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In his latest solo exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, London, British artist Haroon Mirza continues his exploration of the intersection between noise, sound and music, channelled through technically elaborate but aesthetically modest assemblages of broken, outmoded or modified instruments and objects. Mirza approaches his practice from a unique position—somewhere between a ‘pure’, conventional artist and a musician. Mirza has previously collaborated sonically with art pop quartet Django Django—at the opening of I saw square triangle sine Django Django even played a short set using the instrumental components of the installation. Mirza’s detailed knowledge of early electronic music and equipment is applied appropriately in his ongoing art practice. The chaotic systems and devices he establishes in I saw square triangle sine generate repetitive, loop-based audio that is heard before the physical components are seen. The work functions as an experiential zone of chaotic beats and clicks— the disparate components end up constructing a stuttery, looped pulse that permeates the high ceilinged space.
I saw square triangle sine is presented in the Arts Centre’s main gallery space, overlooking Finchley Road. Assembled in a loose circle, Mirza’s work is constructed from conventional instruments, including cymbals, hi-hats and synthesizers, as well as makeshift instruments that are made using unconventional materials and equipment repurposed by the artist. A Panasonic analogue radio spins on a turntable, creating a buzzing note due to its proximity to an energy saving bulb dangling from above. The bulb’s cord is threaded through a hole pierced in the golden dish of an inverted fifty-one centimetre ride cymbal. Next to the vinyl deck, a Holy Stain electro-harmonix and Alto ZMX-52 mixer rest. A Roland Juno-60 programmable polyphonic synthesizer leans vertically against a brown wood veneer bookshelf, three of its keys permanently held down with red gaffer tape. An LED readout intermittently displays the scrolling text, ‘I saw square triangle sine’, followed by the simplified image of a soundwave. The same message is also projected onto an opposing wall. From above a vintage microphone hangs through a Perspex circle, around which a halo of red LEDs run. The end of the microphone cord arcs upwards, loops around a ceiling banister and returns downwards to rest, coiled on top of an exposed speaker. The metal of the male connector lies on the surface of the speaker, causing an undulating but timid feedback tone. Visitors are invited to add to the generated audio via a drum kit that sits ready, waiting for a willing participant to join in.
As part of I saw square triangle sine, Mirza has installed Underdone/Overdone Paintings, a series of seven silk screens by YBA artist, Angus Fairhurst. The works depict failing light in a dense thicket, painted in primaries of red, blue and yellow. Due to the restriction of his palette, the darker the scene becomes, the more solid and bright the colours. Tragically, in 2008 Fairhurst took his life in a similar copse in the Scottish highlands.1 In a video interview accompanying I saw square triangle sine, Mirza describes the sensation of seeing Fairhurst’s series, and the impetus for the inclusion of the drum kit.2 As part of the original exhibition, Fairhurst encouraged the viewer to first sit down at a drum kit in the space, and then view the works while striking all of the elements of the kit including the cowbell, hi-hats and kick drum. For Mirza, the work stopped being about space, and was instead about the time when the drums were being played.
Mirza’s equal passion for both art and sound is communicated in the balanced treatment given to both the sonic and physical components of his installations. The instruments he employs are placed as they would be if they were being used at a gig—in a functional and modest way without the pomp and exaltation of traditional art objects. The conditions that determine or define both art and music seem to be the focus of Mirza’s practice—but, importantly, he approaches them from a different direction. Instead of paring back to a simple, isolated form or an object placed on a plinth, Mirza builds systems of instruments on the floor of the gallery in an attempt to reach a point in between merely individual objects/instruments in a room and an art installation. Black power cords and leads twist and snake between each element. The overall feeling is of practicality, as if at any moment Django Django could re-appear and belt out a short encore beneath the glow of the red LED halo.
Audio’s role here is to stitch the disparate elements of the installation together but, purposely, it fails to be complex enough to become the focus. Instead, each object and sound works to build an overall ‘sensation’ that never rests with either the ocular or aural. The eye and ear jump from each element trying to determine where it comes from and its function within the overall system the artist has built. Works like I saw square triangle sine require their audience to make a qualitative judgement. Without this judgement, the viewer or listener might start to lose their grasp on where a considered installation ends and the rejected instruments of an ’80s electronic band begin. And it is within this distinction that Mirza’s practice navigates and ultimately succeeds.
1. Mark Brown, ‘Artist Angus Fairhurst dead at 41’, The Guardian, 31 March 2008 (accessed 27 December 2011). http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/mar/31/art2
2. Haroon Mirza, video interview, viewed at Camden Arts Centre 19 December 2011.