Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act
Haroon Mirza’s The Construction of an Act is the most experimental exhibition the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art has mounted for some time. It’s sparse, with ACCA’s main exhibition hall standing mostly empty but for a modest sculpture and a square of carpet that form the elements of a rudimentary synthesiser. Other works occupy minimal space, mostly composed of amplifiers, cables, speakers and YouTube videos.
This is the first solo exhibition in Australia for Mirza, whose work has a significant international profile. The Construction of an Act, curated by Annika Kristensen, shows works from the past decade alongside a couple of new commissions.
The exhibition’s titular work is an installation spanning two darkened rooms – a video in the first space, and an adjoining room that feels like a nightclub. The Construction of an Act is indicative of the concerns and materials that drive Mirza’s art – he describes his medium as electricity. While this initially sounds pretentious – on my first encounter at the opening, the work felt like a clumsy gesture towards a Berlin nightclub – it provides a rich conceptual fulcrum for the rest of the exhibition, and opens up a generative space for ideas.
The first part of The Construction of an Act consists of a 20-minute video spliced together from a recording of Mirza’s computer screen as he plays YouTube videos, and footage recorded on his phone. Sounds layer on top of each other – a video of author Michael Pollan discussing psychedelic drugs and music; cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach; footage of soprano Sarah-Jane Lewis in her apartment, recorded by Mirza, who asks her to sing notes that feel healing for her, as well as exercises she does to warm up her vocal cords.
Mirza is interested in the healing potential of sound, or the way that something reducible to the rational, scientific building block of a soundwave can somehow have a transcendental effect. Similarly, in regard to electricity, the work questions how something as basic and volatile as an electrical current can be shaped into a spiritual and communal experience. The azan, or Islamic call to prayer, is central to Mirza’s investigations: how can a sound that features so strongly in everyday life be configured into such a spiritually and culturally significant ritual? The overlapping squares of a Rub el Hizb feature in the club-like space, hanging over a circle of speakers facing inwards. Sound from the video work plays into the second room.
Mirza has attempted to create some sort of communal ritualised space, using building blocks of light, sound, YouTube videos and a second screen that evokes the experience of looking at a phone playing Instagram stories in a club. There are moments when the elements align and it’s beautiful, and other points when it’s abrasive, or boring, or frustrating.
In many ways, Mirza as an artist recedes into the background as he brings together the various components of the gallery experience – artists, architecture, audience, light, sound, space, material. The minimal aesthetic of his work, along with the idea of using electricity as a material, speaks to the notion that moments of immeasurable feeling can spring forth from something coldly measurable and rational.
The other major commission in the exhibition, Green Studio, developed in the gallery space over four weeks in September and October. At the entrance to the exhibition, a small window in a steel wall opens onto what looks like the control room of a recording studio. In that room, a series of collaborators – most of whom Mirza met for the first time in Melbourne when the exhibition began – engaged in a game of exquisite corpse, the foundation for which was a narrative scripted by Mirza. In succession, two writers, a composer, musicians and a choreographer and a dancer each spent a week in the gallery, building on what had come before.
In this development period, visitors had incidental and unpredictable encounters with these collaborators. With Mirza’s works leaving so much open space, the artists-in-residence could stretch out in ACCA’s large halls. When I spent several days in the gallery, choreographer Julie Cunningham and dancer Chess Boughey were there, going through choreographed movements and blocking out sections of the piece. At other times they spoke casually or lay on the ground of the control room, having lunch.
I approached this with some cynicism. Incorporating dancers into contemporary art is very much in vogue, and has happened several times at ACCA recently with mixed success. There was also a tension here that I initially found difficult to resolve. When I saw the dancers rehearsing in the space, the musical piece composed by James Rushford, and performed by singer Jessica Aszodi, guitarist Alexander Garsden and cellist Freya Schack-Arnott, was playing in the gallery. How do you make sense of what is ostensibly the solo presentation of an artist’s work when the contributions of collaborators are equally significant as – and arguably more technically accomplished than – those of the person whose name is emblazoned on the front of the building? (That being said, all collaborators are acknowledged at the entrance of the exhibition and on wall labels.)
Conceptually, though, Green Studio fits in with the questions that seem to be at the heart of this exhibition. There’s a drive to demystify the ineffable and mystify the rational. While exploring how a soundwave or an electrical current can turn into something transcendental, Mirza has also laid bare the mysterious process of art-making – how ideas, thoughts and inspiration arise between people who come together with skills they’ve developed to create art.
These are two sides of the same sense of wonder that is felt in the exhibition, and it was especially apparent during the performance of the finished collaboration – a 40-minute piece that was staged through the entire space, with musicians and dancers, for only one night. When I saw the culmination of this work, along with the physical, aural and conceptual framework laid down by Mirza in the wider exhibition, it was genuinely stunning. That night there was a shared amazement among audience members – an electric feeling – that from measurable labour there can be an outcome that creates an immeasurable response. The piece was recorded and now plays from the monitor in the control-room space, mirroring the video works already in the exhibition.
The weakest part of the exhibition is in Mirza’s early sculptural assemblages. A showerhead over a bucket projects the sound of running water into another room, along with the amplified sounds of an ant farm; a “spiritual” experience is wrung out of an electrical current playing through a Marshall amp. Seeds of ideas that Mirza explores in later works are all here, but in a rudimentary way. Interestingly, these sculptures are placed in dialogue with the newest works in the commissioning hall – as if to show how art develops over time through the creative process.
Mirza’s The Construction of an Act, while alternately frustrating, unpredictable, boring and beautiful, uses its experimental form to interrogate how we come together to generate transcendental moments of feeling, in a manner that is surprisingly approachable. It asks whether there might be different ways of configuring the most elemental, mundane and measurable elements of our experience.
INSTALLATION Mike Parr: The Eternal Opening
Carriageworks, Sydney, October 25—December 8
MULTIMEDIA Tarnanthi at AGSA
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until January 27
THEATRE Speaking in Tongues
The Playhouse Theatre, Hobart, until November 2
CIRCUS Natives Go Wild
Sydney Opera House, October 22-27
Theatre Works, Melbourne, October 23—November 3
MULTIMEDIA Setting the Stage
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until March 22
COMEDY Tim Ferguson: A Fast Life on Wheels
The Street Theatre, Canberra, October 19
Riverlinks Westside, Mooroopna, October 26
FESTIVAL Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art
Carriageworks, Sydney, until October 27
His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, until October 26
VISUAL ART Archibald Prize 2019
Tarrawarra Museum of Art, Victoria, until November 5
VISUAL ART Ben Quilty: Family Portrait
GOMA, Brisbane, until October 6
DANCE Token Armies
Meat Market, Melbourne, until October 20
FESTIVAL Melbourne Festival
Venues throughout Melbourne, until October 20
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Transcending signals". Subscribe here.