British artist Haroon Mirza and the Asian Art Museum go out of their way to contextualize Mirza’s new San Francisco exhibit. They post wall text that explains why many orthodox Muslims view music as forbidden. They display an 18th-century Indian painting from the museum’s collection that depicts the prophet Muhammad in a cave where he experiences his first revelation, and then they detail why the painting’s face has a veil, and why imagery of the prophet is prone to censorship in Muslim-majority countries. They do all this and more — and yet nothing can fully prepare for the sound and visual daring that is “Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey.”
The exhibit is an art rendering that hints at the level of exaltation that happens in religious prophecy. According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad flew to the heavens from Jerusalem in the early 7th century — one in a series of events leading to the formal development of Islam. In a darkened gallery on the Asian Art Museum’s first floor, Mirza situates eight speakers on a carpeted circle, each speaker with a row of elliptical LED lights that emit sound at levels that pulsate, hum, soothe, gyrate, and burrow like a kind of techno-art music. “Space music” is another apt description. The gallery’s walls are criss-crossed with patterns of jutting triangles — almost like the jutting outside pattern of Mali’s famous mud mosques. Mirza himself isn’t a practicing Muslim. He’s not trying to convert anyone to Islam. Instead, he’s getting into ideas of artistic interpretation and, subtly, into the connection between musical ecstasy, artistic ecstasy, and religious ecstasy.
“The most interesting thing for me is the relationship between this narrative of the Prophet having visions in a cave and going on this night journey, and what [someone might call] ‘tripping out,’ ” Mirza says by phone from his London studio. “There’s a lot of research in recent years on DMT, the chemical dimethyltryptamine that’s essentially a neurotransmitter, and a very powerful psychedelic. People smoke DMT to get high. It’s the active ingredient in the South American brew called Ayahuasca. But all animals and plants have DMT inside them. There’s been lots of ideas that this could be the molecule that’s responsible for spiritual and mystical experience. Human beings that spontaneously start producing DMT have these kind of really insane experiences where they see patterns and can even coalesce to become entities that communicate with you.”
Expressing an idea that some religious theorists have advanced, Mirza adds, “It’s quite plausible from a biochemical point of view that the types of experiences that the Prophet Muhammad had was due to spontaneous releases of DMT. Even in a few hours in a darkened room, you start to hallucinate, and you start to produce DMT. In a work last year, I built a soundproof deprivation chamber with no light where people were invited to spend time in there, and you’d begin to hallucinate. That’s the subtext to the [Asian Art Museum] show.”
The music in “The Night Journey” is from a score based on Mirza’s pixelated interpretation of an Asian Art Museum painting that depicts Muhammad’s heavenly journey. Using a media system of his own invention, Mirza translates the code into commands that tell the gallery’s speakers what to play and what lights to emit. (His previous work — at Miami’s Perez Art Museum — also used this device.)
“I’m not composing the music; I’m just creating a score from an image,” Mirza says. “I have to assign frequencies, which are based on frequencies that are said to resonate with certain parts of the human body, like the pineal gland. They’re frequencies not used in music but in other ritualistic practices like Tibetan singing bowls.”
The Asian Art Museum has lots of works from Tibet. Mirza’s ability to link his newest work to other cultures and religions gives “The Night Journey” a relevance that takes it far beyond ideas of a single faith.
“Haroon Mirza: The Night Journey” through Dec. 9 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St. $10-$15; 415-581-3500 or asianart.org.