Entering Japanese artist/composer Ryoji Ikeda’s new installation “the transfinite,” which is currently showing at the Park Avenue Armory, feels like sitting inside of a computer. Viewers enter the Armory’s giant Wade Thompson Drill Hall to find an enormous screen 54 feet wide and 40 feet tall lit up with flickering projections of grayscale lines coalescing into geometric shapes. The experience might call to mind a really trippy nightclub on mute.
Upon entering the space, viewers are instructed to take off their shoes and sit on the floor, which is cool to the touch. Crackles of electronic music, the kind that often accompanies cheesy movies about hacking computers, is blasted through giant speakers. Ikeda’s video is projected onto the facing wall as well onto the floor that participants sit on. The installation is almost interactive; to truly experience the work, you have to immerse yourself in it.
Around the back of the screen, there’s another section of the installation. On the wall, a different video is projected, this one filled with actual computer code as opposed to abstract patterns. On the floor rest several TV screens in black cases showing computer code, geometric shapes and seas of dots representing the milky way. Sound cheesy? It is.
In terms of entertainment, “the transfinite” is a complete triumph. I saw people sit in the first portion of the installation for over an hour straight, marveling at the sight before them. It’s a complete sensory experience; the wild, frenetic projections, the alien music and the cool feel of the ground combine to create a gallery experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The first section of the work is simultaneously relaxing and stimulating, comforting and overwhelming. The second portion is more frenetic, less interactive and less comfortable, but the moving images are still strangely mesmerizing.
In the overblown exhibition text and brochure, Ikeda describes the concept behind all of his work to be influenced by the concepts of the “beautiful” and the “sublime.” Philosopher Edmund Burke (a source who goes uncredited in the attendant text) described the beautiful as being small and easily understood, while he referred to the sublime as vast and incomprehensible, to the point of being frightening. the transfinite only reflects the latter. The incomprehensible images of code are just as Kristy Edmunds, the artistic director of the piece, described them: “more than a bit confrontational.”
“the transfinite”‘s projected images of the 0’s and 1’s of code suggests that Ikeda is examining the idea that our world is controlled by unseen forces of technology. But I agree with New York Times reviewer Ken Johnson when he writes, “As a whole, ‘the transfinite’ is futuristic in a way that already feels dated, like a set for a 1990s science-fiction movie.”
My first thought when moving into the second portion of “the transfinite” was that the piece bore a strong resemblance to The Matrix. The idea that reality is just a complex series of code is a familiar one; Morpheus already told us so. In that reguard, Ikeda says nothing new. He does not explore how this form of altered reality impacts how we perceive the world; he merely reaffirms that it exists. Cory Arcangel’s current Pro Tools exhibition at the Whitney Museum makes more of a critical statement on technology and our relationship to it.
Despite the fact that Ikeda’s high-minded concept goes unrealized, “the transfinite” is a spectacular work, though perhaps not for those who suffer from epilepsy or hate nightclubs. Visual art as entertainment can be a goal in itself, and “the transfinite” is beyond entertaining, even without a particularly insightful meaning. It’s an incredibly absorbing work, and I found it surprisingly easy to sit there watching lines and squares dance for a long, long time. The Matrix was a hit for a reason, after all. If you have 12 bucks to spare and you’d rather go to a museum than see Bridesmaids, “the transfinite” provides a more than satisfying experience.
Here are some videos of the installation that I shot with my iPhone. If you’re in the mood for a seizure, check them out:
Ryoji Ikeda: the transfinite is open at the Armory (643 Park Avenue) through June 11