The first time I experienced a Ryoji Ikeda piece was at the David Toop-curated Sonic Boom exhibition at the Heyward in 2000. The work was in illustrious company – Brian Eno had a piece on the roof space, a weird thing where you wore headphones that picked up signals from wires strung across the space, a not-yet-quite-so famous Christian Marclay showed his Guitar Drag film and there were contributions from Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and the legendary Finnish duo Pan Sonic. The young Japanese artist’s piece stood out. You walked through a blindingly white plastic corridor, lit in hot white halogen, and experienced the oscillations produced as you transited between speakers emitting pure sin waves. It contained the essence of Ikeda’s work of this period: minimal to the point of microscopic attention to the physical bases of sound, procuring an intense relationship between space and the perception of sound in space, enveloped in intense light. It sounds chilly, but the effect was warm and immersive.
There’s a version of that piece in the current retrospective at 180 The Strand and the amplitude and intensity have increased in the intervening 20 years. The corridor is blinding: I had to raise my hands to protect my eyes to make it through. It’s an experience that verges on the properly sublime, an experience that is almost-too-much: the light is not at the end of the tunnel, the light is the tunnel. The limits of perception are the edges at which Ikeda works: his breakthrough recorded release, 1997’s +/- on Touch made big (small) waves in the sound-art/installation scene for just this reason. Tones at the upper limits of the human auditory spectrum strung out the ears: you became even more intensely aware of them once they had ceased. He pushed the aesthetic with 0°C and Matrix (for Spaces) on the same label. Pulses, bleeps and digital drums were programmed to repeat and stretch into blankets of sound that mapped the spaces in which they were played, responding to materiality with shifts in tone and texture. This was sound made within computers that used the specificity of digital processing to test the human response to it. It was made for CD and headphones.
If ever there was a sound artist whose work’s natural home is CD, Ikeda is it. I remember Mike Harding, label boss at Touch, telling me with some excitement that CD was the optimum medium for mastering silence, which could be achieved with a simple absence of digital information. Not so much vinyl. The spacious needle and groove vibration of vinyl that adds warmth and depth to a music like dub threatens to muddy Ikeda’s work, whose essential characteristic is precision: the ultrasonic microtone that reveals its true depth when juxtaposed with absence. The Vinyl Factory’s support for Ikeda is therefore curious, if enormously welcome. You can’t help but wonder why scratchy vinyl specialists, even if they’ve in recent years developed a strong practice curating installation work, are fetishizing this meister-bleeper.
At 180 The Strand a selection of Ikeda’s career highlights and two intense new pieces are arranged around a subterranean space that has been furnished for the purpose. You’re given shoe protectors on entry because you’ll be shuffling around on lots of thick pile black and white carpet, a cushioning attention to a third sense to enable the intensity of the sound and light to stand out while holding you in a comfortable tactile environment. I was particularly grateful for this carpet in the room which houses the data-verse trilogy, three floor-to-ceiling screens running films on a twenty-minute loop: I settled down in the carpet for the duration to allow complete submersion in Ikeda’s data-flood.
The physicality of the experience shifts in front of different pieces. A (continuum) places six vast Meyer SB-1 speakers around a large subterranean room with pillars. The rich, symphonic A tone, sampled from hundreds of sources, fills the space and body where it can. point of no return has a black circle painted onto a white screen, against which a strobing light intensifies the blackness of the circle. This is cosmic minimalism: pared back and framed in the intensity of physical forces, Ikeda’s evocation of the events horizon of a black hole. test pattern presents split barcodes, flickering and glitching across the floor in sharp monochrome blocks, a visual rendering of binary data to accompany the strobing audio piece.
The data-verse trilogy is the culmination, an overwhelming flow of data visualisation that looks like the mapping of the entirety of human knowledge by an advanced intelligence, building from the microscopic to the macroscopic: cells to stars and planets and systems. Rapidly sequenced still images flicker across the screens before sonar blips divert the flow into another direction.
In one passage the entirety of one huge screen is filled with multiple brain scans in motion. The pieces are sound-tracked by digital chatter and intense, pure tones sharply cut between distinct frequencies. The aesthetic would have Hollywood producers gasping: this is what they want their futuristic tech to look and sound like. Ikeda is about a decade ahead. These pieces deliver a statement of the perspective of the work: it is extra-human, or supra-human, utilising the points at which the external meets our perception to better scope the limits of what we are. The experience is intense, but also calming, a reset to the dominance of the internal.