Experimental experiences with Ryoji Ikeda

I’ve been a fan of the Japanese audio-visual artist Ryoji Ikeda since I accidentally stumbled upon a mention of his exhibit at the Park Avenue Armoury on one of my equally accidental trips to NYC. That was The Transfinite in May 2011 and I came out thinking that I have never experienced anything on that scale. And it really was about the experience, as the visual, the surroundings and the presence were just tools or props to complete it.

I think that might have been the first time I realised how much the feel of it matters, and how subjective and interpretative immersive art really is (or can/ should be). Or that might have been the first time I realised that I realised that!


The Transfinite, NYC 2011 © skitalica


The Transfinite, NYC 2011 © skitalica

The colours are filters, it was, in fact, all black-and-white, zeros and ones, the matrix.

And Park Avenue Armoury was a fantastic venue. Another one where I could often imagine his exhibits happening at is Tate Modern’sTurbine Hall.


I’ve been following his works ever since, but would often miss him by a few days in places such as Paris, Buenos Aires, even the Spectra beam in London for the WWI Centennial last summer. I also, regrettably, couldn’t attend his talk at The British Library in December 2014, after having pried a rare ticket.


The Transfinite, NYC 2011 © skitalica

Now, finally, our space and time coordinates intersected in May in London, for his Supersymmetry and Supercodex exhibits. As a bonus, there was also a little-known performance of his at Bermondsey’s White Cube Gallery at the beginning of April, which I found out about the day before but I made it.

This was an entirely different take on Ikeda’s works. I hadn’t known him to be an audio performer, I even joked about his page on Facebook categorising him as a band/ musician. I say this because his audio recordings that I have heard live so far (notice I didn’t say ‘music’) seem rigid, technical, almost scientific, in a word: renegade. They are certainly not rhythmic or melodic.

At the White Cube, he stood, tapping at his laptop, completely studiously, in front of an audience of less than a 100 (capped attendance). Apart from the laptop, two huge speakers, and hundreds of glasses of different size and shape lined along the perimeter, the room was empty and all white. No visuals. The premise was that the sounds emitted from his computer would bounce off and produce a multitude of tones that would collectively make a symphony. To be completely honest, to me it was just noise, no beat or rhythm, just reverberating sound signals. The kids that were there shut their ears and looked at their parents, in a manner of saying ‘why have you brought me here? What have I done to deserve this?’. No, it wasn’t that I wasn’t “getting it”, or that I had “missed the point”, there was no tonality or harmony to it.

Despite not having enjoyed that performance at the White Cube, I was keen for the hyper-sensory exposure of Supercodex at the Village Underground in Shoreditch, as part of the Barbican musical innovation programme. In my opinion, it would have made more sense to have it at the Barbican because a club wasn’t exactly fitting: it wasn’t a kind of concert you could enjoy and relax at. So, what was it? I will only use this line from the Barbican description as I don’t want it to influence my review: “a battle of digital noise, blips and bass drones”. So, again, a lot of digital sonic compositions with no hints of musically satisfying course of tones or notes. This time, however, there was the visual component, making the audio feel more integrated, which, in turn, made the performance marginally more – I don’t want to say bearable! – compelling. Be as it may, after a few minutes of this, one feels disoriented (epilepsy and seizure warnings are not uncommon at sensory exhibits).

I was looking at the faces of people around me, noticing their focused, calculated, almost austere demeanour (quite an odd concert setting, it’s like being at a beach where everyone is fully dressed). A few tried not to look confused. A few nodded a lot, as if wanting to appear understanding and accepting. No one was talking or moving, and there was certainly no dancing to be had. I hadn’t gone expecting to dance, I assure you.

Is this what the beginnings of electronic music scene were like: a lot of exploratory, tentative wavering of sounds and tenor without a definitive sense of direction.. and no one quite knowing how to behave or how to react to it? After all, the concept was still being experimented with at the time..

So, perhaps Ikeda was, in a way, conducting an experiment (musical or social, still up for a debate).

Speaking to a few people afterward, the feedback was: ‘thought-provoking’, ‘systematic’, ‘eccentric’, ‘irritating’, though no general or common consensus had been reached.

I’ve heard it said that this may well be a preview of what electronic music is going to be like in the future. Oh I hope not!


The Transfinite, NYC 2011 © skitalica


The Transfinite, NYC 2011 © skitalica

Now, onto what Ryoji-san does best: the visual elements. The aesthetic.

Having experienced his visual exhibits before, I knew that Supersymmetry at the Brewer Street Car Park in Soho would be radical and exciting. It was a presentation of a particle accelerator, as a way of visualising a physics experiment of particles colliding. It’s pure science and data visualised. Oh there’s the audio component there as well, but it isn’t dominant.. and certainly not something that has stayed with me as an aftertaste. However, I probably would not have paid attention to it had I not dissected and analysed the first performance in Bermondsey.

That, is what I call immersion.

I’ve previously written about such art experiences here.

Love him or hate him, Ryoji-san is unique and never leaves a viewer indifferent. For the record, I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. It’s always an experience.

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