Infinite Quest: Ryoji Ikeda Wants to Disappear

“I have a very strong belief–a policy–to not give any interviews,” Ryoji Ikeda, the elusive electronic composer and visual artist,

“I have a very strong belief–a policy–to not give any interviews,” Ryoji Ikeda, the elusive electronic composer and visual artist, said in an interview. Mr. Ikeda sat in a conference room on the second floor of the Park Avenue Armory with a window looking out on the building’s cavernous drill hall, where the artist’s latest work, “the transfinite,” was in the early stages of installation. “I want to explain,” he continued. “This,” he gestured to the window, “is everything. I really don’t want to speak about any concepts. Because there are no concepts.” Finally he laughed, breaking the growing tension. “If I say something that is a kind of answer, the audience will be stuck in what I am saying. And there are infinitely many answers.”

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Mr. Ikeda said he maps out concepts in his mind as he is working on a piece, but that these are discarded when the piece is complete; he said he “doesn’t remember much.” Whether this is true or just something he claims in order to evade playing his own critic hardly matters–Mr. Ikeda’s work is, objectively, difficult. His sound compositions often deal with the highest or lowest frequencies that the human ear is capable of hearing. His installations combine these audio limits with harsh visual stimuli–a digital chart, for instance, of the first seven million digits of a prime number so large it is beyond human comprehension, the numbers endlessly flashing and changing, responding to the music. He discovered at a certain point in his career that numerical systems were a way to visualize sound and has carried on, for years now, running philosophical conversations with mathematicians about the nature of numbers. His piece “V≠L,” inspired by a discussion with Harvard mathematician Benedict Gross about the definition of infinity, is an aesthetic representation of the titular mathematical equation, which posits that not every set of numbers is constructible, that there are limits to what can be perceived by the human mind. The piece involves snapshots of infinite numbers taken out of context. Mr. Ikeda believes this theory on infinity can lead to transcendence.

The installation “the transfinite” is his largest and most ambitious work to date. He has blacked out the windows of the drill hall–paradoxically, given the sophistication of the technology in Mr. Ikeda’s work, with construction paper–the better to display a screen the size of a small house that projects, on one side, binary code and, on the other, a series of infinite numbers culled from the human genome and the astronomical coordinates of the universe. The numbers respond to a score by Mr. Ikeda, composed characteristically of high and low frequencies, sounding less like music and more like an electronic device having a nervous breakdown. It is the culmination of Mr. Ikeda’s themes–transcendence through the incomprehensible, number systems as art objects, abrasive sound composition testing the threshold of perception; “the transfinite” situates him as one of the most original living visual (and sound) artists, even if he doesn’t feel much like talking about it.

Before I sat down with Mr. Ikeda, Rebecca Robertson, the president of the Park Avenue Armory, walked me around the drill hall, where a few dozen union workmen were running about frantically, holding power tools and tape measures. An enormous white screen ran nearly from floor to ceiling; beneath it was an even larger mat that covered a good portion of the 50,000-square-foot floor, one half of it white and the other black. Along the edges of the hall rested six black speakers, only a fraction of what will eventually be used in the performance. (The others hadn’t arrived yet.) Ms. Robertson and I were standing next to a giant crane that had been brought in for set-up and that rested next to two smaller cranes.

“I don’t frankly understand it,” Ms. Robertson said with a laugh. “Well I do, but it’s so abstract. You’re in this sea of data and numbers and sounds. You feel like you’re in infinity.” The sound of power tools reverberated through the hall, intermittently mixed with preliminary soundchecking of Mr. Ikeda’s composition–an ear-piercing, pulsating noise with no tone or melody that overpowered everything else in the space. Before leading me into the conference room, Ms. Robertson added ominously, “I hope he talks to you. He doesn’t like to talk.”

Mr. Ikeda greeted me wordlessly wearing a pair of sunglasses and a slight frown. His face was smooth and boyish aside from the thin layer of stubble over his top lip and along his chin. His body was rail-thin, but his arms were awkwardly muscular from years of steady installation work. He had a patch of thinning hair at the back of his head, the rest of it arranged in a small black tuft that pointed, ever so slightly, toward the ceiling. He was dressed in a white T-shirt, cuffed jeans and black boots. Still frowning, he poured me a cup of black coffee, his hand shaking with caffeine jitters, then splashed the remainder of the pot into his own cup. He slumped into a swiveling chair at the head of the room’s large wooden table, sighed deeply and rubbed his face.

