“My question is, what kind of species are we?” “
Haroon Mirza works with sound, light and electricity to create kinetic sculptures, performances and immersive installations. These draw on a myriad of influences – scientific, historical, cultural – and respond to them with an equivalent diversity. He won the Silver Lion for Most Promising Young Artist at the 2011 Venice Biennale with The national pavilion of yesterday and today, a triangular anechoic chamber (an echo-free space) lined with sound-absorbing foam and equipped with LEDs that generated a noise that intensified as their light lit up. It is now part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In response to a 2018 residency at CERN in Switzerland, the London-based artist co-produced a film and opera incorporating music, poetry, incantations, archives and homemade electronic instruments, some built from discarded CERN laboratory equipment; the same year, his Stone circle, nine marble rocks equipped with speakers and LEDs, was permanently installed in the Texas desert following an order from Ballroom Marfa. For A Dyson sphere, his second solo exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, New York, Mirza explores the technological pursuit of energy, a theme that will continue in a new work commissioned for Lille3000 in March.
The Art Newspaper: Can you explain the work you are exhibiting at the Lisson Gallery?
Haroun Mirza: I’m making a sculpture based on the concept of a Dyson sphere, a mega-structure that surrounds the sun or a star in order to harness the energy that a star produces. So, in the gallery, I create a mini-sun made up of halogen lamps surrounded by an array of solar panels. These solar panels will produce electricity which will in turn fuel an ecosystem of works – sculptures of both musical and organic matter – that “live” in space.
What powers the central halogen sun?
The New York grid, basically. There was a plan to put solar panels on the High Line [park] above the gallery in order to have a completely off-grid power supply, but that was not possible in the time available. But the amount of energy we actually use with halogen lighting is quite minor compared to normal gallery exhibitions.
What do you say about the role of technology in the current climate crisis? As we seek technological solutions, of which the Dyson sphere is an extreme example, it is also our obsession with technological advancement that has drawn us into this current mess.
Yes, the pursuit of energy is also the pursuit of technological progress, which is linked to the idea that technology will save us. But we have very strong evidence that technology doesn’t necessarily save us, but actually creates more extreme situations and more consumption. This is the dilemma. So the question I’m asking is, what kind of species are we? Are we a parasitic species that absorbs all of a planet’s resources until we have used them all, and builds structures around the stars, then move on to another star – is this our species? Or are we really a species in symbiosis with the rest of nature and the biosphere? For me, this question seems to be at the forefront of many things in terms of climate and energy issues.
While you can in no way be described as an eco-artist, this new body of work seems to demonstrate a more direct approach and questioning of environmental issues.
Yes, I think so. After Covid we all had this massive awakening and the environment has become such a dominant thing right now. In a way, it’s always been there as an undercurrent or subtext in my work, but now it’s more evident. The point is, it’s everyone’s problem, not just the environmentalists’ problem. This is my problem, this is your problem and it is definitely our children’s problem, so we need to discuss it. I am not an environmental activist or activist, and my work is not about the environment per se; it’s more about the biosphere. For me the environment is part of us anyway, we are what we do.
I am very attracted to the chaotic systems (waves, electricity, energy) present in nature
You are known as an artist who works with sound and light. But there seems to be a deeper, more enduring concern for the power and electricity that underlies everything you do.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized that electricity was actually my primary medium. Originally, I became addicted to the sound of electricity as a teenager. I remember first encountering electronic music – acid house music – while under the influence of LSD. It was then that my infatuation with the sound of electrical signals began. And it slowly evolved into two things: a love of music in general, as well as the sound of electrical signals, and then it spawned a practice. But what’s still going on underneath all of that is a relation to power, to energy, and to the relation between the two.
Can you detail this relationship on several levels?
