Haroon Mirza’s exhibition of new work consists of installations that play ingeniously between sound, light and electric current in the manner that has gained him international acclaim. Here, a constellation of works is thematically connected around the so-called ‘Holy’ or ‘Divine’ frequency of 111Hz, which provides a sonic bathing experience that permeates the gallery spaces. They include explorations of drug-induced shamanic practices; a series of Solar Cell Circuit Compositions that act as scripts to the film; and glass chambers housing an ant colony and a fungal bed of organic matter, powered by halogen lamps that provide heat and light – not only to ensure the ecosystem’s survival but also to illuminate solar panels that activate sounds created by the ants’ movements. This rich content provided plenty for me to ask about…
What connects these works?
The show is called ‘|||’, which could be Roman numerals or an indication of phasing – I like that ambiguity – but refers primarily to 111Hertz (Hz), an audio frequency I have been fascinated by for some years. Studies have shown that exposing people to light and sound in the range 110-112Hz can bring about strange neurological effects, most specifically reversing the functions between the left and right sides of the brain. I commissioned a bespoke Shruti box, tuned to 111Hz, and chose a Tibetan singing bowl, also at 111Hz, that together create a quasi-therapeutic sound that reverberates throughout the exhibition.
So people could be altered by the resonance as well as by the art?
Yes, though curiously it is quite a normal frequency. Standard western musical notation centres on 440Hz as middle A, meaning that 110Hz is two octaves down the scale and therefore only slightly different and within the human voice range, although it’s typically harder for a woman’s voice to extend that low.
Haroon Mirza: Exhibition view of ‘The Ancients call it Ataraxia’, 2023 – Photovoltaic panels, aluminium profile, bespoke media device, electronics, DMX dimmer pack, wire, fixings, bespoke loudspeakers, bongo drums, hand crafted drum, Yew tree branch, floodlights, solenoid device – dimensions variable, © Haroon Mirza, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
In the main room you present ‘The Ancients call it Ataraxia’. That includes a dual video work in collaboration with filmmaker Helga Dóróthea Fannon in which mushrooms are collected and a tea ceremony is conducted. What are we seeing and hearing?
The installation has two films running simultaneously, each 15 minutes long, acting as both a meditation and a trip. You can switch between them, although I like the idea of people watching one screen at a time while maintaining the presence of the other. Solar panels – which also feature in the films – are triggered periodically by the soundtrack, and that in turn sets off an automated shamanic drum. ‘Ataraxia’ is a kind of un-word; it means ‘calming of the mind’ – rather like meditation – but is something we don’t experience much anymore, at least not in normal western life. ‘The Ancients call it’ brings in the history of shamans summoning spirits. The films are based on true life stories, including the murder of a shaman in the Amazonian basin, whose character is combined with another type of shaman in Siberia. There they work with amanita muscaria mushrooms, the equivalent to the better-known Amazonian tradition of using ayahuasca. It’s not the classic psychedelic magic mushroom psylocibin – linked to hallucinations – but the deliriant strain also known as Fly Agaric, which is associated with toxicity, dizziness, loss of coordination and the stimulation of dreams. I recently tried micro-dosing it and it induced vivid dreams. The Siberians often drink it boiled as tea, as seen in the tea ceremony captured in the film. The more extreme method is via reindeer, who eat the mushrooms as part of their diet – the mushroom has two components: muscimol and ibotenic acid – the muscimol is the active ingredient and the acid is toxic. But when it passes through the animal’s body it is purified, so drinking reindeer urine is also a known practice. But I haven’t tried that!
Do you take a lot of drugs, rainbow urine aside?
People often assume that I do, but no – I’m mostly just hanging out with my kids!
Haroon Mirza ‘Light Work xlviii’, 2023 – COB LED tape, wire, aluminium, copper tape, PWM device – dimensions Variable, © Haroon Mirza, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
The second downstairs space contains two works inspired by your trip to the Arctic. Why is ‘Light Work xlviii’ on the floor?
