Materializations of the Immaterial

Ryoji Ikeda at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo

At the first-ever retrospective of the work of sound artist Ryoji Ikeda, recently put together by the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, the artist presented eight pieces concerned with the limits of perception and the edges of knowledge. Spread out over two floors, the show represented a unified vision of Ikeda’s art. His interest in the physical properties of sound and light, and mathematical pursuits in set theory that attempt to understand such huge questions as, “is there a transcendental infinity?” combined to create an austere and elemental aesthetic. Ikeda chooses not to provide viewers of his work with any notes or background information; instead, he prefers to allow the audience to have a “pure experience” of his art. Before dealing with the details of this most recent show, however, it will be helpful to first look at his past activities, including background to the pieces presented, which were all continuations of previous bodies of work, namely his “datamatics” project, as well as his collaborations with mathematician Benedict Gross, with whom he developed the exhibit “V­L” at Le Laboratoire in Paris this past winter.


I think not being able to play [an instrument] can sharpen the producer’s eye for critique. This is because it is necessary to have an understanding of both the listener and the musical creator’s perspective. In that sense, because I love listening, I always begin by asking how I would react to my music if I were a listener, by making myself a trial subject of my own work. So, my work wasn’t ever completely narcissistic. It was, rather, the opposite, in that it was probably the constant slicing away of that kind of creator’s ego that led to this kind of crystal clear sound. —Ryoji Ikeda in an interview with Akira Asada (this and the other indented quotes are taken from the catalog to the MOT show)

Ryoji Ikeda’s work in the early 1990s as the music producer for the multimedia performance art group Dumb Type undoubtedly shaped the way he now approaches composition. Ikeda joined the group during the development of “S/N,” their piece about AIDS involving issues of gender, sexuality, identity, and life and death. Although his own music was not played (in fact much of the music, which included drag lip-syncing performances of songs such as Shirley Bassey’s “People,” could not have been more different from his own), his role as editor would forecast his musical development, which increasingly seemed to focus on the act of sound production itself. Much in the tradition of such studio-based musicians as Brian Eno and Glenn Gould, Ikeda would discover how engineering a CD is essentially a process of composition. In his work as producer, he came to understand the studio as his primary compositional tool, a studio being a place where he would learn to compose with his ears.

In his datamatics project, begun in 2004, Ikeda explores the various ways of understanding the world by accumulating, assembling, and finally materializing data. In the installations and performances that result, the information is represented in its rawest form—on/off impulses of sine waves and noise, black and white pixels of light. These extremes of auditory and visual information are intended to affect the senses with a directness that can induce an experience of pure sensation. In this work, Ikeda seems to be concerned with transforming the unseen particles that make up the world into a substance that can be interpreted through the body—not necessarily seen or heard, or even knowable, but felt. In many of the large-scale representations of numbers that are part of this body of work, for instance in “data.tron,” the numbers that make up the mesmerizing flow of light are not visible unless you inspect the screen carefully. Ikeda’s attention to the production of music has extended in this project to attempt to get to the bottom of matter through a process of digital translation. There is a certain irony in the fact that Ikeda has ended up creating a universe that is fundamentally so materialistic in his search for what is transcendent. The actual work of art itself is simply the representation of the rudiments of the material aspects of existence.

Rather than taking a substantive approach with elementary particles and so on, the concept of a universal approach in which mathematics itself is treated as the language of science in general began to take greater shape, leading me to ask what is the smallest unit of mathematics itself. At the end of this journey was the “empty set.”

In line with Ikeda’s search for the fundamentals of sound and light, his pursuits in set theory show an exploration of elemental questions about existence. As part of his exhibit “V­L” Ikeda presented two prints, titled “a prime number” and “a natural number”—the former is a printout of the 41st Mersenne prime (a prime of the form 2n-1), and the latter is a printout of an “irreducible random number,” both numbers being more than seven hundred million digits long. Both the title and content of this exhibit evoke the edges of mathematical experience: “V­L” refers to an unsolved problem in the set-theoretical approach to the hierarchy of infinities developed by Georg Cantor, while the first of the two large numbers depicted was at the time the largest number yet proven to be prime. “V­L” not only evokes the idea of the hierarchy of infinities, but also evokes some of the most mysterious questions from that field, including the continuum hypothesis and the concept of constructible infinities. The presence of the so-called “irreducible random number” next to the large Mersenne prime adds to the sense of mystery, since the second number has no apparent special properties.

In the case of exhibits, all I do is set up the devices, and if, for example, one happens to encounter some film that has numbers printed on it, it is the experience, not the photograph itself, that is important. When you talk of the experience you run the risk of getting into phenomenology, but you needn’t get into such trifling technicalities. I simply want my viewers to observe my work as if they were purely listening to music.

Ikeda’s retrospective at the MOT Museum, entitled “+/- [the infinite between 0 and 1],” was presented in a dualistic fashion: on the top floor were three dark rooms in which he presented glowing objects and projected images, while the bottom floor was covered in pristine white cloth where he presented almost all black objects, save for one white print. In addition, the two floors mirrored each other in format: the entrance to the top floor was a small room with a black stainless-steel cube (dimensions 1000 mm x 1000 mm) placed in the center; that room led to a larger one containing ten identically sized projections, opening into a space with a wall-covering projection. The bottom floor began in a similarly small room with an identically sized cube—white instead of black—which led into a room containing ten identically shaped black prints in a row—with one extra white print—opening up into a room in which five human-sized parabolic speakers dominate the visual space. On the top floor was one additional room around the corner, in which Ikeda presented “,” a long glowing strip of film filled with minuscule, evenly spaced numbers. Permeating both floors was Ikeda’s distinct minimal music.

The ten projections that make up “data.matrix” and the wall projection of “data.tron” were linked together with precise auditory and visual timing, switching between serene, crystal-clear sonorities. These were coupled with a mesmerizing flow of light pulsing on and off with the rhythm of a barcode-like image moving incrementally across the screen. Running on a loop, these pieces were the only ones in which time was working, as the content traveled through distinct sections, though with no defined beginning or end. On the other hand, Ikeda’s work “matrix [5ch version]” was a seemingly static piece, except for the changes in sound induced by the audience’s participation. This work had the potential to be the most liberating and hence transformative of experiences for the viewer, due to the fact that the experience of the music was one of discovery: one’s movement through the space dictated the movement of the music emitted from five super-directional speakers. Two slightly mistuned tones rubbed up against each other, singing out like melancholic birds inside the listener’s own ears. Underneath this pulsed a constant but slightly changing clicking seemingly occurring inside the listener’s head.

The delicate ideas concerning the edges of perceptual experience that appeared to be the inspiration behind this show were somewhat overpowered by the stark, cold, and material nature of much of the work. In Ikeda’s pieces “the transcendental (π)” and “the transcendental (e),” for instance, the stainless-steel cubes were monoliths to be revered: their presence in the room was one of domination, monuments of Ikeda’s idea of the “sublime” nature of the mathematical concepts represented by the millions of tiny numbers. Even in his pure sound piece “matrix [5ch version],” the presence of the five giant parabolic speakers stood in sharp contrast to the delicate listening experience.

In the end, Ikeda has an inexorable method of obliterating space and imposing an orderly and symmetrical aesthetic that is representative of his idea of perfection.


Sergei Tcherepnin

Sergei Tcherepnin is a composer/performer of new music currently based in Brooklyn.