Ryoji Ikeda’s art creates a category all its own, a category that defies categorization. Sitting somewhere between art and mathematics, computer graphics and music, between what can and cannot be seen, what can and cannot be heard, understood, experienced, Ikeda is in the business of challenging the distinctions that enable our physical existence to make sense.
His current exhibition at the the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) is labeled a retrospective. Unlike a retrospective as we have come to conceive of it, there are only nine pieces in what is nevertheless a “comprehensive look at this [body] of work”. Like so much of the sensual stimuli of Tokyo, Ikeda’s oeuvre is vertically integrated into complex, overwhelming visual and soundscapes. For +/- [the infinite between 0 and 1] Ikeda develops ideas, visual and sonic principles that he has experimented with over the past ten years. Although the former experiments are not physically present in this exhibition, their logic and conceptual innovation is at the heart of the pieces to be experienced.
Translating Ikeda’s art into words can never do it justice as it is so much about the purity of visual and aural experience. Even when there are “legible,” printed characters, our efforts to read are thwarted at every step. This, in spite of our repeated attempts to do so. data.tron [3 SXGA+ version], 2007-09, for example, is a floor-to-ceiling screen of millions of numbers (too small to be seen) that we know from his other work to be a computer generated series, or set, on its way to infinity. Each pixel of visual image is strictly calculated according to a mathematical principle, and where a mathemetician would represent the phenomenon through a symbol, Ikeda prints it out, thereby visualizes and aestheticizes mathematical forms and patterns. The greatest mathematicians have always insisted that mathematics is a very beautiful, indeed sublime, phenomenon. And Ikeda confirms this only in an unexpected and novel way: through making it into an aesthetic image.
Just like the sublime, our experience of Ikeda’s works are deeply ambivalent. They are said to exist at the limit of human perception and human experience. Certainly, our physical interaction with these works has us flirting with and sensing our transgression of these limits. The piece, data.matrix [no. 1-10], 2006-09, is a ten- screen installation featuring video sequences from datamatics [ver.2.0], a signature Ikeda audiovisual composition. As we stand before the screens we see visual compositions that remind us of bar codes, radiographic and ultrasound images, scientific monitoring graphs – images we see in an attempt to grasp what is ultimately ineffable. Because, like the mathematical number sequences, these images exist at a threshold where we no longer are able to see or cognize. Instead the strobe effect starts to make the experience vertiginous. We are forced to turn away. Similarly, the clicking of the sounds might remind us of the turn over of the information board in a train station or the technologically generated noise reflected from a sound mirror, but if we listen too long, rather than gaining clarity on the sound, it ends up becoming nauseating. Again, we need to leave. Together sound and image involve us in a bodily confusion that surely works to underline the chaos that is the necessary flip side of these otherwise precisely calculated, meticulously composed pieces.
Among the other works on view here is the transcendental (e) [no. 2-a], 2009 which I found captivating. It is, in many ways, quite different from Ikeda’s other masterpieces which are made of the purity of light, fleeting sounds and images in seemingly random configurations. However, the transcendental (e) [no. 2-a] sees the signature infinite series of numbers etched into a stainless steel plinth. Not only does the work recall traditional artmaking methods —where Ikeda’s other work deliberately eschews any such familiarity or convention — but in its low lit room with little to no reflection on the steel surface, it has a fixity that is nevertheless mesmerizing. This piece reinforces Ikeda’s greatness as an artist for me: not only is he consistently challenging conceptions of the world as we know it, but he does so through perpetually new innovations, never sitting still with one medium, on one precipice, or mired in a single set of concerns. He is Japan’s best know artist, and certainly, one of the most exciting artists world wide to engage with the interface between cutting edge technologies and the human body.
Lastly, mention must be made of the formidable exhibition of the works by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. The works were so integrated into the space, filling its walls, creating an immersive environment while still retaining the discretion of each individual piece, it was as though the museum was built specifically for the Ikeda exhibition. It was a museum space completely given over to the integrity of the works on display, an unusual occurrence in even the most wealthy and principled institutions in the West.
(*Images, from top to bottom: Ryoji Ikeda, data.matrix [nº1-10], (2006-09), © 2009 ryoji ikeda, Photo: Ryuichi Maruo. Ryoji Ikeda, data.tron [3 SXGA+ version], (2007-09), © 2009 ryoji ikeda, Courtesy of Gallery Koyanagi, Photo: Ryuichi Maruo. Ryoji Ikeda, data.film [nº1-a], (2007), © 2007 ryoji ikeda, Photo: Ryuichi Maruo. Ryoji Ikeda, matrix [5ch version], (2009), © 2009 ryoji ikeda, Photo: Ryuichi Maruo.)