Superposition — Image via

Ryoji Ikeda: superposition

Walker Art Center

Sound artist Ryoji Ikeda has referred to his audiovisual piece superposition, which received its first Twin Cities performances this past weekend at the Walker Art Center, as a symphony. That description that turns out to be more apt than those familiar with Ikeda’s previous work might expect. Of course, on the surface, superposition‘s formal structure as a 65-minute work in four movements resembles that of many a symphony. But more to the point, like the quintessential examples of the symphony genre, Ikeda’s piece is devoted to the juxtaposition, elaboration, and resolution of contrasting themes. In the case of superposition, though, these themes are not so much musical ideas as they are seemingly antithetical frameworks — things like data vs. emotion, interpretation vs. absorption, the systematic vs. the arbitrary — that collide, call each other into question, and vie for control of the spectator’s perception.

Musically, like the bulk of Ikeda’s work, superposition is based on a vocabulary of pure tones, bass-heavy ambient soundscapes, beats, glitches, and white noise. All of these sounds are synced to images — ranging from text and video feeds to waveforms and abstract vector graphics — that display on one large wall-mounted projector screen and 20 smaller video screens arrayed at the front of the stage. Between the screens is a long table at which two performers, Stéphane Garin and Amélie Grould, periodically sit to operate inputs such as telegraphs, tuning forks, and microfilm reels. The audio and visual elements introduced by the performers (whose presence is a relative novelty in Ikeda’s oeuvre), in dialogue with the preprogrammed elements, serve as building blocks for the ongoing development of the piece.

Long inspired by mathematics, Ikeda based superposition on concepts from the cutting-edge field of quantum computing. Refreshingly among contemporary artists, however, Ikeda is careful to acknowledge that the piece’s conceptual underpinnings are not the point, but rather the means of getting to the point, which is the audience’s experience of the piece. And that experience is a powerful, often overwhelming one. superposition acts on both the mind and the body in ways that blur the boundaries between the two, reaching points of staggeringly assaultive complexity while remaining anchored to an underlying pulse that sometimes fades into the background but never disappears completely. (Ikeda did, after all, begin his career as a DJ.)

In spewing forth more information than one person could possibly absorb, superposition simultaneously seizes your attention, demanding that you see the world its way, and allows you to experience it through the lens of your own understanding, investing it with meanings of your own selection. It’s a thrilling ride, and one looks forward to where Ikeda and his collaborators will take their artistry next.

Photo by Fidelis Fuchs

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.