Published  03/06/2021

Ryoji Ikeda

Ryoji Ikeda

An ear-shredding, eye-rending survey of the audiovisual artist transforms data into engulfing experiences and fires up the mind

Ryoji Ikeda, data-verse trilogy: data-verse 1 (a), data-verse 2 (b) data-verse 3 (c), 2019-2020. © Jack Hems, 180 The Strand, 2021.

180 Studios, London
20 May – 1 August 2021


From the golden ratio to MC Escher’s hyperbolic geometry, mathematics has influenced art more often than one might think. But the audiovisual artist Ryoji Ikeda (b1966, Gifu, Japan) must rank among the most direct conduits between the two. A musician and composer as much as a virtual artist, Ikeda works with a team of programmers to turn raw data into dizzying compositions of sound and light.

I first encountered Ikeda’s art at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, in 2012. In a white room, a black speaker transmitted an ear-crushing wave. In another gallery, as darkened as the first was illuminated, video projections of whirring, ever-increasing numbers punctuated the walls. If you stood in front of them, your body became covered in the fast-moving flow, and you were momentarily surrounded by the data (at that time, data was novel). But it was a third work that shot my senses: an eye-dazzling beam of white light emanating from a circular hole in the wall. As you walked towards it, more aware than ever of the dust motes that share our interior spaces, the brightness and the heat became almost unbearably intense. Few installations I have encountered since, if any, have presented such an uncomplicated sensorial overload.

Ryoji Ikeda, Line, 2008. © Jack Hems, 180 The Strand, 2021.

I have experienced further examples of Ikeda’s work since, but never at the same scale. His new exhibition at London’s 180 Studios remedies this, and then some. Organised as a collaboration between The Vinyl Factory, Fact magazine and Audemars Piguet Contemporary, it places 12 of Ikeda’s pieces in a crepuscular labyrinth. Emerging from an extended residency at the venue, it features new and old works; many of the latter were first seen at 2019’s Venice Biennale. The show was delayed almost six months by the UK’s winter and spring lockdowns. The delay might be fortuitous. There is no better time for overstimulation.

Ryoji Ikeda, Point of no return, 2018. © Jack Hems, 180 The Strand, 2021.

Ikeda lets us gently down into the abyss. The first work, Grid System (2012), consists of a plinth topped with a screen displaying a mathematical grid. It functions as a sort of totem for the onslaught to follow. The next room contains Data Scan [no 1-9] (2011), which comprises a row of ostensibly similar plinths. These flicker and pulsate with abstract visuals. Each is based on different datasets: the DNA sequence of chromosome no 11, a protein’s structure, patterns observed when computers crash. Synchronised to ambient sounds, this installation is where you begin to feel as if you have broken into a secret lab, where computers work to some sinister end, defying human comprehension.

Ryoji Ikeda, Spectra III, 2008/2019. © Jack Hems, 180 The Strand, 2021.

It is the next work, Spectra III (2008/2019), that cuts to the quick: a tunnel of strobe lights that oppress the eyes with their glow. Plenty of artists have constructed light tunnels, but probably none has been so uncomfortably dazzling and hot. Every step feels weighed down with the glow of a thousand suns. Colours flare in the peripheries of your vision. When you emerge, it is your ears’ turn for a pummelling, with A (continuum) (2018/2020), a new commission comprising six super-directional Meyer SB-1 speakers – which look like miniature satellites – tuned to the musical note A. It is programmed to feature no repetition through the exhibition’s run, effectively giving each visitor their own special audial drubbing.

A (continuum) is one of the most startling examples of Ikeda’s research. To capture the variety of frequencies that have been attuned as the A pitch over the centuries, it generates sounds based on dozens of tuning forks and instruments, from the 1361 organ in Halberstadt Cathedral to a frequency adopted at a 1939 international conference. But you don’t need to know this to feel the finely calibrated force of the installation. Ikeda has done the thinking for us. “I don’t like the overly intellectual orientation of some contemporary art … What you hear, what you experience – that’s everything,” Ikeda said in an interview with Ralph Rugoff, published in Fact to accompany the exhibition.

Ryoji Ikeda, Data.flux [n°1], 2020. © Jack Hems, 180 The Strand, 2021.

To some extent, Ikeda’s interest in mathematics and data might be more the conveyance for its art than its telos. Ikeda began his practice as part of the interdisciplinary collective Dumb Type, which was founded in Kyoto in 1984. Dumb Type were strident activists who critiqued the role of technology in contemporary society. When they exhibited internationally, however, reviewers pigeonholed them as very “Japanese” and “Zen”. Frustrated, Ikeda turned to music, but found his 1996 album +/- facing a similar superficial reception. At this point, he turned to maths: “I became interested in making my music as universal and transparent as mathematical equations. Maths is not like culture – there’s no such thing as Chinese or African mathematics, for instance, because science is concerned with universal facts.”

Some of Ikeda’s installations feel like attempts to capture scientific phenomena. Point of No Return (2018) features a pitch-dark circle painted on a wall and then surrounded with a halo of projected light. Named after the “event horizon” (a boundary marking the limits of a black hole, beyond which nothing can be seen) it is disconcerting and seductive at once, as if asking you to surrender. A couple of rooms later, Ikeda introduces his Data-Verse Trilogy (2018, 2019, 2020), the final part of which is exhibited for the first time. These match sound to enormous projections. Scientific datasets – from Cern (where Ikeda also had a residency), Nasa, the Human Genome Project and many others – are processed and converted into spectacular visuals. Ikeda takes us quickly from the micro to the macro and back again, from atoms and cells to cities and the cosmos.

Ryoji Ikeda, Test pattern [n°12] (extended versions), 2017/2020. © Jack Hems, 180 The Strand, 2021.

Since Ikeda moved into art in the early 00s, data has accrued dozens of connotations. It has become something mined and protected, to be feared even as it comes to exert ever-greater pressure on our lives. On this, Ikeda is curiously silent. Maybe this is his point, as much as his art eschews easy meaning: data is so mighty, and so ubiquitous, that there is little that we can do other than surrender ourselves to its onslaught. Or perhaps Ikeda is feeding off the data apocalypse, recasting statistics into a sensual experience. The exhibition ends with a new version of Test Pattern (2017/2020), a system that converts texts, sounds, photos and visuals into two rapidly moving barcodes of light and a punishing industrial techno soundtrack. No artwork I’ve seen this year has made me feel so alive. Forget intention and surrender to its immensity.

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