Haroon Mirza: Degrees of Originality 

Haroon Mirza, Rules of Appropriation 3 (detail), 2019, Image Courtesy Sifang Art Museum
Haroon Mirza, Chamber for Horwitz, 2015, Image Courtesy Contributor
Haroon Mirza Studio Shot
Installation view of Reality is somehow what we expect it to be, Ikon Gallery , 2019, Image courtesy of Contributor
Haroon Mirza, Taka Tak, 2008, Image Courtesy of the Contributor
Haroon Mirza, An Infinato, 2009, Image Courtesy of contributor.
Haroon Mirza, Rules of Appropriation 2018 Installation View, Image Courtesy of the Contributor
Haroon Mirza, Rules of Appropriation 3, 2019, Image Courtesy Sifang Art Museum.
Haroon Mirza, Rules of Appropriation 3 (detail), 2019, Image Courtesy Sifang Art Museum
Haroon Mirza, Copy of Pavilion for Optimasation 4, 2019, Image Courtesy of SIfang Art Museum
Haroon Mirza, Copy of 911-119 4, 2019, Image Courtesy of SIfang Art Museum
Haroon Mirza, Series of Light Works 2, 2019, Image Courtesy of SIfang Art Museum
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 After noticing his artworks being replicated in a Louis Vuitton window display, artist Haroon Mirza became increasingly preoccupied with the concept of appropriation.  For his first exhibition in China,  at Sifang Art Museum in Nanjing, he tackles appropriation head on, specifically relevant in a Chinese context. During a studio visit earlier this year, the proclaimed “manipulator of electricity” breaks down the nuts and bolts comprising his technically complex installations and reveals how he conceives his intrinsically unique works.

Text: Aaina Bhargava
Images: Courtesy of the Sifang Museum, the artist, and contributor. 

 

 

Haroon Mirza, Chamber for Horwitz, 2015, Image Courtesy Contributor

 

 

Neon lights flicker in bouts of irregularity in tandem with eruptions of an electric buzzing, disrupting the visual and sonic spatial monotony.  Poorly made copies of Louis Vuitton wallets and bags emblazoned with green letters mystically levitate off of solar panels. Bizzare kinetic combinations of old furniture and commonplace objects intensify an already charged atmosphere.  A sensation – simultaneously leading, disconcerting, but mostly suspenseful – festers, equatable to a one created on the sets of Stranger Things.   

No, it’s not a scene out of the immensely popular Netflix series, but the theatrical immersive installations and curious assemblages created by artist Haroon Mirza, which have an equally gripping effect and inspire just as must conversation.  Highly distinctive, his works utilize electricity, sound, film and video to render a sensorial experience dependent on sonic, as much as visual stimulation. 

Encapsulating this characterization, are iconic works such as The National Apavilion of Then and Now (2013), Chamber for Horowitz (2015), Taka Tak (2007), and An Infinato (2009), which have most recently been on view at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, as a part of the most comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s oeuvre to date, Reality is somehow what we expect it to be.  The National Apavilion of Then and Now, which won the Silver Lion Prize for the most promising artist in 2013 at the Venice Biennale, and Chamber for Horowitz, in particular demonstrate the transformative power of a constructed atmosphere in which the possibility of the acoustic and visual becoming one aesthetic form exists.  

National Apavilion of Then and Now consists of a viewers entering a minimalist architectural structure (which at the time directly related to its context – a reimagining of the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale) in which neither light nor sound can be reflected.  The walls are covered in black pyramid shaped foam panels, a halo – like ring of LED lights is suspended in the center which become increasingly bright, accompanied by a crescendo of buzzing sounds.  The viewer’s awareness of space, realized by light and sound, escalates as both intensify.    This experience evolves in a Chamber for Horwitz, Sonakinatography Transcriptions in Surround Sound, Mirza’s ode to the late artist Channa Horwitz, where the pyramidal foam panels remain, but the mix of light and sound is altered with the inclusion of speakers and color, essentially making sound visible.  

 

Haroon Mirza Studio Shot

 

 

Sound and light have been primary fixtures in Mirza’s practice, however the use of electricity distinguishes it.  Highly technical and explorative in a variety of creative disciplines, Mirza’s process is essentially a science experiment, made visibly evident during a studio visit.  

Shiny exposed hardware on a variety of circuit boards and the metallic glint from colorful coils of wiring immediately catch the eye. Visible elsewhere are stacks upon stacks of books, solar panels, a baffling array of highly technical audio visual equipment, and comparatively more banal tools such as wrenches and ladders.  The space resembles a cross between an electronics lab and hardware store. Describing the function of a curious piece of circuity emerging from a board, he patiently explains, “this is a device that synchronises 8 channels of video with electric signals, we built a device that makes this visible with light.” This level of technical construction may be considered basic for an electrical engineer, but for an artist it requires a large learning curve and specific equipment that often has to be custom made.  

