Art or Sound | Ryoji Ikeda’s Data-Centric Pursuits
Very few artists make it to the home of the largest scientific experiment in the world, the Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland.
Japanese artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda (born 1966) is one of them – which seems fitting for an artist highly concerned with visualising the universe.
Largely driven by the spatial visualisation of data, mathematical theories and quantum physics, the artist’s work, often presented in contrasting screens of black and white, is frequently described as “minimalist electronica”.
Ikeda first began professionally exploring sound while in Tokyo in the early 1990s.
Initially joining Spiral Gallery’s restaurant as a dishwasher and a waiter as a part-time job, his involvement quickly morphed into full-fledged involvement and he began to produce shows and to contribute to film programming.
At the gallery, he met the Kyoto artist collective Dumb Type – who he eventually joined and toured with for over a decade, a time he credits for contributing significantly to the current state of his career.
Beyond his music recordings and live performances, his installation-based work tends to involve long-term investigations with various iterations and editions.
Take for instance, Test Pattern – an installation of his that draws out the rhythmic patterns of raw data.
In 2021, the creative hub 180 The Strand in London hosted the largest exhibition of Ikeda’s work, curated as a sensory journey with twelve large-scale works, including the premiere of all works from his Data-Verse trilogy.
Known to be particularly modest, Ikeda primarily refers to himself as a composer and discourages his own interpretation of his work, repeatedly insisting that his installation works are only activated by an audience.
Over the years, he has closely worked with his friend and fellow mathematics enthusiast and celebrated German sound artist Carsten Nicolai in a long-term research project focused on the visualisation of sound, Cyclo.
In this ambitious undertaking, the two have been using stereo image monitoring equipment intended for phase correlation in an attempt to archive an “infinity index” of sound fragments.
Ikeda is currently based in Paris and is represented by Almine Rech Gallery.
A large-scale solo exhibition of his works recently opened at the Hirosaki Museum of Contemporary Art in Hirosaki, Japan, in April 2022 – considered as one of the most exciting sound art exhibitions to see this year.
RYOJI IKEDA HAS A DATA-CENTRIC FONDNESS FOR PHYSICS AND MATHEMATICS
In a rather unexpected collaboration, Ikeda has collaborated with the Harvard mathematician Benedict Gross (reminiscent of sound artist Alvin Lucier’s work with the physicist Edmond Dewan).
Together they premiered Paris's (now-closed) science-focused art space, Le Laboratoire.
The show, titled V≠L (referring to two mathematical classes of sets: the V for Von Neumann universe and the Constructible universe), was a result of comprehensive conversations between the two.
The collaboration hardly seems unexpected to Ikeda, though.
“In some sense he’s exploring as an artist exactly the same questions that we are desperately trying to understand as mathematicians and where he’s at the border of his art and we're at the border of our mathematics, there's a lot of intersection,” he revealed in an interview with The Guardian.
In 2001, Ikeda won the Prix Ars Electronica for his project Matrix, an award that granted him a two-year residency at CERN in Switzerland (housing the largest and highest-energy particle collider in the world, the Large Hadron Collider).
During this time, he was paired with CERN scientists Frederick Bordry and Sergio Bertolucci and delved into quantum physics notions like extra dimensions and supersymmetry.
He primarily explored the Planck Scale, a particle physics notion that refers to the quantities used in relativity, quantum mechanics, and gravity.
It was at CERN that he developed what he refers to as his “Planck Universe” with Micro and Macro, two large-scale projections (both 2015) – each over ten metres tall – that, as their titles suggest, explore the microscopic and macroscopic components and matter that make up the universe.
Data and its aesthetic/sonic visualisation continue to play a central role in Ikeda’s work and he has worked with gigantic sets belonging to CERN, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the US) and the Human Genome Project.
How many points are there in a line? What is the number of numbers?
These are just some of the questions that the artist investigates in his long-running project and series Datamatics, which comprises experiments of all sorts that look to create acoustic spaces out of pure data and includes the works Data.flux, Data.scape, as well as the book/CD Dataphonics (2010).
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Switzerland. Photo: CERN
Data.tron (2010). Photo: Shervin Afshar
NOTABLE WORKS BY RYOJI IKEDA
Spectra is one of Ikeda’s most popular works and various editions have been exhibited globally over the years including stagings in Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Sharjah, London and Paris.
While most of these editions are temporary, a semi-permanent edition of Spectra is housed at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, Australia, where it is ceremonially lit up each year to mark the winter and summer solstices.
The work employs searchlights to emit white light (which according to the artist, is one of the purest forms of transformation from electricity) projected 15 kilometres vertically into the sky.
“In case of Spectra, place on face,” read the sleeping masks distributed to nearby residents when the work was first activated in Tasmania (and aviation authorities were also alerted).
In London, an edition of Spectra was lit up in 2014 to mark the outbreak of World War I.
Spectra (2014). Photo: Tom Thorpe
If you’ve ever seen a work by Ikeda reminiscent of barcodes with contrasting screens of black and white, it’s likely to be part of his Test Pattern series.
First commissioned in 2008 by the Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media in Yamaguchi, Japan, the series has drastically evolved over the years and has been presented in Paris, Gwangju, Lyon, London, Sydney and more.
In 2014, the Times Square Advertising Coalition and Times Square Arts commissioned an edition of Test Pattern that took over the neighbourhood’s famed screens in an audiovisual experience that seemingly came out of the blue for passers-by.
Between 11.57pm to midnight everyday for the entire duration of October, Ikeda’s flickering pattern took over various screens.
Data-Verse is a trilogy commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary that is the culmination of almost two decades of research by the artist – and perhaps even a conclusion to his data-centric explorations that investigate the microscopic and macroscopic elements that make up nature.
The first edition premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2019, the second at Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany in 2019, and the third at the Unlimited sector of Art Basel in 2021.
The Data-Verse trilogy relies on gigantic data sets from CERN, NASA and the Human Genome Project to create a visual and sonic cosmic experience across large projections, accompanied by a minimalist electronic soundtrack.
Continue exploring sound art:
- Exploring Carsten Nicolai’s Audiovisual Work
- The Life and Work of Alvin Lucier
- Seeing is Revealing: In Conversation with Emmanuel Van der Auwera
- Global Sound Art Exhibitions
- Iconic Works of Sound Art
- Female Sound Artists
- Sound Artists You Need to Know
- Sonic Art: An Overview
Cover Credit: Installation view of Test Pattern [No.5], 2013, at Carriageworks, Sydney. Photo: Zan Wimberley
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat