New York

View of “Haroon Mirza,” 2012.

View of “Haroon Mirza,” 2012.

Haroon Mirza

New Museum

View of “Haroon Mirza,” 2012.

For his first New York solo exhibition, curated by Gary Carrion-Murayari and Jenny Moore, British artist Haroon Mirza stocked the New Museum’s next-door storefront space with signal emitters. Studio speakers issue modemlike trills, junk-shop televisions flash syncopated bursts of white noise, and strips of LED lights intermittently douse the room in red, blue, or green. It is an installation that doubles as a concert, a pulsing electric fugue.

Surprisingly, the installation also supplies an inadvertent comment on the legacy of Matisse, specifically the painter’s characterization of his art as “for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.” Though it’s debatable whether Matisse’s first audiences actually found the perceptual eddies of his early painting “calming,” this infamous statement furnishes a memorably haptic analogy for art’s social function within modernism: as a cushion for compensatory repose. Mirza’s ensemble includes nine paintings—or rather, nine fixtures rhetorically occupying the space of painting—that come off as lampooning Matisse’s claim by literalizing it. Spaced evenly around the room are identical five-by-seven panels covered in black-foam spikes, a cladding common to recording studios. Here are monochromes as soft and padded as Matisse’s armchair. Yet they aren’t installed to swaddle mental workers, but to muffle errant echoes—that is, to reduce reverberation.

As science historian Emily Thompson explains in her 2003 study of early-twentieth-century acoustics, reverberation—the lingering of sound in space—was once considered intrinsic to an auditorium’s personality. After the popularization of audio recording and electrical amplification, however, engineers reclassified sound as a signal, and reverberation as signal interference. The historical transformation of sound into electroacoustic signals resonates with Mirza’s choice of exhibition title, “Preoccupied Waveforms.” To identify three installations from 2012, Mirza dispensed with written language entirely in favor of typographical shorthand for various wavelengths: “\|\|\|\| \|\|\,” “/\/\/\/\ /\/\,” and “—{}{}{} {}—{}{}{}{}—{}.” In contrast, Mirza’s prior work bore such erudite titles as Adhãn, 2009, and “Anthemoessa,” 2010, respectively the Islamic call to prayer and the island of the Sirens. The reference from The Odyssey especially recalls another one of modernism’s arguably compensatory gestures: that of adding mythic overtones to the noise of everyday urban life. The change in titling shifts the focus of Mirza’s work from sound’s transcendence through cultural significance to its transmission through electrical systems. In turning his attention to the needs and properties of signals, Mirza both minimizes reverberation and limits sound’s capacity to carry metaphor.

Can “every mental worker” expect any “soothing, calming influence” from waveforms preoccupied with their own circuit? The ensemble buzzes ceaselessly as long as its components remain connected to the electrical grid, as well as to the Mirza-designed control box located near the space’s entrance. Containing two Arduino boards, LED drivers, a Western Digital media player, and a UHF transmitter, this box dispatches commands through wires and over airwaves, extending its internal operations across the room. Yet like those sound-absorbing panels along the wall—“paintings” that don’t call out for a beholder, that serve a technical purpose—the control box does remarkably little to direct or address any incidental receivers with outdated inputs known as eyes and ears. These machines don’t need us. Whereas Matisse’s modernism hesitantly promised to lend meaning, or even a measure of redemption, to modernity’s jolting new realities, “Preoccupied Waveforms” offers no false comfort for today’s mental workers, only further confirmation of their current condition as nodes in a system indifferent to their presence. The work delivers an experience of troubling pleasure, mindlessly numbing and freshly stimulating. The rhythms of the signals are undeniably catchy.

Colby Chamberlain