The System, Haroon Mirza / HRM199 at the Zabludowicz Collection

The sporadic repetitive pulse from the ‘soundtrack’ of The System, the first work in Haroon Mirza’s exhibition For A Partnership Society greets you in the entrance space of the venue like the bass bleed through from the main dance floor to the bar in a club.

There is no bar at the Zabludowicz Collection but the information desk staff double (triple?) up as book/editions/toy shop staff and baristas so caffeine is available if you’re looking for a stimulant to enhance your visit. You are invited to take a black cushion to increase the comfort of the experience from the bin by the front desk before entering through the double doors into the large Main Hall of this former Methodist church.

Once inside you are greeted by an installation taking the form of one of Mirza’s signature sound and light shows. The ‘soundtrack’ resolves into something sonically reminiscent of the bleep-and-bass music that emanated from the English North at the end of the 1980’s. The space is sporadically lit by variously distributed groups of coloured LEDs plus one flat and one projected video screens.

The space is also filled with two female voices associated with the images on screen: that of Icelandic singer, songwriter, actress, record producer, and DJ Björk, and the somewhat less distinct voice of Irish-born modernist designer and architect Eileen Gray.

Cables drop from a central point in the high ceiling to connect the various electrical elements of the installation: speakers, lights and screens.
Hard to initially visually resolve on the walls of the lower space, shaded as they are by the crescent form of the upper floor balcony, can be found a large quantity of illustrated explanatory text. The spin here is that this text is not for this show but from another show all together; a survey show of the work of Gray. This show preceded Mirza’s solo show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art for which this work The System was originally produced.

In the far corner of the space a large flatscreen shows a video consisting mainly of YouTube sourced video of a young Björk sitting next to a CRT monitor explaining something of her earlier relationship with television which was coloured by an exaggerated fear of the manipulative power of the flickering TV image prompted by the theories of an Iceland poet. She goes on to explain that now she understands the “scientific truth” behind the TVs function and observing that you should never believe a poet. She is subsequently seen examining the inside workings of the monitor and drawing parallels between the components and the buildings of a city.

The video is sporadically intercut with some still images Eileen Gray’s furniture and also colourful video glitches redolent of digital dropout or interference effects. The videos soundtrack includes some corresponding sonic glitches, notably the stuttering repetition of Björk saying the word “hypnotized” reminiscent of vocal sample usage in early sample based dance music. This phrase (ear)wormed it’s way successfully into the unconscious of my seven year daughter who accompanied me on the first of my two visits to the show, subsequently re-appearing over the next couple of days
The work’s title The System apparently refers to the RGB (red, green, blue) additive colour system. As well as the video screens featured the work does also include light in the form of groups of LEDs of red, green and blue. Red LEDs frame a couple of large ornate circular mouldings on the hall’s ceiling. Green illuminates the upper balconied half of the space and blue elements serve, when lit, to further obscure the wall text in the lower space.

Above the entrance to the hall in the top half of the space a large projection screen shows a low-resolution video of a nonagenarian Eileen Gray in her studio describing, amongst other things, how she first learned the fundamentals of lacquer work in London. The video’s sound is delivered by small monitor speakers mounted nearby and pointing towards the screen. The voice occasionally glitches with the visuals or is pitch shifted lower.

What parallels can be drawn between the two creative women co-opted into Merza’s work here? How are we to read the partial obfuscation and obstructions placed in the way of reading the texts and indeed hearing Gray herself?
The printed press release (replaced on my second visit to the show by more detailed small folded pamphlets printed on red, green or blue paper) refers to Mirza inviting artists, musicians, dancers and choreographers to take up residence within the installation to produce new performances. However none were evident on either of my visits leading me to wonder if MIrza’s invitations to this particular party had been ignored.

It is hard to imagine the exact form of the work in the context for which it was originally produced before being purchased by the millionaire collectors the Zabludowiczs. There it was apparently split over three rooms. Perhaps the rooms were individually colour themed. How might the sound have functioned across three spaces? Certainly the reading of the fragments from the show that preceded it carried different connotations and resonances when re-inserted in Mirza’s work in Dublin.

Overall whilst the work is initially engaging and delivers a certain visceral pleasure I was left feeling that I would rather have encountered it in it’s original context. It’s re-imagining here for it’s current owners felt forced and somewhat empty and, rather like the cushions on offer the front desk, the work itself seemed to promise an experience deserving of deeper and more lengthy engagement than it ultimately warranted.


Photo: Tim Bowditch