Ryoji Ikeda’s untitled exhibition at Amos Rex is catchy. As soon as the automatic doors between the foyer and the exhibition hall slide open, viewers are met with layer upon layer of sound: crystalline radar-like blips emerge from muffled noise, pointillist crackles, chunks of deep rumble. The first impression is total immersion in an all-encompassing world of intense and relentless sound.
It sums up Ikeda’s biography: sound comes first. He made his debut under his own name in 1996 with the album +/-, and for some years was known primarily as an experimental electronic musician. Around twenty years ago, he began to incorporate his compositions into massive installations, doing so with extraordinary effortlessness. The consistency of Ikeda’s practice is astounding, almost as if it was already fully formed when he began his DJ career in Tokyo all those years ago.
Thus, the darkness, noise, and blips that are the first impressions at Amos Rex. They are as effective as they are simple. All texts have been kept out of the exhibition space, allowing the darkness to reach maximum sensory impact, in stark contrast to the bright white of the entrance. The result was a temporary blindness as my eyes tried to adjust, though a real visual assault awaited me behind the wall blocking out the main space. The installation mass (2023) is preceded by a warning for flickering lights, but its intensity still comes as a shock for the retina. The enormous video, projected on the floor, consists of pure stroboscopic light. Rings of white and black ripple out at frenetic pace over a square screen – like a window to another dimension, a journey into a black hole, a panorama over a mushroom cloud.
Mass is one of two new site-specific works which Ikeda has produced for Amos Rex. The more unassuming spin (2023) is a kinetic laser sculpture, shown directly above mass, in one of the ceiling’s asymmetric window recesses. In a continual loop, spin draws perfect circles which occasionally overlap to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. The accompanying soundtrack of crisp blips is feather-light but steady as clockwork, pinging out over the noise that erupts from mass like a kind of divine pulse.
The museum’s peculiar subterranean architecture, with its black vaulted ceiling and dark floor, has previously been used to showcase ancient Egyptian artefacts, modernist paintings, photorealistic sculpture, and modern classical music. These have been generally successful, but the resonance that occurs between the space and Ikeda’s work far exceeds any of those efforts. The huge installations data-verse 1 and 2 (both 2019) as well as data.gram [n°5] (2023) give the impression that Amos Rex was designed specially to contain them. The darkness makes the spaces feel larger than they actually are, and everything except the artworks dissolves away from reality. It echoes Ikeda’s attempt to make art that eschews specific cultural references. His conceptual starting point as a musician is an attempt to compose in a manner which is as universal as mathematics: untainted by associations and totally objective.
Creating work with the beauty and purity of mathematics inevitably leads to abstraction, which can be intrinsically decoded with the use of logic. This means that even without melody, Ikeda’s compositions aren’t difficult to simply enjoy. His use of high and low frequency sine waves to explore the outermost periphery of human hearing is engaging in itself. But intellectual explanations aren’t magic. It’s no coincidence that Ikeda’s minimalist techno piece data.matrix has a hundred times more Spotify plays than the dissonant squeak of data.googolplex, despite both being from the same album, dataplex (2005). Nevertheless, the success of the two pieces cannot only be judged on aesthetic criteria because dataplexis so firmly rooted in the transformation of data into audio – a concept that Ikeda has continued to use and which has resulted in a large number of installation works.
At Amos Rex, it’s this side of Ikeda that comes to the fore. Mass and spin are mesmerising siblings that introduce Ikeda’s concepts before leading us onwards into the dataplex. The video installation data-verse is a trilogy first shown at the 58th Venice Biennale (2019), and has now been adapted for maximum compatibility with its new surroundings. Two screens are positioned in the middle of the room with their backs to each other, highlighting that data-verse 1 and 2 are conceptually two sides of the same coin. The ghost of the absent data-verse 3 can be sensed in the secluded positioning of data.gram [n°5], an installation in which short loops are spread across nine smaller screens. It works like a taster for its massive, two-part neighbour, but ultimately data-verse 1 and 2 steal the show.
The two pieces on the screens have exactly the same duration of 11 minutes and 40 seconds, both showing torrents of information which zoom past at breakneck speed. Ikeda has collected an incredible amount of scientific data, which is represented as animations: particle collisions, molecular structures, topographies, coordinates in the galaxy… The sequencing and shifts in scale give the work a heightened emotional charge. It takes us from inside to outside, micro to macro. Along the way, we see a human brain, maps of cities, and movement over the Earth’s surface, leading up to a climax of exploding stars which suddenly send colours cascading down over us, while the soundtrack goes bananas.
Ikeda may be known for minimalism and abstraction, but when it comes down to it, this is a kind of pathos that only a human is capable of. It is nothing less than liberating to submit to the kind of emotional manipulation that tugs at us from beneath data-verse’s intellectual surface and to allow ourselves to marvel at life, the universe, everything. During the analysis of a DNA sequence, we see a list of all the diseases to which this particular genetic code is predisposed. The names of various cancer variants and hereditary syndromes flutter across the screen as if from an invisible source, but a few minutes later it doesn’t matter any more because the universe will end one day. “None of this shit matters, and that’s OK!” someone ecstatically commented beneath video documentation of data-verse on Youtube. In fact, it’s almost like reaching nirvana.