By any standards, Ryoji Ikeda has been given an all-access pass worthy of rock star status: A pair of 40-foot tall screens for his black-and-white visuals; all 55,000 square feet of the Wade Thompson Drill Hall to fill with his stripped-down, sonic sounds; and the blessing of the Park Avenue Armory’s president and executive producer, Rebecca Robertson, to get loud.
“If he wants to be loud, let him be loud,” Robertson said. “He needs scale to have this work.”
The “this” under discussion is “Transfinite,” a presentation of three of the Japanese artist’s immersive audio/visual projects in one space. It’s one of the largest and most complex installations Ikeda has taken on to date, which is quite a coup given that his CV includes shows at the Grand Palais in Paris, the Millennium Dome in London, and JFK’s Terminal 5.
As I walked with Ikeda through the space seven days before the show opened, the drill hall hummed with the sights and sounds of a set build. Penske rental trucks and scissor lifts were parked around its periphery; orange and black extension cords snaked across the floor. The crew in charge of laying down the slick floor for “Test Pattern”—the first large scale piece you see upon entering the room—was working in socks, their boots in a pile kicked off to one side.
The grind of power drills sporadically interrupted our conversation, a stark contrast to the artist’s soft-spoken and measured words, which carry a hint of a French accent from his years of living in Paris. He speaks with a quiet enthusiasm about his projects, punctuating statements with gestures and sounds.
“It’s hard to explain my work. It’s for your eyes, your ears, your body, whoofp,” he says with a gesture of air billowing. “It will really be an experience.”
And that is what you call an understatement.
Ikeda’s is the kind of art that hammers home at your soul. There’s something fundamentally primal about his pieces, which draw on such mathematical building blocks as Morse code, binary code, and numeric sequences counting toward infinity. His installations have a hypnotic effect. Think zoning out to a static, off-air television station—or the sea of green code that Neo sees in “The Matrix.” Couple that with the sheer scale of what’s been loaded into the Armory, and you can count on quite a visceral experience.
“Test Pattern”—which pulsates between frenetic, pounding percussion and an ethereal, ambient hum, with a bit of everything else in between—has the effect of freezing people in their tracks, literally. “When people enter such an intense simulation, they don’t move,” Ikeda said. “I never predicted that.” In fact, the silent figures are an integral part of the piece, their silhouettes the perfect counterpoint to the stark, geometric abstractions of the dramatic visual sequence.
On the second 40-foot tall screen—which stands back-to-back with the screen for “Test Pattern,” taking up the back half of the drill hall—“Datamatics” has a much softer vibe. There are no bursts of loud, or white; a black fabric-covered floor encourages sitting. DOS computer language, sequences of numbers, and static stream across the screen. Sonar pings measure the score. It’s “quite delicate and very, very subtle,” Ikeda said, especially compared to “Test Pattern.”
“Transfinite” has been installed in the Armory so that there is no overlap between the visual sequences; each have their own starring roles. At the same time, there is no chance that in a room as cavernous and as acoustically tuned as the drill hall that the scores can be contained. What about the sounds that escape?
“My job is to compose something and recompose it [to fit] to a certain space,” Ikeda said. The experience of “Transfinite” isn’t two isolated pieces sharing a room but a kind of orchestration of the two scores in which the sounds will act as a counterpoint to each other.
“In a sense, both walls kind of tell the same thing. We just see something from different angles,” Ikeda mused. “The in between is the most important.”
“The Transfinite” runs through June 11 at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., at 67th Street. www.armoryonpark.org.