Breakfast with Ryoji Ikeda

Meeting the artist Ryoji Ikeda for the Financial Times, 29 November 2019

At breakfast in a Paris café, the artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda looks ageless in a soft black cap and impenetrably dark glasses, dressed all in black so as to resemble the avatar from an indie video game.

His work too is severe, the spectrum reduced to grayscale, light to pixels, sound to spikes. Yet Ikeda is no minimalist: he is interested in the complexity that explodes the moment you reduce things to their underlying mathematics.

An artist in light, video, sound and haptics (his works often tremble beneath your feet), Ikeda is out to make you dizzy, to overload your senses, to convey, in the most visceral manner (through beats, high volumes, bright lights and image-blizzards) the blooming, buzzing confusion of the world. “I like playing around with the thresholds of perception,” he says. “If it’s too safe, it’s boring. But you have to know what you’re doing. You can hurt people.”

Ikeda’s stringent approach to his work began in the deafening underground clubs of Kyoto. There, in the mid-1990s, he made throbbing sonic experiences with Dumb Type, a coalition of technologically adept experimental artists. And he can still be this immediate when he wants to be: visitors to the main pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale found themselves squeezed through “Spectra III” (first assembled in 2008), a white corridor so evenly and brightly lit your eyes rejected what they saw, leaving you groping your way out as if in total darkness.

These days, though, he is better known for installations that go straight for the cerebral and mathematical. His ongoing “data-verse” project consists of three massively complex computer animations. The first part, “data-verse 1”, is based on static data from CERN, Nasa, the Human Genome Project and other open sources. “data-verse” contains animations, tables, graphs, matrices, 3D models, Lidar projections, maps. But what is being depicted here: something very small, or very big? There’s no way to tell. The data have peeled away from the things they represent and are dancing their own pixelated dance. Numbers have become rivers. At last the viewer’s mind surrenders to the flow and rhythm of this frenetic 12-minute piece.

It would be polite to say that “data-verse” is beautiful — but it isn’t. Rather, it is sublime, evoking a world stripped back to its mathematical bones. “If it’s beautiful, you can handle it; the sublime, you cannot,” Ikeda says. “If you stand in some great whited-out landscape in Lapland, the Sahara or the Alps, you feel something like fear. You’re trying to draw inform­ation from the world, but it’s something that your brain cannot handle.”

Similarly, the symmetrical, self-similar “data-verse” is an artwork that your mind struggles to navigate, tugging at every locked door in an attempt to regain purchase on the world.

“You try to understand, but you give up — and then it’s nice. Because now you are experiencing this piece the same way you listen to music,” Ikeda says. “It’s simply a manipulation of numbers and relationships, like a musical composition. It’s very different from the sort of visual art where you’re looking through the surface of the painting or the sculpture to see what it represents.”

When we meet, Ikeda is on his way to Tokyo Midtown, and the unveiling of “data-verse 2” (this one based on dynamic data “like the weather, or stock exchanges”). The venue is Beyond Watchmaking, an exhibition arranged by his patron, the eccentric family-run Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet. The third part of data-verse is due to be unveiled next year.

It is a vastly ambitious project but Ikeda has always tended towards the expansive. He pulls out of his suitcase an enormously heavy encyclopedia of sonic visualisations. “I wanted you to see this,” he says with a touching pride, leafing through page after page of meticulously documented oscilloscoped forms. Encyclopedia Cyclo.id was compiled with his friend Carsten Nicolai, the German multimedia artist, in 1999. Each figure here represents a particular sound. The more complex figures resemble watch faces. “It’s for designers, really,” Ikeda shrugs, shutting the book, “and architects.”

And the point of this? That lawful, timeless mathematics underpins the world and all our activities within it.

Ikeda spends 10 months out of every 12 travelling: “I really work in the airport or the kitchen. I don’t like the studio.” Months spent working out problems on paper and in his head are interspersed with intense, collaborative “cooking sessions” with a coterie of exceptional coders — creative sessions in which all previous assumptions are there to be challenged.

However, “data-verse” is likely to be Ikeda’s last intensely technological artwork. At the moment he is inclining more towards music and has been arranging some late compositions by John Cage in a purely acoustic project. As comfortable as he is around microphones, amps and computers, Ikeda isn’t particularly affiliated to machines.

“For a long time, I was put in the media-art category,” he says, “and I was so uncomfortable, because so much of that work is toylike, no depth to it at all. I’m absolutely not like this.”

Ikeda’s art, built not from things but from quantities and patterns, has afforded him much freedom. But he is acutely aware that others have more freedom still: “Mathematicians,” he sighs, “they don’t care about a thing. They don’t even care about time. It’s very interesting.”

