Haroon Mirza works with sound, light and electricity to create kinetic sculptures, performances and immersive installations. These draw from countless influences – scientific, historical, cultural – and react to them with the same diversity. At the 2011 Venice Biennale he won the Silver Lion as the most promising young artist The National Pavilion then and now, a triangular anechoic chamber (a room with no echo) lined with sound-absorbing foam and equipped with LEDs that produced a sound that increased as the light increased. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In response to a 2018 residency at CERN, Switzerland, the London-based artist co-produced a film and opera with music, poetry, incantation, archive and homemade electronic instruments, some of which were built from discarded CERN laboratory equipment; in the same year its solar powered Stone circle, nine blocks of marble equipped with loudspeakers and LEDs, was permanently installed in the Texas desert on behalf of Ballroom Marfa. for A dyson ball, his second solo exhibition at the Lisson Gallery, New York, Mirza explores the technological pursuit of energy, a topic that will be featured in a new commission for Lille3000 in March.
The Art Newspaper: Can you explain the work you are showing in the Lisson Gallery?
Haroon Mirza: I’m making a sculpture based on the concept of a Dyson sphere, a megastructure that surrounds the sun or a star to use the energy that a star produces. So in the gallery I am creating a mini sun from halogen lights surrounded by a series of solar panels. These solar panels will generate electricity, which in turn powers an ecosystem of works – sculptures that are both musical and organic – that “live” in space.
What drives the central halogen sun?
Basically the New York grid. There was a plan to install solar panels on the High Line [park] above the gallery in order to have electricity completely independent of the grid, but that was not possible in the time we had. But the amount of electricity that we actually use with halogen lighting is quite small compared to normal gallery exhibitions.
What do you think about the role of technology in the current climate crisis? While we seek technological solutions – of which the Dyson Sphere is an extreme example – it is also our obsession with technological advancement that has got us into this current mess.
Yes, the pursuit of energy is also the pursuit of technological advancement, harnessed by the idea that technology will save us. But we have really strong evidence that technology doesn’t necessarily save us, it actually creates more extreme situations and more consumption. That is the dilemma. So the question I am asking is what kind of species are we? Are we a parasitic species that soaks up all of a planet’s resources until we have all used them up and builds structures around stars and then moves on to another star – is this our species? Or are we actually a species that is symbiotic with the rest of nature and the biosphere? For me, this question seems to be in the foreground for many things in the climate and energy question.
While in no way can you be called an eco-artist, this new work seems to demonstrate a more direct approach to environmental issues.
Yes I think so. After Covid, we all had this massive wake-up call and the environment has become so dominant right now. In a way it was always there as an undertone or subtext in my work, but now it’s more open. The thing is, it’s everyone’s problem, not just the environmentalist’s problem. It’s my problem, it’s your problem, and it’s definitely our children’s problem so we need to talk about it. I am not an environmental activist or an 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 chaotic systems – waves, electricity, energy – that exist in nature
You are known as an artist who works with sound and light. But there seems to be a deeper and more enduring preoccupation with power and electricity that underpins everything you do.
It was only a few years ago that I found out that electricity was my main medium. I was originally addicted to electricity as a teenager. I remember when I first came across electronic music – acid house music – while under the influence of LSD. It was then that I began to fall in love with the sound of electrical signals. And out of that slowly two things developed: a love for music in general and for the sound of electrical signals, and from that a practice emerged. But whatever goes on under it all is a relationship with power and energy and the relationship between the two.
Can you elaborate on this complex relationship?
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 is a cycle: there is always a plus and a minus that are put together to create the force. So energy is like this twofold thing – it’s a positive and a negative charge, or a mass and a positive charge, that come together to create force. And that’s conceptually and metaphorically and really interesting as an analogy. Because in all of life and in the universe the ultimate power does not come from just one source, but is a combination of two or more things. That is then philosophically interesting because it negates monotheism. And politically, those who have energy have power. There are just 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. It is interesting that when you started making art it was in the form of painted pieces of the sea. Albeit in different forms, you still seem obsessed with waves and the unpredictability of nature.
I have been interested in waves since the beginning of my practice. There is a very clear thread, although I didn’t notice it at the time. From ocean waves to sound waves, from electromagnetic waves to brain waves, I’m very drawn to the chaotic systems – waves, electricity, energy – that exist in nature and how our perceptual systems interact with them. I started painting seascapes and some of my earliest work was computer generated seascapes with sound waves representing land masses; now brain waves and various neuro-oscillations are a more recent concern.
What made you quit painting? You were a DJ for a while too, right?
I still hang up from time to time – it’s more fun because I just love music. I studied painting at the Winchester School of Art and during my time there I read and read Marshall McLuhan [Jean] Baudrillard and McLuhan’s essay on acoustic space. Then I started thinking about this acoustic space that we do not see and how it also makes up a large part of our reality and the perceptual differences between visual space and acoustic space. So I got interested in the pragmatics of acoustic space and then in visualization.
You have sometimes referred to yourself as a composer rather than an artist. Why?
When I started working with clay, it was initially a by-product of my work. I started with the question, how can I make these objects that create sounds, but then also structure and layer them? And those became my goals in terms of my practice. Then I thought [that] what i do is composition, at the same time composing in time and space, both visually and acoustically. So the term “composer” seemed a little more appropriate – but now that’s what works in the scenario. Artist is a collective term, but composer feels a bit more specific; a composer in a museum is different from a composer in a chamber, while a composer is an artist and also someone who makes beautiful quilts.
Recently you spoke on a panel of the Gallery Climate Coalition about the role and influence of artistic problem solving on the current status quo in order to get people to look at the world from a different perspective and to find significant solutions to existing situations. A case in point is raising awareness of solar energy in the oil state of Texas as a by-product of working with a solar power company on Stone circle.
Yes, the starting point was: how do we power this thing in the desert? It wasn’t: How do we bring solar power to Texas, where most of the energy comes from oil? But then the side effect was amazing, it was like: “Look, you can make energy out of the sun!” And many [local] Households switched to solar energy. And that’s what’s so powerful about art: Artists can suggest things that actually offer practical solutions to things, or open up a new awareness of something, or open up a new way of thinking about something. Sometimes this happens as a very programmed part of the work, and all respect for the artists who do work that creates some kind of awareness. But most of the time it’s a random side effect, and that’s one of the strongest aspects of being an artist for me.
Born: 1977 London
Training: 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
Main shows: 2021 Liverpool Biennale; 2020 CCA Kitakyushu, Japan; 2019 John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, Great Britain; Australian Center for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing; 2018 Ikon, Birmingham; Ballroom Marfa Sculpture Commission; 2015 Museum Tinguely, Basel; 2014 Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, Poissy, France; Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; 2013 The Hepworth, Wakefield; Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art; 2012 Neues Museum, New York; Camden Arts Center, London; 2011 54th Venice Biennale
Represented by: Lisson Gallery
• A dyson ball, Lisson Gallery, New York, January 13th-12th February; Lille3000, Lille, France, May 14th to October 2nd