Ryoji Ikeda: A multisensory exploration of light and sound

A light installation

With a major exhibition opening at 180 The Strand in May, we took the opportunity to speak to visionary transmedia artist Ryoji Ikeda about his mind-bending immersive installations. Watch the video for a quick preview of the show, and hear from Ikeda himself about the inspirations behind his key pieces, including the immersive ‘data-verse’ trilogy

By Jonathan Openshaw

Ryoji Ikeda is truly an artist for our age, taking the complex data sets that surround us and turning them into physical experiences that snap at the synapses. Seeing an Ikeda exhibition in the flesh is as close as you’re ever likely to get to stepping inside a quantum computer. And indeed, you may come out the other side feeling as if you’ve been slightly spaghettified by forces beyond your understanding.
The total sensory immersion that defines his work partly comes from the fact that he identifies as a musician first and foremost. Performing legendary DJ sets accompanied by his trademark monochromatic visuals, Ikeda has been collaborating with experimental musician Carsten Nicolai for the past 20 years. And in 2005, he released dataplex; a series of 20 minimalist electronica recordings with German avant-garde label Raster-Noton. 
In the UK, this sonic focus led him into a long-term collaboration with record label The Vinyl Factory, which culminates this summer at 180 The Strand with the largest survey of his work to date. The perfect setting for Ikeda’s creations, the labyrinth-like interior of 180 will be given over to 12 large-scale installations, including his ‘data-verse’ trilogy – a triple-screen project commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary.
‘For me, it’s a very musical piece,’ Ikeda tells us, when we caught up during the installation of the work, which blends vast data sets drawn from sources as varied as the Human Genome Project and NASA. ‘If biologists see this piece, they probably won’t understand the cosmological part, but they will understand the structure of a protein. And vice versa, you know – cosmologists don’t so much care about DNA patterns.’ For Ikeda, no matter your expertise or depth of knowledge, there’s a point where you have to just relinquish yourself to the physical experience and revel in the soundtrack of the universe.

‘The placing and the pacing of the exhibition is a response to the nature of the physical space itself’

‘The placing and the pacing of the exhibition is a response to the nature of the physical space itself,’ Ikeda explains. ‘The entire exhibition is based very much on physical experience, not only intellectual content. It begins with works that give very intense, very simple experiences, and then the works get more complicated as you progress.’
One of the works premiering at 180 this summer is point of no return, a piece that emulates the visual experience of a black hole. ‘It’s a very simple, very intense work where I paint a black circle on the wall and project light around it, intensifying its blackness,’ says Ikeda. ‘Watching it, you get a bit scared, it becomes a bit overwhelming.’ Confronting the uncomfortable is another fundamental part of Ikeda’s approach, leaving the viewer slightly discombobulated by the scale of what they’ve experienced.
Other pieces are the latest iteration of longer term projects for Ikeda, such as test pattern, which he has explored in various forms since 2008 – perhaps most notably in a giant 50-screen takeover of New York’s Times Square back in 2014. ‘This piece started with my live set, where I decided to show the binary expression of music behind me on a screen: left and right; ones and zeros; black and white. You cannot reduce things further than this and everything in the universe has a binary pattern once you amplify it enough.’
There are big ideas at play in Ikeda’s deceptively minimalist work, but the beauty of experiencing them is that you can take them on any level – as a sensory blast or intellectual meditation. It’s art that demands engagement, whether you’re seeing a pretty light show or glimpsing the fabric of the cosmos.
Ryoji Ikeda runs from 20 May to 1 August 1 2021; presented by Fact Magazine and The Vinyl Factory. For tickets, visit: ryojiikeda.seetickets.com
Interested in becoming a member?