Back and Forth: Artist Haroon Mirza’s Systems of Feedback

An exhibition at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, offers compelling evocations of causality and correlation

Haroon Mirza’s exhibition at Ikon, ‘reality is somehow what we expect it to be’, is the artist’s most comprehensive since his 2015 survey at Museum Tinguely in Basel and his largest to date in the UK. Yet despite featuring 31 works across two floors – including the influential installation Taka Tak (2008) and The National Apavilion of Then and Now (2011), for which he received the Silver Lion award for most promising artist at the 54th Venice Biennale – it proved to be somehow less than I expected it to be.

The title of the Museum Tinguely show, ‘Haroon Mirza/hrm199 Ltd.’, incorporated the name of the artist’s studio in order to, as the press release explained, ‘deconstruct […] the role of the authors and artists in a solo presentation’. At Ikon, too, collaborators are named in various works. As well as using off-cuts of damaged celluloid from the structural filmmaker Guy Sherwin (alongside footage by Jeremy Deller) in the installation An_Infinato (2009), Mirza homages Sherwin in the three-screen sculpture Tescotrain (2012), a weird fluxus misfiring. A Chamber for Horwitz: Sonakinatography Transcriptions in Surround Sound (2015) is an exciting, if literal, audio-visual installation of the Los Angeles artist’s meticulous graphic diagrams. Finally, there’s the fashion designer Osman Yousefzada who, with Mirza, enlists another, unwitting, collaborator: Louis Vuitton.

Haroon Mirza, 'reality is somehow what we expect it to be', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps

According to Mirza, the luxury French fashion house bit his style in a recent store window display. (Ryan Gander, another Lisson artist, lately accused the brand of the same.) Powerless to sue, Mirza has instead dedicated the majority of Ikon’s second-floor space to his new series, ‘Rules of Appropriation’ (2018). Swapping out the customized National Panasonic radios, Sony Cubes and B&O cabinets of his An_Infinato-era sculptural assemblages, the new pieces instead include iPhones, photovoltaic panels, ‘levitation devices’ and Yousefzada’s ‘designer-inspired’ swag – a slick reboot that loses the analogue interest of the earlier installations. In Open Source / Copyright (Rules of Appropriation 5) (2018) a ‘modified designer-inspired purse’ levitates and rotates at the centre of a mirrored table.   

Embittered and academic, the series is an untimely (not anachronistic) revival of out-of-the-box post-internet aesthetics, which discounts the art gallery’s capacity – different in quality to the shop window’s – to bestow symbolic value on the things it pulls into its realm. Luxury fashion can accommodate modification – especially by the likes of Yousefzada and Mirza, and in the setting of a contemporary art gallery art – in ways that art, linked to sole authorship, cannot. The engagement with ‘rules’ of appropriation seems counter to Mirza’s wider referential practice, which is animated by the open ethics and aesthetics of sampling and combining to produce larger compositions. Inspecting Mirza’s assemblages as a sound technician might, it becomes clear that, sometimes, there is no causal relationship between components: a record player appears to be a sound source but is not connected or a cable leads to nowhere. Relationships are illusions, or non-relationships are subservient to the overall image of the work. These leveraged systems of feedback are compelling evocations of causality and correlation.

Haroon Mirza, 'reality is somehow what we expect it to be', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Feedback has become a defining characteristic of our time. As James Bridle observed in New Dark Age (2018), our failure to comprehend a complex world leads us to demand more and more information, which only further clouds our understanding. Artificial intelligence, on the other hand, tells us what we want to hear. This is the subject of Mirza’s recent installation, āāā – Fear of the Unknown remix (2017); it also appears to be what is signposted by the title of the Ikon show, if not by the works themselves. Only when reality is not what we expect it to be will it cease to be what we expect it to be.      

Haroon Mirza, 'reality is somehow what we expect it to be' was on view at Ikon Gallery from 30 November 2018 until 24 February 2019

Main image: Haroon Mirza, 'reality is somehow what we expect it to be', 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham; photograph: Stuart Whipps

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in Norwich, UK, where he co-runs the gallery LOWER.GREEN.

Issue 202

First published in Issue 202

April 2019

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