Haroon Mirza discusses Stone Circle at Ballroom Marfa, shares unheard anecdotes

In a contemporary take on the culture of stone circles, British artist Haroon Mirza creates a technology driven intervention in the landscape of Marfa, Texas.

by Shraddha Nair Published on : Oct 30, 2020

“There’s enough electricity for it to play 24 days continuously without stopping if it needed to. It’s very unlikely that it doesn’t play. Having said that, very strangely, on the night of its opening, it did not play. It never happened before and it never happened again. It didn’t play and did this strange thing where it hummed. It was like it went on strike… There was a massive electrical storm that day, which wasn’t normal for Texas that time of year, and there was hail and Stone Circle just did its own thing. It was disappointing for me because a lot of people had shown up. To this day no one has been able to figure it out, no engineers or physicists. It was very bizarre. The site looked the most beautiful I had ever seen it. You could see the sunset and the electrical storm in the distance. About half an hour before it was due to go off, a woman came up to me and she said her ancestors were the indigenous people from the area. She looked at me, held my arm, and asked, “Do you know what this land was used for? Time travel!” And she walked off. I remember thinking I don’t know if this woman is completely crazy or if she’s speaking some truth. It was very strange; I don’t know who she was. And then the Stone Circle behaved the way it did. It was a very strange evening”.

Currently on holiday in Italy, Haroon Mirza’s voice crackled through an unsteady phone line. When he shared this little anecdote, however, both of us burst into peals of laughter. Confused and curious, we began discussing theories on what this encounter could have possibly meant. Mirza is the kind of person who is casually funny and beguilingly intriguing all at the same time, jumping from theories on time travel to discussions about his recent work and contemplations about the structures of human culture and the universe which houses it.

Haroon Mirza’s ‘Stone Circle’ (2018) commissioned by Ballroom Marfa| Stone Circle | Haroon Mirza | STIRworld
Haroon Mirza’s Stone Circle (2018) commissioned by Ballroom Marfa Image: Rowdy Lee Dugan

An artist with myriad inspirations, from scientific, historical and cultural complexities to something as elemental as a piece of music or sound, Mirza’s work reflects these influences with equal diversity. His oeuvre embodies dichotomies, sculpturally imposing while also being performative and invoking movement. His recent work, titled Stone Circle , mirrors these contrasts. A set of nine large black marble stones set into the desert soil of Texas, the installation is embedded into the landscape with an affirmingly permanent demeanor. Using solar panels to self-charge, Stone Circle comes to life every full moon with lights and sound. This audiovisual experience is in fact programmed electrical pulses. His fascination with electricity as a material is one which developed over the length of his practice, propagated by his interest in sound and music, which stems from years of working as a DJ. With little interest for the structural conventions of music, Mirza’s attention eventually turned toward the democratic aesthetics of the contemporary art realm. In Stone Circle, this play between time and space creates a sense of transience and ephemerality, which starkly contrasts the Neolithic aesthetic of the installation, a marriage of human intervention and naturally driven technology.

Mirza shares, “Although the piece is highly technological with the solar panels and LEDs, it’s also very much about the landscape, it’s very much about nature. It deals with natural processes, the evolution of that stone starting from millions of years ago. The practice of placing stones in the landscape has been recorded at least for five thousand years, since the Stonehenge. As soon as humans started making tools from stone, they also started putting stones in the landscape, so it’s a very ancient practice that I kind of wanted to continue and make it appropriate for today”.

‘Stone Circle’ brings the ancient art into the 21st century | Stone Circle | Haroon Mirza | STIRworld
Stone Circle brings the ancient art into the 21st century Image: Emma Rogers

Mirza continues, “I visited CERN for a residency and it struck me that what they do there, you could see as a ritual. They construct these magnificent, gigantic machines and the tunnel is 27 kilometre circumference, going through France, Switzerland and a little bit of Italy maybe and it’s this incredible feat of engineering, the biggest machine ever made and it has these eight points in this gigantic circle where they have detectors. What they are trying to do is just figure out what’s inside particles. You can think of that as a ritual, these people go there every day and collide these particles together, which is a really violent act just at a really small scale. The purpose is just trying to understand nature, pattern seeking. I think this is what early humans were doing with their stone circles”.

As we continue to ponder the möbius-like nature of the relationship between culture, ritual and monuments, Mirza tells me how he hopes that Stone Circle eventually inspires a cult following of its own. He says, “Initially when I conceived it and started talking to Ballroom about it, I wanted to do it in secret and have no association to it whatsoever but for so many practical reasons we couldn’t. I actually have this secret desire that it somehow gets forgotten and rediscovered accidentally. I am happy to remove the plaque”.

Stone Circle is a manifestation of Mirza’s affinity towards human driven cultures | Stone Circle | Haroon Mirza | STIRworld
Stone Circle is a manifestation of Mirza’s affinity towards human driven cultures Image: Emma Rogers

Stone Circle at Ballroom Marfa was originally inspired by a stone circle in Derbyshire, known as the ‘Nine Ladies Stone Circle’. Legend says that nine ladies were dancing on the sabbath and hence were turned into stone. Mirza’s nine marble stones are now embedded into the landscape of dry Texan expanses, making a mark not only in the space but in the larger history of human-made stone circles. “It’s like Conway’s Game of Life, it’s like planting a seed. I did intentionally plant the seed but not knowing what the plant will look like,’ he concludes, in referencing cellular automata structure.

Although Stone Circle doesn’t offer much in terms of visual engagement when not activated, it is precisely this unassuming nature which allows it to merge quietly with the ancient art of stone circle making. To experience the installation at its apogee, visit Ballroom Marfa on a full moon evening and wait until sunset for the self-contained, off-grid artwork to come alive.

Mirza posing for the camera | Haroon Mirza | STIRworld
Mirza posing for the camera Image: Gaia Fugazza

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