Semantically they are different, but there is an overlap between energy and power: you need energy to have power and electrical signals. The key for me is that it’s a circuit: there is always a plus and a minus, which come together to create power. So energy is like this double thing: it’s a positive charge and a negative charge, or a mass and a positive charge, that come together to create energy. And conceptually and metaphorically and by analogy, it’s really interesting. Because in all life and in the universe, ultimate power does not come from a single source, it is a combination of two or more things. So philosophically it’s interesting, because it negates monotheism. And then politically, those who have energy have the power. There are so many interesting things that can be extrapolated from this relationship.
Electricity is a natural force: humans can generate electricity, but it is natural and unpredictable. Interestingly, when you first started making art, it took the form of painted seascapes. Although in different forms, you still seem to be obsessed with the waves and the unpredictability of nature.
The waves have been a concern for me since the beginning of my practice. There is one thread that is very clear, even though I hadn’t realized it at the time. From ocean waves to sound waves, from electromagnetic waves to brain waves, I am very drawn to the chaotic systems – waves, electricity, energy – that are present in nature, and how our perceptual apparatus interacts with them. I started to paint seascapes and some of my first works were computer generated seascapes with sound waves representing land masses; now, brain waves and various neuro-oscillations are of more recent interest.
What prompted you to quit painting? You’ve been a DJ for a while too, haven’t you?
I still DJ every now and then it’s more of a fun thing to do because I love music. I studied painting at the Winchester School of Art and during my time there I ended up reading Marshall McLuhan and [Jean] Baudrillard and McLuhan’s essay on acoustic space. Then I started to think about this sound space that we don’t see and how that is also a big part of our reality and the perceptual distinctions between visual space and acoustic space. So I got interested in the pragmatics of acoustic space and then in visualization.
Sometimes you have described yourself as a composer rather than an artist. Why?
When I first started working with sound, it was initially a by-product of my work. I started by asking myself how to make these objects that generate sound, but also structure and superimpose this sound? And these became my practice goals. Then I thought [that] what I’m doing is composing, composing simultaneously in time and space, both visually and acoustically. So the term “composer” just sounded a little more appropriate, but now that’s all that works in the script. Artist is a generic term but composer feels a bit more specific; a composer in a museum is different from a composer in a bedroom, while a composer is an artist, as is someone who makes beautiful quilts.
Recently, you spoke to a Gallery Climate Coalition panel about the role and impact of solving artistic problems on the current status quo, making people look at the world in a different way and finding meaningful solutions. to existing situations. One example is the start of a wider awareness of solar energy in the oil state of Texas as a by-product of your collaboration with a solar energy company on Stone circle.
Yes, the starting point was, how do we feed this thing in the wilderness? It wasn’t: How do you get solar power to Texas, where most of the energy comes from petroleum? But then the side effect was amazing, it was like, “Look, you can make energy from the sun!” ” And a lot [local] households have switched to solar energy. And that’s what’s powerful about art: Artists can come up with things that bring practical solutions to things or open up a new awareness of something, or open up a new way of thinking about something. Sometimes that happens as a very programmed part of the job, and all due respect for those artists doing work that sparks some sort of awareness. But most of the time it comes from an accidental side effect, and for me that’s one of the most powerful things about being an artist.
Born: 1977 London
Education: 2007 MA Fine Art, Chelsea College of Art and Design; 2006 MA, Design Critical Practice and Theory, Goldsmiths College; 2002 BA, Painting, Winchester School of Art
Key shows: 2021 Liverpool Biennale; 2020 CCA Kitakyushu, Japan; 2019 John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, UK; Australian Center for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing; 2018 Ikon, Birmingham; Marfa Ballroom Sculpture Commission; 2015 Tinguely Museum, Basel; 2014 Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier, Poissy, France; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; 2013 The Hepworth, Wakefield; Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art; 2012 New Museum, New York; Camden Arts Center, London; 2011 54th Venice Biennale
Represented by: Lisson Gallery
• A Dyson sphere, Lisson Gallery, New York, January 13-February 12; Lille3000, Lille, France, May 14-October 2