“We develop very bespoke system and devices, on a very basic level it’s making LED flash or change color, but if you take that same electricity and put it in an amplifier, you can hear it change. Then there is video content, having those all sync and work together.  It’s like electronic R&D (research and development).”   

Mirza’s creative process, welcomes experimentation, leaving plenty of room for mistakes to be made.  Often, effects are stumbled upon when when errors occurs – accidents on purpose.  “Most of the things we do, are things you shouldn’t normally do.  Most interesting things come out of total accidents.  Usually it’s interference or malfunctions of some kind, how can I make sure that keeps happening.”

 

 

Installation view of Reality is somehow what we expect it to be, Ikon Gallery , 2019, Image courtesy of Contributor

 

This interference is often what viewers see or hear in his works, an electric disruption of sorts.  He uses electricity as his medium to deconstruct and test the extent and limits of human perception. Astutely dubbed the “manipulator of electricity,”  he himself prefers the term composer.  

“I made it up, in a bit of a provocative manner.  It actually backfired on me the other day when I had to make a proposal for actual musical composers, he jokes about his given title.  “It’s more to do with the word composition in a much wider sense. It’s about getting materials and organizing them. You use composition in painting, its a large part of space and art.  Because I work with sound, and compose sound in space – I’m working with and around objects, it seemed more apt than artist – which is more of a blanket term.” 

His older works in particular employ a range of objects, spanning from old furniture to electrical equipment all of which demonstrate a reactive interaction between various elements, eventually composing a whole.  A deliberate interconnectivity between seemingly random objects is forged.  Taka Tak for instance, a seminal work, consists of an old tv monitor playing video footage of a Pakistani street food chef mincing meat, a spinning Sufi statue, flashing lights, and a turn table.  A rhythmic beat created by the clang of metal spatulas mincing the meat captivates viewers, providing a foundation to build the complexity of the narrative that ensues, alluding to macro concepts of music and spirituality. 

 

 

Haroon Mirza, Taka Tak, 2008, Image Courtesy of the Contributor

 

 

An Infinato, forms another layered narrative involving multiple elements, each relying on the other to function.  A piano keyboard is attached to a galvanised bin containing water, by a metal ruler,  A key on the piano plays every time water is “splashed” onto the metal ruler, creating a composition over time.  This is accompanied by a Jeremy Deller’s 2003 film of bats and offcuts from an experimental film by Guy Sherwin, highlighting Mirza’s propensity for collaboration and giving credit where it’s due.     

“There are so many artists, and creative individuals such as architects, scientists, musician who are doing great things. There is no need for appropriation when you can collaborate with them because you can have the original, you can expand on it, make it more diverse and interesting.” 

Questions of appropriation and authenticity become specifically relevant to Mirza’s work which contain an inherent originality, one that speaks to the core of his practice.  In creating immersive spatially altering installations which depend on reactions between light, sound, electricity and other elements over a given time, Mirza compels viewers to experience the work rather than simply observe it.  As each work is encountered at a specific moment in time, its effect is unique to the viewer’s reading of it.  The experience cannot be recreated, his works cannot be reproduced because they are intrinsically always in flux.  This principle is firmly embedded in his mentality: 

 

 

Haroon Mirza, An Infinato, 2009, Image Courtesy of contributor.

 

“I have an idealism which has to do with the fact that artwork shouldn’t be reproduced. It could also come from an aversion I have to social media. There have been people who have tried to recreate digital and virtual versions of my work, but it’s never been successful.” 

The concept of appropriation became even more pertinent to Mirza’s practice and ideology after the 2018 Louis Vuitton incident when the famed fashion house “blatantly appropriated” his artwork for their stores window displays, without the artist’s consent (more recently Off White founder and LV Menswear Artistic Director Virgil Abloh was seen appropriating the aesthetic of Mirza’s work in his own art installations).  In an attempt to establish a dialogue with the brand about appropriation Mirza created, Rules of Appropriation, a series of works featuring intentionally poor imitations of the brand’s wallets and bags, ironically commenting on the hypocrisy of limitations they place on fake versions of their products being made and sold.  It further emphasises the problematic occurrence of artists works being copied, the lack of protection they have in this regard, and rapid expansion of cultural capitalism.  Currently on view at the Sifang Museum in Nanjing, Rules of Appropriation feature in the exhibition Tones of Electricity.  Here however they have been upgraded with the added twist of small sculptural versions of Yayoi Kusama’s signature pumpkin Jeff Koon’s iconic dog figure attached to the wallet, playfully alluding to appropriation that occurs across and beyond the art world.  

 

 

Haroon Mirza, Rules of Appropriation 2018 Installation View, Image Courtesy of the Contributor

 

 

Marking Mirza’s debut solo exhibition in China and curated by Victor Wang, the show maintains and highlights integral facets of Mirza’s practice while simultaneously stimulating a discourse surrounding appropriation, underscoring its relevance in China.  With this exhibition the artist aims to reveal “the line between inspiration, appropriation, reapportion comes into question, which is particularly interesting in a Chinese context.”  It also intends to accomplish this by shifting the focus from Western perspective on the ethics of copying and mode of assessments of contemporary art to a more Eastern – centric one.  Especially, as Mirza explains, “The idea of copyright, in China, doesn’t really exist.  China wouldn’t be so successful in its economy if it wasn’t for people sharing ideas. But here (the West) everything is about intellectual copyright and ownership.”  

