My husband couldn’t take it. The stentorian electronic heaving combined with pulsing black-and-white stripes projected on to the floor, the high wall and on to the audience’s bodies made him queasy, and he fled the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall for the relative serenity of the lobby.
Less susceptible to overload, I stuck it out a while longer. Ryoji Ikeda’s monster installation “The Transfinite” certainly rocks the senses. The claustrophobia-inducing son et lumière saturates one of New York’s most vast indoor spaces with booms, ticks, wails and reams of data flashing on multiple screens. Depending on your constitution, you may find this intolerable, captivatingly assaultive or transcendent.
In mathematics, transfinite numbers occupy a conceptual middle ground between finite and infinite, and Ikeda has adopted the term to evoke something of barely conceivable and almost – but not quite – boundless dimensions. In a blackened anteroom, a fast-scrolling text outlines the artist/composer’s aim. “Beauty,” he explains, “is crystal: rationality, precision, simplicity, elegance, delicacy,” while the sublime “is infinity: infinitesimal, immensity, indescribable, ineffable.” The goal is to merge art and awe.
Go from the little hallway into the darkened Drill Hall – suffused with sonic and visual vibrations – but before proceeding any further you must pause to take off your shoes. This is partly for practical reasons, since you’ll be standing on the screen itself, which spills down from the ceiling and across the floor. But the shoe removal is also a ritual, which transforms an all-purpose, slightly shabby hangar into a sacred precinct and a place of private experience.
Spirituality does not mean Zen-like quiet, though. Ikeda would rather agitate than soothe. In sock feet, you approach the glowing runway, where black horizontal bands of varying thickness sputter and blink to a soundtrack that beats in your head and shudders through your limbs. The erratic stripes are all around, enclosing the audience in a throbbing barcode cage, so that each silhouetted visitor becomes part of everyone else’s experience. There’s an elusive rigour to the relationship between visual and acoustic patterns: Ikeda composed and recorded the synthetic thuds and whoops, and software translates them into alternations of light and dark. Sound and light express each other in a circuit that strips time away. The experience absorbs and repels, mesmerises and disquiets. It feels like hearing your own heartbeat – amplified, jerky and out of control.
When the loop ends – or sooner – you plunge into the surrounding blackness and emerge around the other side of the giant screen where shards of data dimly flit and flicker. The first part of “The Transfinite” pummels; the next section keens. Electronic yowls pierce the space, while quieter clicks stutter from a line of boxes running across the black-carpeted floor. A screen embedded on the top of each noisy little altar shows a map of solar systems or a stream of DNA code from the human genome. These separate torrents of data meet on the large screen in a frenzied cataract of numbers that, as the music crescendos, explode and instantly reassemble themselves into a grid of random ciphers.
Ikeda makes drama out of data. He exposes the way binary code permeates our lives on every scale, from the molecular to the galactic; it is invisible but ubiquitous, and he makes that manifest by translating the computer’s language of zeroes and ones into the minimalist’s palette of black and white. “The Transfinite” recreates in sensual terms the world’s infernal computational hum.
Ikeda aims to transport the audience to some ideal realm, yet with this work he is also helping the Armory to form a distinctive urban identity. Built in 1880 for a militia regiment that included scions of the city’s upper crust, the building combines the qualities of an industrial facility and a gentleman’s club. Panelled walls and Tiffany windows adorn the chambers by the entrance. Beyond is the iron-vaulted Drill Hall, which has lately become a playground for artists of outsized imaginations.
Originals such as Ikeda, the Paris-based Japanese composer and visual artist who is almost unknown in the US, can help the Armory cultivate a rough and raw aesthetic amid the overweening staidness of the Upper East Side. (Next season, the Royal Shakespeare Company will insert a full-scale replica of its own theatre there.)
Many enormous artworks fail to justify their size, but “The Transfinite” does not, because it’s hard to imagine installing it anywhere more intimate. In its combination of aggressive grandeur and obsessive detail, of magnification and miniaturisation, of focused chime and cosmic roar, the piece makes visitors feel at once like colossi and specks. The work demands a space large enough to create a feeling of systematic enwombment that leaves you both flailing and cramped, awash in a dark sea and tense with the need to flex your brain beyond the limits that Ikeda has defined.
‘Ryoji Ikeda’ continues until June 11