I showed similar works on the wall until recently, but the latest in LED lighting works just as well on the floor, and I like the way light is then cast onto the ceiling. The colours are set up to create white light: combining six parts red, two parts green, one part blue. You can see this on the ceiling, especially in the evening when it gets dark. The LEDs also oscillate at a frequency of 111Hz. The technology for LED lights is to scintillate light, and one frequency is as good as another for that – 111Hz is quite a slow frequency, a designer would probably use a higher one. There is also a nod to the minimalists here – LeWitt, Judd and in particular Fred Sandback; in my first show here at Lisson I recreated a Sandback piece in light. So the work is about light and formalism, and how in the Arctic Circle light plays such an important role in the culture, whether it’s 24 hour light in the summer or the different types of Aurora in the winter.
Haroon Mirza: ‘After the Arctic Circle’, 2023 – Glacial erratic stone, polyurethane resin, silicone, CPB LED tape, twisted electrical cables, photovoltaic panel, pigment, copper tape, aluminium tape – dimensions variable, © Haroon Mirza, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
What about the big rock tethered to a solar panel in ‘After the Arctic Circle’?
This is more about nature and the landscape. It’s a glacial erratic rock that travelled to Wales at some stage, so it’s a found object, which has moss on and an ammonite fossil visible. My intervention is to carve into the stone and put a light in there. What looks like string on the solar panel is actually electric cable. The panel provides the energy for the light on the rock, so if you stand in front of it, the light dims. The surface of the panel acts as an abstract painting, but references the Aurora lights. There are also parallels to be drawn with the Sisyphus myth.
Haroon Mirza: ‘Illuminated Amanita Harvest (Solar Cell Circuit Composition 22)’, 2023 – Solar cells, Polyurethane resin, copper tape, electrical wire, magnet wire, LED tape, miniature painting by Brishna Amin Khan, cables on glass, anodised aluminium – 147 x 147 x 8 cm, © Haroon Mirza, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
You’re showing two miniature paintings. How do they fit in?
They are – very elaborate – story boards for the film: I commission paintings from Brishna Amin Khan, a miniaturist based in Lahore, by giving her the description of the scene to paint in her style. Then I illuminate them, not with the traditional gold leaf, but by using copper tape and solar cells in a circle to make a sort of halo. The energy is picked up from the lighting in the room. The solar cells are placed on the glass using resin, which seeps out and creates an aesthetic of its own.
Installation detail from ‘For(a)micarium’, 2023, © Haroon Mirza, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
‘For(a)micarium’ centres on leafcutter ants. What are they doing?
They’re tending a fungus garden – the ants don’t actually eat the leaves: they take them back to the garden to feed the fungus, which they do eat. They are the only non-human farmers. I also supply sugar syrup, which is like crack to them. Ants are very interesting creatures: researchers talk about how an ant colony is a super-organism rather than being made up of individuals. So there’s always this tension between the whole and the individual, which you can read across to human societies, too. Ants are very simple, with a tiny amount of neurons, but they do incredibly complex things. When people talk about the signs of consciousness emerging, they refer to the emergence of agriculture and the beliefs associated to burying the dead. The ants have a separate place to which they carry their dead, and they’ve been farming for longer than us…
There’s sound and light, too. How does the set up operate?
As the ants pass a sensor – which they must cross to reach their food – they activate sounds in the musical composition. The lights come on and then go off as required to regulate the heat: they act like an artificial sun. The fungus needs a humid 20-27 degrees to flourish. And the sound is influenced by how much light is needed to heat the fungus. Also incorporated is my personal collection of psychedelic cacti – San Pedro and Peyote.
Haroon Mirza with ‘For(a)micarium’, 2023 – Photovoltaic panels, century stands, floodlights, bespoke loudspeakers, glass, heat matt, thermostat, plaster, bell jar and collected items -dimensions variable, © Haroon Mirza, Courtesy Lisson Gallery
Haroon Mirza’s ‘|||’ runs 24 February – 8 April 2023 at the Lisson Gallery. An associated NFT called ‘Solstice Star’ is available at solsticestar.xyz