 

 

Haroon Mirza, Rules of Appropriation 3, 2019, Image Courtesy Sifang Art Museum.

 

Haroon Mirza, Rules of Appropriation 3 (detail), 2019, Image Courtesy Sifang Art Museum

 

 

Certainly in China, the market for fake luxury products is vast and thriving, and the idea of copying is not necessarily viewed in a negative light.  Thematically amplified in various works in the show, appropriation is addressed from a multitude of angles, yet still retains Mirza’s signature play with sound, light, and electricity.  The inclusion of works Copy of 9/11-11/9 (2019) – featuring electrical signals being transmitted through LED lights in four videos and eight channels placed around the museum, a new series of ‘light works’ in which strips of LED lights form compositions referencing the museum’s architecture, contextually reinforce Mirza’s contention with appropriation. 

 

 

Haroon Mirza, Copy of Pavilion for Optimasation 4, 2019, Image Courtesy of SIfang Art Museum

 

 

Haroon Mirza, Copy of 911-119 4, 2019, Image Courtesy of SIfang Art Museum

 

 

The show epitomizes the hallmark of Mirza’s practice in that it presents a coherent narrative, a characterization applicable to his entire body of work. From his gripping immersive installations to his complex kinetic assemblages, each pieces echoes another aesthetically and conceptually. A strong intention to initiate and substantiate dialogues rooted in the concept of authenticity is very much evident in the conception, execution to the final piece.  Fittingly, the most remarkable quality of his art is that it doesn’t remind you of that of another artist’s.  Elements of each work are clearly indicative of art historical movements, but as a whole, and more importantly an experience, he reserves a large degree of originality for himself.    

 

 

Haroon Mirza, Series of Light Works 2, 2019, Image Courtesy of SIfang Art Museum

 

 

Haroon Mirza: Tones in the Key of Electricity
2019.06.07 – 2019.12.08
Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing

 

About the Artist
Haroon Mirza was born in London, UK in 1977 where he lives and works. He has a MA degree in Design Critical Practice and Theory from Goldsmiths College, London, UK (2006) and a MA degree in Fine Art from Chelsea College of Art and Design, London, UK (2007). He was awarded the Northern Art Prize (2011), the Silver Lion at Venice Biennale(2011), the DAIWA Foundation Art Prize (2012), the Zurich Art Prize (2013), the Nam June Paik Art Center Prize (2014), the Calder Art Prize (2015) and the COLLIDE International Award in 2017 which has given place to a two-month residency at CERN, Switzerland in the course of 2018.

Mirza has won international acclaim for installations that test the interplay and friction between sound and light waves and electric current. He devises sculptures, performances and immersive installations and as an advocate of interference (in the sense of electro-acoustic or radio disruption), he creates situations that purposefully cross wires. He describes his role as a composer, manipulating electricity, a live, invisible and volatile phenomenon, to make it dance to a different tune and calling on instruments as varied as household electronics, vinyl and turntables, LEDs, furniture, video footage and existing artworks to behave differently. Processes are left exposed and sounds occupy space in an unruly way, testing codes of conduct and charging the atmosphere. Mirza asks us to reconsider the perceptual distinctions between noise, sound and music, and draws into question the categorisation of cultural forms. “All music is organised sound or organised noise,” he says. “So as long as you’re organising acoustic material, it’s just the perception and the context that defines it as music or noise or sound or just a nuisance” (2013).Selected recent solo exhibitions have been held in at: Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK (2018); Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA, USA (2018); Farol Santander, São Paulo, Brazil (2018); Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen, Denmark (2018); Zabludowicz Collection, London, UK (2017); Pivô , São Paulo, Brazil (2016); Nam June Paik Center, Seoul, South Korea (2015); Matadero, Madrid, Spain (2015); Museum Tinguely, Basel, Switzerland (2015); Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zürich, Switzerland (2014); Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Poissy, France (2014); IMMA, Dublin, Ireland (2014); Le Grand Café, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Saint-Nazaire, France (2014). His recent commissions include: Beyond the Wave Epoch, V-A-C Zattere, Venice, Italy (2019) and Stone Circle, Ballroom Marfa, USA (2018), and his work was included in the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale, China (2012) and the 54th Venice Biennale, Italy (2011) where he was awarded the Silver Lion.

 


 

Aaina Bhargava is an editor at COBO, as well as a staff writer. With a background in art history and emphasis on contemporary art, she has experience working for a diverse range of local and international art institutions. She has previously contributed to Design Anthology, Artomity, Asian Art News, museeum.com, and the Artling’s online magazine.

 
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