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Lighting sculptor

A portrait of Haroon Mirza

Lighting sculptor

Internationally recognized artist Haroon Mirza realized the scenic design for Alea Sands, music by Pierre Boulez and choreography by Wayne McGregor.

Lights convulse and sputter across the ceiling of the Opera, flash-bombing Marc Chagall’s beautiful fresco into a series of freeze-framed moments like a mechanical paparazzo. Sound spills out of the speakers, a twisted symphony of buzzes, hisses, clicks and electronic tones, rising in frequency and intensity with the lights. The two combined – the light and the sound – become one all-encompassing composition, a work of art that overwhelms the senses.

British artist Haroon Mirza has made a habit of turning spaces into immersive environments where the visual and the aural collide. His work is often based on creating sculptures or installations that generate their own musical composition. It’s not unusual to find the detritus of musical culture at the heart of his work - junk shop keyboards, spinning turntables, microphones, radios, CD players - but Mirza manipulates it all, forcing new life into it and coaxing self-generated musical compositions out of it. It places him somewhere between a DJ, a composer and a sculptor - but above all, he’s an artist. And now he’s turned his hand to the Paris Opera.

Alea Sands finds Mirza in collaboration with the choreographer Wayne McGregor and working in close conjunction with Boulez’s famed Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM). The work begins with Mirza’s intervention into the ceiling of the Opera, lights and sounds pulsing and flickering in an otherwise dark space. It acts as a sort of self-contained prologue to ballet itself. The dancers take to the stage and a projection created from an oscilloscope appears behind them. As Pierre Boulez’s ‘Anthemes II’ fills the space with its still radical sound, the projected image shifts and mutates, twisting with the notes of the performer’s violin. McGregor’s dancers move across the stage, Boulez’s music courses through the air and Mirza’s light projections shift and contort behind it all.

© Julien Benhamou

This interweaving of elements to create what art theorists would describe as a gesamtkunstwerk - or a total work of art that encompasses multiple art forms - makes sense when you look at Mirza’s past. He studied painting at university, before going on to complete two separate Master’s degrees, one in Design Critical Theory and the other in Fine Art. Even in his education, Mirza sought to bridge different themes; design, painting, fine art, critical theory. This begins to make even more sense when you notice that Mirza uses the word ‘composition’ the way other artists use words like 'canvas', ‘sculpture’ or ‘installation’. It’s a disarmingly musical word to hear in an artistic context, but one that again summarises his holistic approach to the artistic process.

Mirza doesn’t shy away from the fact that ‘composition’ is a term almost exclusively used to describe pieces of music, or at a stretch the way elements of a photograph or painting are laid out. He embraces the musicality of his work; his sculptures are designed, specifically, to create sound. In his 2011 installation ‘Cross Section of a Revolution’, which was shown Tate Modern in London, viewers were confronted with a transistor radio sat spinning on a turntable on the floor. An energy saving light bulb hanging closely over the turntable creates static interference with the radio – each time it spins past the light bulb, the radio emits a hiss in a steady rhythmic phrase. Elsewhere in the room, TV screens switch on and off, playing short repetitive loops of African drummers. The sound of an impassioned political speech from Pakistani TV constantly blares out of another screen. The end result is a heady piece of music made of found, sampled footage and self-generating technology. The installation – the sculpture itself – creates a work of music. Realistically, you can’t separate one from the other, art and music are as one.

His work also very often looks at both cutting edge and obsolete technology. Whether it’s the modern energy saving light bulb and the old fashioned radio in ‘Cross Section of a Revolution’, the LEDs and high end speaker system in ‘Adam, Eve, Others and a UFO’ or the child’s keyboard seen in other works, Mirza plays with the line between the future and the past. That’s to say that part of his art involves technological advancement, computer systems that react and interact, and another part takes obsolete, discarded technology and give it new life. It’s a balancing act between old and new that serves to further immerse the viewer in the works he’s creating.

It’s also a distinctly playful approach to art and technology. Mirza is in many ways like an enthused child, or a mad scientist, joyously finding ways to hack into technology and his surroundings to create something new. Vinyl records play a big part in his practice. He creates records out of paper or perspex, distorts existing LPs, glues objects to them, reworks them in order to create new rhythms and sounds. He is a master manipulator, constantly playing with technology.

His work has seen him awarded the Calder Prize, the Zurich Art Prize, the DAIWA foundation prize and, in 2011, the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale. As esoteric as his work may appear, it has a strong appeal and a powerful aesthetic that makes somewhere like the Paris Opera almost an ideal place for him to work in. 

Eddy Frankel is a London-based journalist and art critic. He is Time Out London's Front Section editor and writes about art for publications including The Art Newspaper, ArtReview, ArtMag, Bullett and various others.

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