Haroon Mirza: The Construction of an Act


Electric sounds reverberate inside Haroon Mirza’s pseudo-operatic composition, The Construction of an Act, at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA). The sound-based installations in the sparse galleries are described by Mirza as a ‘scenographic’ proposition, shifting emphasis away from visual forms towards experiential possibilities. ACCA itself becomes a complicit instrument, shaping and dispersing sound.

Mirza has long been fascinated by tensions between chaos and order present in nature. The often invisible volatility of electricity around us and within our neurology incites chance and sensation. Focusing on these experiential qualities, the artwork is both the ‘liveness’ felt within the space and the ‘act’ – a one-off performance activating the exhibition.

The active, process-based title, The Construction of an Act, reflects the series of contributions by resident performance collaborators: composer James Rushford, soprano singer Jessica Aszodi, guitarist Alexander Garsden, cellist Freya Schack-Arnott, and contemporary dancers Julie Cunningham and Chess Boughey. As in the surrealist game the Exquisite Corpse, Mirza’s initial prompt of a science-fiction narrative is reinterpreted and further obscured by each consecutive collaborator.

Visitors first encounter Green studio, 2019, a functioning studio space dedicated to this progressive exchange. It reveals the multiple people and skills involved in creating the exhibition. Seeing himself as a composer rather than artist, transparency and knowledge sharing is central to Mirza’s practice. His experience as a DJ (in which he collages the work of others) was an initial prompt to consider new ways of approaching traditional constructs of artist, artwork and exhibition.

Haroon Mirza with composer James Rushford, Green studio 2019, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis.

Further conversations of reproduction and value attribution continue in the first exhibition space, which features sculptures made from found objects that Mirza describes as ‘sculptural assemblages.’ His re-made assemblage, Copy of Pavilion for optimisation, 2019, is comprised of recorded and physical traces of ants walking over conductive copper plates and a shower hose flowing water into a bin. A second assemblage titled, Stimulate pineal function, 2017, combines a modified Marshall amp and footage of Tibetan sound bowls in an attempt to generate health-benefiting audio frequencies.

The underwhelming and messy cord-ridden appearance of these forms reflects Mirza’s emphasis on functionality, revealing how the surrounding sound is produced. During the performance these collaged objects provided the backdrop for Cunningham and Boughey’s initial slow, contorted gestures – reminiscent of those encouraged in a workshop with Cunningham I attended the week prior. She instructed us to move our bodies in unfamiliar ways, triggering new sensations.

Continuing their performative journey, the dancers led onlookers through to the first of two rooms named after the exhibition.

The soundtrack was a discussion on psychedelic drugs and footage of cellist Yo-Yo Ma displayed on a screen between them.

This content reflects Mirza’s interest in the productive potential of sound to heal and access higher forms of consciousness, creating experiences beyond just musical enjoyment. Obscuring these visions with shadow, the dancers reinterpreted and amplified sound through abstract movement. In the second room deep reverberating sounds were distributed by eight speakers encircling synchronised flashing lights strung from a cult-like pentacle chandelier. A nod to Mirza’s DJ experience, this transfixing stage evokes the electric energy produced in nightclubs and other ritual spaces of gathering.

In the final cavernous setting collaborating artists and musicians performed alongside a live-feed connected to prior sculptural assemblages and the sounds from two new works. Dancers mimicked the staccato hum of Step Siren, 2019, a motorised fluorescent lamp and cymbal assemblage causing transistor radio interference. Cunningham also activated modular synthesiser Stage, 2019, by lightly touching and dancing across the copper plates spread between carpet tiles. Dancing shadows across the gallery walls emphasised the spatial qualities of this reverberating blend of sound. Bodies finally coming to rest cross-legged, attention returned to Mirza’s original scenographic proposition – one that importantly encourages openness to new ways of contemplating and experiencing art.

The Construction of an Act
Haroon Mirza
Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA)
14 September – 17 November

Review Words by Michaela Bear