Ryoji Ikeda has delivered dazzling assaults on the senses during his 25-year career: a Rio de Janeiro beach bathed in its unique palette of light; Times Square in New York indulged in its flickering black and white patterns. But for his next show, the Japanese artist and composer takes things underground. Ikeda’s largest exhibition in Europe to date is the exposed belly of 180 The Strand in London, which he redesigned as staves, notes and bar lines – with himself as conductor , “Orchestral[ing] all in a symphony ”.
Beginning with a single beam of light piercing the rafters, the exhibition transports the viewer through a hallway glowing in white light and into a room filled with a ring of huge super-directional speakers reverberating in concert. For Ikeda, it’s an “opera” with light and sound. “There is the intro, the welcome song, then the crescendo [and] Climax. It’s a long journey.
Sound is at the heart of Ikeda’s practice. He learned his fundamentals early on working as an audiovisual producer in Japan and later with the artist collective Dumb Type. The influence of Kyoto’s noisy nightclubs can still be seen in Ikeda’s sensorially immersive work, from her exhibitions, sets and concerts to her collaboration with photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto for the Paris Opera. He dislikes hierarchies given to art and insists that all forms, from underground raves to classical opera, are “of equal importance”.
An interview with Ikeda is a rare thing. He estimates he’s done less than 10 over the past two decades and keeps journalists at bay. In fact, he seems to have a hard time knowing how he is portrayed by others in general. “People expect me to do something so drastic [and] I have to meet their expectations correctly, ”he said. Others, he says, “see me as ‘Japan’. Am I an artist? No! They see me as Japan… not even Japanese. He says he must have developed a set of ready answers over many years to be asked to explain the meaning of Zen.
But he’s not an easy-to-read artist. There is rarely a text or instruction accompanying his plays, allowing people to project their own stories onto his work. Its setup test pattern – a huge path of monochrome light that jumps through binary and barcode patterns made from data inputs – became a yoga studio and children’s playground when he took over Drill Hall in New York. Ikeda had feared that his intensity would repel people; instead, seeing them “walk into the room” in an inventive way fills him with gratitude.
Ikeda seeks to envelop her audience in her work, meticulously measuring the installation’s proportions on a human scale. Data-verse, a video triptych of visualizations of genomic data dissolving in planetary maps and scans of human bodies sliding through columns of code, plays out on screens so large they shrink viewers. The implicit message of human littleness in a vast universe is the result of Ikeda’s time at Cern. “The Mecca of particle physics” made him, he freely admits, a sort of “anti-humanist.” Handing over a set of keys and the freedom to roam the laboratories at will, he felt that the quest to solve the mystery of the universe was based on blind faith: the research carried out by scientists is “completely invisible”, if “unthinkably” small that they can neither see it nor touch it ”.
Ikeda expresses deep respect for imperceptible forces. Mathematical science has become a kind of obsession for him. Diving deeply into his theory, with the help of collaborator Benedict Gross – professor at Harvard – he produced works inspired by mathematical disputes. He has a vision of the discipline similar to that of art. “There is no Chinese mathematics and French mathematics,” he says. “Mathematics is only one.”
There are other links he spotted. Mathematicians “playing with numbers” hit him like composers organizing their notes. Ikeda’s comparisons seem to be the result of his growing fascination with the limits of human perception and perspective. The more he browses the data he has extracted from various sources – open source, Nasa, Cern – the more he marvels at the ignorance of the dominant species on our planet. Although he works “with a massive data set of DNA – human, animal and galactic coordinates, stars, proteins and molecules”, he is struck by how, for a species that presides over our planet, the ” human part ‘of the material is. The more he delves into this material, the more, he says, he finds himself shouting “wow, wow, wow” in sheer amazement.
“The great thing about being an artist is that I can think about these things all day,” he says. And then he signs: “It’s a total privilege. It is totally unnecessary.