Riyoji Ikeda & Daniel Buren

July 13, 2018
Riyoji Ikeda's 'Micro/Macro'

Artists are forever striving to show us the world in a new light but not many can claim to be “probing the fundamental structure of the universe.” This is the domain of science and, more specifically, of CERN – the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, located on the border of France and Switzerland. In 2014-15, Japanese multi-media artist, Riyoji Ikeda (b.1966), undertook a residency at CERN, where he worked alongside physicists and mathematicians, learning about the smallest sub-atomic particles.

With today’s most sophisticated technology there are still limits as to what we can see. In order to measure the very smallest particles you would need an impossibly large particle accelerator, perhaps as big as the galaxy, or even the universe.

The smallest unit for measuring mass, time and energy is known as a Planck length, after the physicist, Max Planck, who did the theoretical calculations in 1899. It’s almost inconceivably small, a discovery of mathematics with no physical presence, yet it feeds into the grandest, astronomical speculations. The concept has played an important role in the development of String Theory and the analysis of black holes.

Riyoji Ikeda’s ‘Micro/Macro’ – the apocalyptic Test Pattern

This connection between the sub-atomic world and the farthest reaches of the cosmos provided the inspiration for Ikeda’s installation, Micro/Macro (2015) at Carriageworks. I’ve seen many works at the interface of art and science but nothing as powerful as this nine-minute sequence, which consists of a wall projection measuring 10.8 metres high by 20 metres long and a floor projection of approximately the same size. The wall is the macro, the floor the micro. We are asked to take off our shoes and stand in the midst of the micro projection. It feels a bit like walking the wrong way on a moving footpath while being bombarded with rapidly changing imagery and throbbing, buzzing sound.

Meanwhile the screen in front of our eyes is dividing and subdividing into increasingly complex grids on which red and white particles spread with explosive force. It’s hard to look away as the screen bursts into a rapid-fire procession of supernovas. Dots and lines are multiplying around our feet, then it’s a barrage of bar codes accompanied by the crackling sounds of data being crunched. Across thin, flickering lines of light, a menacing red beam is moving inexorably towards us.

Riyoji Ikeda’s ‘Micro/Macro’ – Sci fi meets Hi Fi

Those who have seen Ikeda’s earlier installations at Carriageworks in 2013 and 2105, will know what to expect, but this is easily his most awe-inspiring piece. Mesmeric and immersive, these dual projections have a fearful sense of urgency. We’re watching as atoms collide and stars implode. Our bodies are buffeted by waves of electronic information converted into incomprehensible clusters of lines, dots and grids.

It’s not at all like the banal CGI spectacles of Hollywood movies. Micro/Macro is no scriptwriter’s fantasy but a visceral experience that relates to the very structure of matter, or the universe. One feels that Ikeda’s imagery has been plotted with mathematical precision, allowing us to view a perfectly logical apocalypse from a God’s-eye perspective. If you thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was the ultimate trip, please note: there’s been an update.

Daniel Buren’s ‘Like Child’s Play’

In another cavernous chamber at Carriageworks one may view Like Child’s Play (Comme un jeu d’enfant), by French artist, Daniel Buren (b.1938), which might be described as a gigantic model city made from wooden blocks.

Ikeda shows us the building blocks of matter but Buren evokes the aesthetic implulse – the instinctive need to build, to arrange shapes and forms in pleasing configurations. He draws on the blocks designed by the German educationalist, Friedrich Fröbel (1782-1852), that have held children’s attention for many generations. It’s only recently that all manual toys seem to have been supplanted by digital distractions.

Buren may not have been thinking of Sydney when he conceived this piece, which was first exhibited in Strasbourg in 2014, but it’s only too appropriate for an urban landscape that is being refashioned into a forest of apartment complexes designed on the principle of building blocks. Everywhere one looks there is another row of undistinguished boxes, forming solid corridors on either side of increasingly crowded roads. The historical character of the inner suburbs is being obliterated by faceless over-development.

Daniel Buren’s ‘Like Child’s Play’ – stripe vision

The Carriageworks installation may be seen as an ironic comment on urban redevelopment but Buren is not beating any particular drum. Throughout his long career he has made remarkably simple works that look purely formal at first glance. Seen in isolation they would be abstractions. It is the placement that ‘completes’ a work and generates a range of meanings, particularly in relation to public space. As with Wallace Stevens’s famous poem, Anecdote of the Jar (1919) Buren demonstrates that art doesn’t merely inhabit a space but actively transforms it.

Buren’s signature motif is the stripe, and examples may be found from the Palais Royale in Paris to Tokyo Bay. It may seem a ruthless imposition on a public place, but Buren is a lot subtler than his critics imagine. By nature he is a sceptic, even an iconoclast, who has used his stripes to challenge received ideas about art and architecture.

Daniel Buren’s ‘Like Child’s Play’ – white into colour

Like Child’s Play is in two distinct parts: in the first the blocks are pure white, in the second they are vividly coloured. A circular tunnel bored through a central row of blocks connects the two parts. Inside the tunnel one finds the artist’s famous stripes. Buren is obviously interested in the psychology of colour – the clinical neutrality of white as opposed to the cheerfulness signified by the coloured blocks, when the actual forms are identical.

The tunnel draws the two parts into a relationship and opens a window into the work that allow us to see each other. Buren’s toy city is not a fortress in which to hide but a playground in which we are continually exchanging glances. It undermines the sense of alienation we almost automatically associate with densely clustered, towering buildings.

The effect is easier to achieve in a work of art which can be gloriously useless, than in a real urban development. For Buren that may be precisely why we need art – to question and gently mock the rigid formulae followed by so many architects and developers. For to live in environments devoid of imagination is to risk having one’s own imagination starved and deformed. It’s not just the children that need somewhere to play.

Riyoji Ikeda: Micro/Macro, 4-19 July, 2018
Daniel Buren: Like Child’s Play, until 7 July – 12 August, 2018
Carriageworks

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July, 2018