition. “I like to call it composition in the sense that I’m composing with both visual and acoustic material simultaneously. But one of the key things was working with electricity and radio and things on the electromagnetic spectrum, both in terms of light and electricity, but also sound waves, and kind of manipulating those things and working with it. So I was creating form, and these elements were sort of playing out within space and time.”
Technology was also changing. “LED lighting had started to replace halogen lighting. And from using voltage to control light, electronics came into play to control lighting-- through an electronic process called Pulse Width Modulation. And that process was sort of used fundamentally for lots of things… it was also one of the processes used in instruments, in synthesizers, and electronic music. So we got to this point in our sort of technological development where we were using the same electronic process to change lighting but also create sound. So it became like this form that was something more synesthetic … and grew and evolved and takes up many different guises.”
Mirza also showed a solo exhibition of new works at Lisson Gallery in London, entitled |||, forming a constellation of installations around the so-called ‘Holy’ or ‘Divine’ frequency of 111 Hz, which provides a sonic experience that permeates the spaces. Individual works incorporate light, moving image, sound and sculpture, while a living ecosystem deriving from one of Mirza’s solar-panel works ‘powers’ an ant colony and a fungus farm.
“This healing frequency, as it has been described, was something that I got kind of excited or inspired by because it’s an interesting thing to explore. So I started making work with this frequency and including it into narratives and, using as a framework.”
Jyoti Dhar, commenting on Mirza’s work, said: … there’s an evocation of the worldly and otherworldly at the same time that I see kind of unifying a lot of the work.”
“There’s always something otherworldly in everything,” said Mirza. “But then to try and communicate that to everyone else,” is what the art attempts, “a very diluted form of shamanism, speaking from the Western canon.”
Al Arabiya English caught up with the artist to get more insights on how he got attracted to installations using sound, light, and energy sources and their interplay with human beings and Nature.
Obviously, Mirza’s early interest in music has also led to his interest in exploring “the interplay and friction between sound and light waves, and electric current.” He describes his role as a composer who manipulates electricity, and recalled using as household electronics, vinyl, turntables, LEDs, furniture, video footage and existing artworks.
“I was working with electrical signals since my Goldsmiths days, generating light and sound from them but it wasn’t until I started thinking about electricity as a natural phenomenon that I began thinking about it as landscape. Landscape for me is all of the cosmos, including all living and non-living things inside within it. I’ve always been attracted to nature.”
What stage were you in your evolution when you pivoted to this mode of practice because you started off as a painter? “I was making landscape painting, or more specifically, seascapes – so ‘waves.’ But after considering sound as another invisible part of the landscape, in trying to represent acoustic space, I began working with objects. But then at Goldsmiths, I realized by using electrical current I could compose with light and sound simultaneously as an aesthetic form. So my interest in waves expanded from ocean waves, to sound waves, electromagnetic waves, and more recently neural oscillations – brain waves.”
What are the main themes and inspirations behind your artworks. Do you collaborate or receive feedback from the tech community? “A little bit but not too much… Tech these days seems to be more about digital space or the Metaverse as opposed to the physical world we inhabit. There are of course exceptions such as the microcontroller industry which has also been making leaps and bounds, which I try and keep up with. I guess the developments in Machine Learning (ML) will begin to interface the physical world in a profound way, so I keep up with the narratives around that, but don’t work with AI much anymore.”
Mirza has been exhibiting in far corners of the world, including the Gulf, and most recently in Saudi Arabia – Noor Riyadh in 2022, and the inaugural edition of the Islamic Arts Biennale in Jeddah, early this year.
According to Riyadh Art, Mirza’s ‘Energy for the Sake of Retaining Power’ (Solar Symphony 16) was a new sculptural installation specifically created for the Noor Riyadh Festival.
It follows Mirza’s continued interest in the ‘Dyson Sphere,’ a speculative photovoltaic megastructure that encompasses a star in order to exploit vast amounts of its energy. Mirza presents an arrangement of these photovoltaic panels that channel electricity from halogen lamps to further illuminate a planter populated by the local shrub Syrian Rue, facilitating its growth and photosynthesis. The plants and visitors are simultaneously serenaded by a generative composition of physiologically-stimulating frequencies governed by the electricity flowing through the system.
Mirza’s ‘Adam, Eve, Others, and a Meteorite’ (2023), commissioned by the Diriyah Biennale Foundation, comprises a pair of monumental standing stones resembling the Al-Naslaa rock formation near Taima in Saudi Arabia, in which pictures were carved 4,000 years ago.
He has created a celestial clock that responds to the different rhythms of the sun and moon. The first structure, a cube clad in local basalt, lies at an angle out in the open, as if it has just fallen from the heavens. It carries an array of solar panels, power LEDs, and speakers embedded in a second stone that is split in two. These emit a display of sound and light. The duration of this performance changes according to the moon phase, longest at the new moon and shortest at the full moon.
In its relationship to the cycles of the moon, Mirza's work reflects on the first marking of time on the ‘hijri’ calendar.
Meanwhile, its dependence on solar power parallels the connection between the sun and the timing of ritual prayer.
Juxtaposing this reference to prehistoric monuments with cutting-edge technology, Mirza comments on humanity’s ever-evolving quest to understand the movement of the celestial realms and its effects on our lives.
Mirza’s, ‘Dyson Sphere’ (detail), 2022 currently on show at Abu Dhabi’s The NYUAD Art Gallery, as part of ‘the only constant’ exhibition curated by Maya Allison, Executive Director of the Gallery, depicts a living garden, fed by light from solar panels. Mirza visualizes this question: “What if we were to surround the sun in solar panels, and block out the light?”
This exhibition is part of an ongoing series in which curator Allison investigates the concept of landscape as it manifests in contemporary art practice, globally. “I hope my works add to the richness of the way of life in the Arab world,” he said.
Performance Art has been gaining prominence in the UAE nowadays. Do you think tech installations can enhance such acts and provide a cutting edge? “Absolutely. I hope to come here and present some of my own performance works alongside those of my peers to help establish that engagement.”
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