Turning over new leaves

Contemplating Trees at Fondation Cartier, Paris for the Financial Times, 1 August 2019

Trees, a group show at the Fondation Cartier in Paris featuring artists, botanists and philosophers, screams personality — by which I mean eccentricity, thought and argument. Appropriately, it’s an exhibition that lives and breathes. I hated some of it and walked out of the gallery grinning from ear to ear. It absolutely does its job: it makes trees treeish again.

The French state’s funding for the arts is generous in quantity but conservative in taste. It doesn’t fund the Fondation Cartier, leaving it free to be playful — to hang so-called “outsider” and indigenous artists alongside established names; to work with artists in the long term, developing and acquiring pieces as collaborations grow. In other words, Paris’s first private foundation for contemporary art is free to behave as a private patron should and to learn on the job.

Trees is the latest in a line of exhibitions conceived by the Fondation Cartier that seek to decentre humans’ view of ourselves as overlords of creation. In 2016, The Great Animal Orchestra exhibition (which visits London in October) sought to establish common intellectual ground between species. Trees goes further, seeking a rapprochement between two kingdoms, the animals and the plants.

Trees are weirdly hard to see because they hide in plain sight. “The tree is the chair on which we sit, the table we use to write, it is our cupboards, our furniture, but also our most ordinary tools,” as Parisian philosopher Emanuele Coccia writes in the exhibition catalogue.

Tree-blindness is made worse by a western intellectual inheritance. When Aristotle asserted in his De plantis that vegetable life is insensate, he was going against Plato, Anaxagoras, Democritus and Empedocles. And he was wrong: plants detect and react to temperature, humidity, air pressure, vibration, sound, touch, trauma and chemical information that we have no short names for. They respond to these sensations as quickly as any animal. They are not less than animals, but they are radically, mind-bendingly different.

A life among trees does things to the eye. Perspective is not much help in reading a treescape, while pattern recognition is vital. Work here by Kalepi, Joseca and Ehuana Yaira, Yanomami artists from the Amazon rainforest, explores the architectonic quality of trees, expressing them as entire bodies rather than (as the western eye prefers) complex assortments of twigs and leaves. The Paraguayan artists of the Gran Chaco region included here, meanwhile, express their forest home more through typology than through aesthetics. Theirs is a forest as well-stocked and well-ordered as a supermarket. Count all the little animals and plants laid out in rows: this is not a wilderness but a tally of self-renewing plenty. The general lesson seems to be that a forest is an environment that’s easier to read for what it contains than to swallow in one gulp.

Drawings and diagrams by contemporary botanist Francis Hallé honour natural history, a European tradition in which aesthetic knowledge and scientific knowledge run parallel. Twentieth-century laboratory-based science finds its way on to Fabrice Hyber’s huge canvases — like wall-sized notebook pages annotated with multicoloured scribbles, graphs, colour wheels and wave forms. In each, Hyber reduces the trees to a single trunk, or a trunk and a branch: a world of abstractions and generalis­ations. Cesare Leonardi’s meticulous drawings reveal the architectural potential of trees — a potential mischievously misappropriated in Peruvian photo­grapher Sebastian Mejía’s pictures of trees strained through fence wire, incorporated into walls or otherwise appropriated by the unliving city.

Some works here protest against the world’s breakneck deforestation. Thijs Biersteker, in collaboration with botanist Stefano Mancuso, offers a salve, wiring two trees in the Fondation’s extensive garden to scientific visualisations to help us empathise with what trees are sensing in real time. (This is more than a rhetorical flourish: the sense data that the piece collects are being corroborated and fed into scientific research, in a work that fulfils a dual artistic and scientific function.)

The lion’s share of the show is given over to Brazilian artist Luiz Zerbini, whose muted, simple monotypes and huge, complex, colourful canvases surround a table herbarium and a tree. The paintings are an Anthropocene jungle of sorts in which urban and natural forms hide in plain sight within a fiercely perpectiveless, rectilinear grid. Give your eyes time to adjust, and you find yourself in a city/forest of the future, where nature is exploited but not exhausted, and beauty and utility coexist.

These canvases suggest that we humans, having crafted our way out of the trees and developed those crafts on an industrial scale, can perhaps learn an even neater trick and make the whole human adventure last beyond this current, rapine moment

I came out of this show happy. I wasn’t just enthused. I’d been converted.

Recalling the Paris climate talks

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Taking a look at the artwork around COP21, the Paris climate talks, for New Scientist, 11 December 2015.

In the failing winter light, in full view of Paris’s Cité des Sciences et de L’Industrie, the dead are rising from the Canal de l’Ourcq. Municipal bicycles; shopping trolleys; a filing cabinet. Volunteers have hauled up these unedifying objects and the artist has mounted them just above the water’s surface.

