Art installation ‘Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey’ is flat but interesting look into religion, censorship

Asian Art Museum/Courtesy

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“Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey,” is a rather dull art installation that nonetheless makes interesting points on storytelling, religion and censorship.

British Pakistani multimedia artist Haroon Mirza brings his “custom-built media system” to the Asian Art Museum. The main exhibit is a darkened, sound-proofed room illuminated by LED lights. An eight-channel synthesizer sits perched in the far corner of the room. Each of its outputs is hooked up to a speaker positioned about the room.

The work reinterprets 18th century religious iconography in a contemporary setting. Mirza pixelated the “night journey of the prophet Muhammad on the heavenly creature Buraq, an Indian watercolor from the Asian Art Museum’s collection. Mirza converted the pixelated image into a “score”: a sequence of frequencies that are played from the speakers as pure tones. The LED lights are also programmed to those frequencies, changing color in sync with each change in tone. The result is an underwhelming, monotonous light show.

The museum describes “Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey” as “bring(ing) electricity to life.” The reality is significantly less exciting. The auditory elements of Mirza’s work do little to capture the vibrance and analog unpredictability of live electricity. And the visual elements feel like a hurried afterthought. The artist purports to be exploring the boundaries between music and noise. The genre of noise music has explored that very question for several decades, but that rich legacy of experimental electronic music is absent here. The sounds that Mirza creates hardly breach the boundary between music and noise. Nor does Mirza harness the meditative aspects of trance, whose sonic conventions he clearly borrows. Mirza’s sounds instead fall squarely in the realm of mediocre, uninspired contemporary music.

Though aesthetically uninteresting, Mirza’s work raises important questions about storytelling and the role of censorship in Islamic religious practices. The titular original watercolor depicts the Prophet Muhammad being carried from Mecca to Jerusalem on a physical and spiritual journey. The prophet’s face is depicted in the original work, a practice that has been allowed and restricted in different eras and sects of Islamic practice. By reinterpreting the original, uncensored work with a layer of abstraction, Mirza’s work contemplates what constitutes censorship. Furthermore, Mirza’s work explores different modes of storytelling. At its surface, both Mirza’s work and the original watercolor tell the story of the prophet’s journey to Jerusalem. Do the narrative, emotional and spiritual aspects of the original story translate in a new, abstract medium? The answer is no, as “Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey” fails to stir up the sense of awe religious iconography often invokes.

Auxiliary works exhibited alongside the main attraction actually do a better job of exploring the themes at which the main work hints. In particular, a miniature rendition of the “score” that Mirza used is exhibited as “Score for The Night Journey.” The pixelated image is printed on handmade wasli paper, a type of paper traditionally used for Indian miniatures. Mirza adorns his work with a copper tape border, another tradition that is also on display in neighboring exhibit “Painting Is My Everything.” “Score for The Night Journey” preserves several crucial elements of the original miniature, including the color scheme and the structure of the original work. The new work is spiritually comforting, like the best religious art typically is, while hinting at the ornateness of traditional Indian miniature. The copper tape border reflects industrial and electronic aesthetics. It’s a slight distortion of the original that feels like a natural translation into a contemporary setting.

Overall, “Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey” fails to live up to the electric expectations that its description promises. Mirza’s work hints at an interesting thesis — what level of abstraction divorces a work from its direct influences? Unfortunately, Mirza’s interpretation is clumsy contemporary art, with little in the way of compelling aesthetic innovation.

Contact Seiji Sakiyama at [email protected].