“So many interviews,” he murmured. “It’s really tiring.” He mumbled at first before reiterating he didn’t want to discuss any of the concepts in his work.

“My approach is very practical,” he said, “not conceptual.”

Mr. Ikeda was born in the Japanese countryside. He played guitar in a rock band when he was 13, which is how he first became interested in music, but he was not skilled with the instrument. At 18, he left for the city to attend the University of Tokyo. When I asked him what he studied his face grew stern and he said, “I studied nothing.” He could not remember what the program he went to school for was called (“economics or something”). He claims the only reason he graduated was because he gave a professor a large bottle of sake. After this small miracle, he spent most nights D.J.’ing in clubs in Tokyo.

“I learned everything in the clubs,” he said. “Nothing intellectual, just, ‘boom boom boom.’ Twenty years ago the club scene was completely different from now. It was all like this scale,” he gestured to his work in progress, “really extreme. I don’t see me as having really progressed from clubs to here.” He threw his gaze around the room. “I mean, I’m 44 years old. I can’t play clubs anymore. I’m a middle-aged man and I do installations but it feels the same as when I was a 25-year-old D.J. Technically, my artistic method has become really sophisticated, but I think at the core, it’s the same as it always was.”

He became warm and friendly as we talked about music, something he said art critics rarely want to discuss. This is understandable. Like the incomprehensibly vast numbers Mr. Ikeda displays in his work, his music is remarkably abstract. He disregards rhythm, melody, tone and scale in favor of mapping out the limitations of the equipment he uses, as well as how these extremes register physiologically with the listener. “Test Pattern,” for instance, a work from 2008 that lays some of the groundwork for “the transfinite,” converts data into binary code and projects it onto a large screen while a composition made up of the lowest and highest perceptible frequencies plays, the code responding to the audio cues. It is, according to Mr. Ikeda, “as much a test for the electronic devices” as it is for the audience’s senses.

His most accessible work, the ethereal album Op. (the abbreviation for “opus”), provides the easiest entry point into his style–or really his absolute lack of one. The work is the exception in Mr. Ikeda’s oeuvre: as the liner notes state with daunting bluntness, there are “no electronic sounds used.” Instead, Mr. Ikeda first recorded each part for piano, flute, violin and viola onto a computer, a formless kind of symphony that was written, more or less, spontaneously. He then hired copyists to transcribe the piece onto sheet music, then guided an acoustic orchestra in playing it, creating a kind of translation, twice removed, of the music in Mr. Ikeda’s head. It is the closest thing listeners have to an Ikeda manifesto–a strange combination of organic sounds playing toneless music, sounding pretty in spite of themselves, constructing order out of Mr. Ikeda’s chaos and droning with such tension that it seems like the notes, each fighting against the context of any conventional theoretical understanding of music, are calling out in pain.

“There’s no message to what I do,” he said. “It’s very pure. It’s like a Lego.” He locked together his fingers. “Lights and sound, the music and the visual, they melt together. You see, tomorrow I’ll do the soundcheck, but until then, I don’t even know how it will fit.”

A few days later I returned to the Armory to see the nearly finished work. At the entrance, the 40-foot-tall, 60-foot-wide screen projected binary code in quick, fluid patterns, a collage of black and white flashes that looked something like white lines moving dizzyingly past a car speeding down the highway. On the other side of the screen, the room was comparably dark and even a bit frightening. The floor was painted black. On view was the equally hypnotic movement of numbers and data, racing just as fast along the screen, with literally millions of tiny digits arising and then disappearing in fast motions, looking from a distance like television static or a swell of gnats buzzing against a white wall. The glow from the screens reflected onto the steel trusses of the Armory’s mammoth shell. Mr. Ikeda, adorned in all black now, sat at a table, silent and stonelike, both illuminated and obscured by his work, the shadows of numbers falling across his face. He was back to not talking as he stared at the endless data whizzing by on the screen. I remembered his parting words to me in our interview in the conference room.

“Compared to our planet or our universe,” Mr. Ikeda said, “I can maybe contribute some interesting thing for a New York audience, and absolutely I try my best each time, but it’s very little. And that’s nice, especially as a Japanese, because that’s part of my philosophy of no interviews or no portraits. I want to disappear. ‘Myself’ is not important. The thing, I made it, but it is everything. So this feeling, maybe you can see that in the experience of the work. The installation speaks better than me. I’m inconsistent. Tomorrow, I’ll say something completely different.”

“Artists,” he sighed. “It’s better to not say anything.”

Infinite Quest: Ryoji Ikeda Wants to Disappear