The point, probably, is that in our ever more crowded, ever more connected world, there is no longer any “away” in which to throw anything; we must live with our waste, as surely as we must live with our past. Something like that. In any event Breaking the Surface by Michael Pinsky is, well, recycled: it has been done before (indeed, dates back to the work of artist Marcel Duchamp around 1913-15), and it makes a point that is an unwinning combination of the necessary and the overdone, like a parent always telling you to eat your greens.

I came to Paris to cover what was billed as an unprecedented cultural ferment around COP21, the UN conference on climate change. I expected more than a few mud-encrusted chairs and bikes.

But as the hours went by, and the days, and the kilometres, two painful truths become evident. First, there will be no ferment. The most exciting public events have been cancelled, scaled back, or hurriedly relocated. The recent terror attacks on Paris have seen to that, and the subsequent city-wide ban on demonstrations, not to mention the controversial decision to place local climate activists under house arrest.

Even more painful is the realisation that our current cultural responses to the wicked problem of climate change look as narrow, as blinkered, and as hard to communicate as the scientific ones. Climate change is no longer a purely scientific problem: it is a political and social truth we must handle as best we can. And we aren’t handling it. We can’t handle it. We haven’t got a clue.

So why is there so little in the cultural bank? On the face of it, art and culture have enough of the right kind of lenses to focus on the wicked problem’s wickedness and to prompt new thoughts, forge new understandings and settlements – maybe even spur new actions.

However, in the absence of any fresh currency, the organisers of ArtCOP21 – the cultural programme surrounding the talks, and running on well after any deal is brokered – had a duty to see what could be done with art-culture’s existing toolkit.

Take visualisation, making the invisible visible. Like Breaking the Surface, this is a very old game. But in the right hands it can work well, and arguably, one of the best pieces in Paris is EXIT at the Palais de Tokyo, a full and quite scary updating of an immersive video installation first shown in 2008.

In a dark room, an Earth 2 metres across moves remorselessly around a 360-degree screen. A sound like the chattering of millions accompanies six animated maps as they move round the screen, with their all too respectable data showing how the connection between humans and their environment has fallen off a cliff over the past seven years.

The titles speak volumes: Population Shifts: Cities; Remittances: Sending Money Home; Political Refugees and Forced Migration; Natural Catastrophes; Rising Seas, Sinking Cities; Speechless and Deforestation.

The pixels making up each map represent human experiences, some dots standing in for thousands of people on the move: does attachment to a place now have more to do with moving across it than living on it?

The man who inspired the work, philosopher Paul Virilio, captured its spirit in a separate film: “It’s almost as though the sky, and the clouds in it and the pollution of it, were making their entry into history.”

EXIT is a chilling but effective call to action by design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro, along with Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan, Ben Rubin and a host of others, exposing connections that would otherwise have been missed.

At the other end of the empathy spectrum is the deceptive work of Janet Laurence and Tania Kovats. On the face of things, both artists appear to be concerned more with aesthetic values rather than social and political ones. But in fact their exquisite, precise work is all about raw, tranformative emotion, the stuff that generates change without knowing how it does so.

Laurence’s Deep Breathing (Resuscitation for the Reef) at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle looks glacial and cool, with glass containers showing pieces of broken coral, shells and the skeletons of marine animals.

But the glass is meant to represent a resuscitation unit for the Great Barrier Reef, full of bleached-out dead and dying creatures – including some units that suggest babies in intensive care.

For environmental artist Laurence, the reef is not a tourist object but all about fragility: it invokes our need to heal it, to pity it, to love it. Emotion. What a great gig!

And for Tania Kovats, too. Evaporation is one of ArtCOP21’s highlighted works outside Paris: it premiered during the Manchester Science Festival in October and will show until March next year at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry.

As the recipient of a Lovelock Art Commission, which invites an artist to take inspiration from the work of independent scientist James Lovelock, her emotion is for water, for the planet’s seas as barometer of planetary health, for Gaia theory.

Kovats’s installation comprises three large, shallow, metal bowls made from the shapes of the world’s three major oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. A solution of salt and blue ink placed in each bowl gradually evaporates during the show, leaving crusts of salt crystals in concentric rings.

It is never the same again. It bears witness to the metaphorical movement of oceans, unlike the poem Dear Matafele Peinem, which is forced to bear witness to the real movement of water.

Waves of the future

Marshall Islander Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner first performed her poem at the 2014 UN climate meeting in New York. And she read it again – to a flash mob during a “cultural takeover” of London’s St Pancras International Station the day the conference opened.

