‘There are a lot of ancient sites across northern Europe,’ Mirza says, ‘chambers that have been carved out or built to have a room resonance between 110 and 112 Hertz. Nobody really knows why.’
Haroon Mirza’s new exhibition ||| at Lisson gallery is named after the so-called ‘divine frequency’, 111 Hertz. A YouTube video using the frequency titled ‘Regenerative Spiritual Reset’ has over 8.8m views and is designed to ‘facilitate a "spiritual detox".’ Other videos boast ‘cell regeneration’ and ‘deep meditation’ and have racked up millions of views, too. It might sound New Age, but it’s also Neolithic.
"It might sound New Age, but it’s also Neolithic"
Nonetheless, the first archaeacoustic pilot study on the subject found ‘that listening to tones at 110 Hz was associated with patterns of regional brain activity that differed from those observed when listening to tones at neighbouring frequencies.’ The researchers say that the ‘meaning of these changes in brain function is open to speculation’ – cue Mirza, whose own archaeacoustic investigations tend to pulse across cultures and centuries. An early mixed media installation called Taka Tak (2008) assembled a video of a Pakistani street food chef with fairy lights and a spinning Sufi statuette. A Sleek Dry Yell (2008) threw together old speakers, copper coins and cascading water to produce a rhythmic noise cycle, while the 2017 exhibition For a Partnership Society took ‘another exhibition as readymade’. In |||, the artist’s samples range from Siberian shamans to solar panels, from techno to poisonous toadstools, and from the megalithic to the artist’s first NFT, Solstice Star.
"the artist’s samples range from Siberian shamans to solar panels"
A curiosity for systems — oscillating between the mystical and technical — underpins the exhibition, and 111 Hz literally permeates the entire gallery. The bass is made up of a shruti box (an Indian drone instrument) and a Tibetan singing bowl. In the first room, Mirza has composed an electronic score on top that accompanies a looped film, which plays across two screens.
The artist says this video work, made in collaboration with filmmaker Helga Dóróthea Fannon, ‘is based on a tea ceremony that Siberian shamans would do with the amanita muscaria mushroom’, a red and white mushroom that causes dizziness and loss of coordination. This ritual of shamanic death and rebirth parallels a true crime story: in 2018, a Canadian man shot and killed the Amazonian healer Olivia Arévalo and was subsequently lynched; at one point in Mirza’s film, Arévalo’s face morphs into her murderer’s. Icaro, a term describing the medicine songs that the indigenous healer would have performed in ayahuasca ceremonies, provides another way of exploring religious trance, tradition and healing. At one point, tabla drums played by an electronic contraption become another component in the composition, and lights brighten up the room shining on solar panels that the artist has shattered like the veins in an insect’s wing. As a whole, the installation moves ‘from meditation to a trip,’ Mirza says. ‘It becomes quite full on and psychedelic. There's techno and rave culture references. It’s bringing together all these things to explore the relationship between altered states and nature and music throughout history.’
"bringing together all these things to explore the relationship between altered states and nature and music throughout history"
From musical rhythms to circadian ones, the two works next door are inspired by a residency in the Arctic Circle. ‘Once I was there in the summer when the sun doesn't set, and that's kind of an incredible thing,’ Mirza said. Here, a light work is ‘calibrated to create daylight’ and is paired with a solar panel held in suspension by a huge stone, as if robbed from a stone circle. The rock in turn is fitted with a light that reacts to how much the solar panel is receiving. All these circuits feel like an analogue for the brain’s wiring.
Just as technological systems provide an analogue for natural ones, Mirza explores how nature provides metaphors for technology. Currently living on the gallery’s second floor is a leaf-cutter ant colony, part of another elaborate circuit: an intermittent flashing light points at solar panels that power speakers, while another light sustains a live fungus, which in turn is communicating with the ants — meanwhile, ‘ant colony optimisation’ (or ACO, if you’re a computer scientist) are algorithmic techniques for finding the quickest route through computational problems.
"an antlike search for the divine"
‘The ants are essentially farmers,’ Mirza explains. ‘They don’t eat the leaves, but take them to the fungus,’ which is essentially the colony’s crop. Some biologists might phrase it the other way, of course, as if the fungus is herding the ants, like cattle. The fungus and the ants act like one big organism — so does the exhibition. Like an ant going off in one direction and leaving a signal for others to follow, each of Mirza’s idea rush off, leaving a trail: light, shamanism, icaro, gong baths, solstice. Taken as a whole, ||| is an antlike search for the divine, a spirit-summoning ceremony all its own.
Drawing inspiration as readily from computer science as from ayahuasca ceremonies, ||| is immersive, complex yet intuitive as night follows day (unless you summer in the Arctic). Mirza points out that on the other side of the vitrine to the fungus, the ants have started to bury their dead: yet another pattern of rebirth and death. Maybe the 111 Hz has gone to my head, but I find that surprising, inevitable, satisfying, and yes, moving. Faced with Mirza’s latest work, even the biggest sceptic would have to concede that sometimes there’s more than meets the eye.
By Sammi Gale