Critical Sound

By artist Larissa E. Shaw

Haroon Mirza is an artist whose work I have followed for the last 6 years, since his exhibition at Spike Island, Bristol, in 2012.

Until fairly recently, sound in mainstream art has tended for the most part to avoid critical discussion. The notion that sound is a valid and critical factor in understanding contemporary art marks a shift from what is still called visual art; a term that suggests art engages exclusively with sight and visuality. Given this shift, Haroon Mirza’s work re-listens to sound and this discourse, and considering placement of the body in sonified space and possible means of controlling sound. Although technology has gained mastery of sound production, controlling it has largely proved difficult. reality is somehow what we expect it to be, Mirza’s current exhibition at Ikon, is one of the first exhibitions I have seen which takes control of the directional nature of sound in one gallery space.

The uncontrollable, somewhat intangible nature of sound has directed us to re-think how we come to know the world through listening. Sound, by nature, is very directional and for it to be organised into an audio installation is a deliberate act, therefore the space needs to be immersive, intimate and controlled. As critics have struggled to discuss audio art, artists and galleries have also struggled in presenting sound. In the questioning of why this may be, it has been made possible by a change from a traditional white wall presentation, exemplified by Mirza’s anechoic chamber – The National Apavillion of Then and Now (2011) – itself a black cube.

Haroon Mirza, The National Apavilion of Then and Now (2011). Installation view, Ikon Gallery, 2018.

I had the pleasure of installing the anechoic chamber with the technical team. By using a sandwich effect of sound absorbing materials such as MDF, stone wool insulation, and grey sound-insulating pyramidal foam on extended walls, the sound is purposely guided around the space to a deadened stop. By entirely sealing the space, sound energy that vibrates through the air has limited chance to escape, this stops sounds from one artwork infringing on others. This allows the directional nature of sound to react with the listening space, redirecting it to dramatically pass through the body of the listener, engaging and informing the senses. This new shift can be examined to better interpret art that is created to inform senses other than sight.

Once immersed within the anechoic chamber, the audience is contained by the space and invaded by sound. They become aware of their senses and begin to question how they are being invaded by the work. The experience moves the audience into another level of awareness of their reality and they question the complexity of the space and their placement within it. They feel the vibrations on the metal floor, hear the intrusive sound, and can understand that the senses function as one. Mirza’s work has unveiled the range and power of sound through refining the listening space and understanding the transmodality of the senses.

Haroon Mirza’s exhibition reality is somehow what we expect it to be continues until 24 February.

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