The promises to her Buddha-fat baby that her generation would not let the waves of the future literally roll over the Marshall Islands should have been embarrassing:

And they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us
because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive…
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace
because we won’t let you down
you’ll see.

but they are more than that, they are terrible. Because no one can make such promises.

You can dream up perfectly legitimate ways to fix the world. Indeed, you jolly well should. The now pudgy little toddler Matafele won’t thank us for not trying. Ultimately, while scientists measure problems, and technologists can build tools to deal with them, what we do and when and how is a political issue. It is up to us.

Alternatiba, the global village of alternatives, was one of those grass-roots, left-leaning outings that are very easy to satirise (there were a lot of polar bear suits about, a lot of singing) but not, ultimately, so very easy to dismiss.

“Change the system, not the climate”, was the festival’s motto, the point being that our entire global civilisation is built on fossil fuels, and we’re unlikely to be able to wean ourselves off them without asking a lot of hard questions about our society.

The problem for Alterniba was that it brought together a whole set of perfectly reasonable local practices, from organic gardening to straw-bale house construction, and – in a paroxysm of magical thinking – posited them as global solutions.

“Think global, act local” is one of those phrases whose euphony masks its fatuity. No local solution is globally applicable. The trick is surely for everyone to act local and think local: not to tilt at “the system” willy-nilly, but – in the teeth of serious political and legislative opposition – to operate outside it.

Outside or inside the system, is it worthwhile to simply play with climate change? Tomás Saraceno thinks so. An artist obsessed with weightlessness, the sky and the possibilities offered by floating utopias, Saraceno is spearheading a global effort to resettle humanity in the atmosphere inside habitable solar balloons. Or something.

Uncertainties around the scale of project, its aims and the degree of seriousness we should assign to it, are part of Saraceno’s game. He is an artist, after all: questions and speculations are his stock in trade. In launching a handful of balloons made out of plastic bags, Saraceno raises some very good questions: about who owns what in the environment; where our individual physical freedom comes from, and who grants it; about risk, and responsibility, and civics, and community.

His Aerocene movement achieves what Alterniba cannot: it extricates itself from the global agenda set by global agencies and pursues (or at any rate dreams up) a blank canvas – the air itself! – for its tiny, winning experiments in featherweight living. Revolutions have sprung from less.

And in a world that has very little space and patience for revolutions, Saraceno’s chutzpah – and in the proper sense of the word, his naiveté – are much to be commended.

A grin without a cat

What happens to a body of artistic work when its presiding genius dies? It’s hard to imagine anyone finds it hard to hold in mind the cumulative effect of the works of J G Ballard, say, or even Dame Barbara Cartland. Mythomanes are, above all else, consistent.

But it’s consistency that matters – not personality. While he lived, the writer-artist-filmmaker Derek Jarman practically personified British metropolitan intellectual life. But it was his living personality that held his wildly varied (and variable) world together. Within a couple of months of his death, those of us who’d rated him were beginning to avoid making eye contact: day by day, the pleasures we had shared were ceasing to make any sense.

Time will heal Jarman’s reputation, but very slowly – and I think the work of Chris Marker – the videos, the writings, the photographs, the documentaries, the films, the CD-ROMs, the installations and all the rest of it – is likely to require as long a recuperation.

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The Whitechapel Gallery in the East End of London has put together a tremendous retrospective of the life and work of the French artist and documentary maker, who died in 2012. But the experience, as you move dumbfounded from screen to glass case to screen to keyboard, is neither one of pleasure, nor even admiration. In fact it’s cumulatively disturbing.

How can none of this mean anything any more? Is it the gallery, or is it you? (It’s you.) Even Marker’s filmed photo roman La Jetee (the easy one, the entry text, the one that got turned into Twelve Monkeys) slithers over your eyes as slick and as cold as an eel. Are you having some sort of stroke?

 

Alain Resnais called Marker “the prototype of the twenty-first-century man” and he wasn’t kidding. Marker was Mr Media Saturation, the living incarnation of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. His video mash-ups didn’t just capture the future. They somehow made it inevitable.

And that, of course, is the trouble. We are living in Marker’s world now, just as surely as we are living in Jarman’s. It’s damned hard to map a forest when you’ve been dropped slap-bang in the middle of it.

Feel your way, purblind, from one wall-mounted explanatory text to another. Most are in Marker’s own words. He understands your pain. He even gives it a name: “the megalomanic melancholy in the browsing of past images.”

For now, at least, Marker, the unwitting and posthumous author of his own explanatory texts, lives more fully and more vividly than his work, his subjects, his photographs of 1968, and students demonstrating against “a largely imaginary fascism”.

“In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats,” he writes. “But you don’t choose your time.”