Superposition: Ryoji Ikeda

Gina Fairley

Sensory overload and the need for earplugs are hardly marketing gold, but Ikeda's new production transports you with a sense of wonder.
Superposition: Ryoji Ikeda

Superposition as performed at Carriageworks; supplied

Superposition is an assault – an assault on your senses.

It is 65 minutes of pure stimuli: the deep vibration of base that comes up through your feet to your loins; the strobing intensity of white light that, in a darkened theatre, leaves a ‘retinal burn’ that almost hurts, and an overload of data streaming that leaves one slightly confused what it was all about.

Despite that, Superposition is an experience that I would not have given up.

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It challenged me as an audience member and totally absorbed in its created environment slid into a state of wonder. I was captivated the whole way through.

I am describing the recent multimedia performance installation by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda and the Australian premier of his latest work presented at Carriageworks this past week.

For those who booked tickets as a follow up to Ikeda’s incredibly successful Test Pattern no. 5 shown at the same venue in 2013, they may have been disappointed by the lack of playful interactive joy. Instead audiences were handed earplugs on entry and told “it gets really loud you might need these.”

This piece had a formality within its chaos.

Sitting on theatre bleachers it was a concert of layering, splicing and zipping of data-generation information, which was seemingly stacked across screens ascending in scale and height, from footlights to theatre-scaled projections. Balance, and an inherent architecture within the production, were key.

This notion of symmetry and calculation echoed the very genesis or thought behind this new production. Mathematical theory seemingly sat at the foundation of everything.

The production was described simply by Carriageworks as, ‘plunging audience into the grey space between 0 and 1, between true and false, a space where probability and uncertainty coexist’.

Working with live performers on stage – Stephane Garin and Amelie Grould – Ryoji had them seated at polar ends of a long table, their actions broadcast through live-feed. ​They don't look at each other; interact or speak. They are merely facilitators in this grand experiment.

They play out Ryoji's ​streaming ​puzzle through a script tapped out in Morse code, which is projected in real time and offers alternate philosophies; statements such as “Logic is not a body of doctrine but a mirror image of the world.”

They also played with marbles that moved randomly, a computer capturing their positions and then fixing them in relationship maps. They used old IMB key-punch cards to play a kind of crossword puzzle game, blackened or obliterated letters considered with such intent - and all the while with a backdrop projecting that data or code as visualisations in light or audio streams.

Another stylised sequence was the use of tuning forks - the bounce of waves between the pair of performers intersecting and overlapping. They were the pure notes of historic forks used over time by musicians and opera companies. Perhaps this exercise offered their synthesised moment of perfection.

And yet, tensions were apparent between the graphed and coded data and the real or physical execution witnessed slightly off-sync. It is almost like some flawed alchemy before one's eyes, intriguing and beautiful in that raw conversation.

This was the strength of the Ryoji’s work - that graspable moment for audiences to enter his world of mathematical propositions - those performed moments simply mapped.

They were more successful than the deluge of numbers, digits and data that spoke more of a stream or parallel continuum to our lives than a graspable reality. 

Quantum information is not an easy head grasp – without the stimulation – that language of mathematics that uses QUBIT (quantum binary digits) or 0 and 1 supposed at the same time. Confused? Well the catalogue says ‘It is unbelievably counterintuitive and is beyond our human comprehension.’ Ok, got it.

I don’t need to try to understand Superposition, just submit to the sensory journey it takes me on and to allow my own subconscious to find its own pathways of information from the visual data.

Superposition is a remarkable technical feat and its wizardry – and despite one’s sensory or aesthetic connection with the work – is awe-inspiring for its very collection, collation and colouration of this data giving its renewed meaning as an artwork.

Carriageworks has been committed to showing experimental works and you have to salute their confidence to champion this edge of artistic practice. This would have been a costly production.

But we start to glean the reasoning; in the program Carriageworks state the piece reminds us, ‘that it is always artists who continue to expand our understanding of our material and metaphysical worlds.’

Sadly, it only ran four days. And while I would not review a production past, Superposition plants a bean for through in how we approach information streams – both as data but more abstract through theatre as a medium.

This performance is a hard one to rate as it relied very much on one’s own sensory capacity. But if we take Carriageworks’ line of expanding our own reading and understanding of the stimuli around us then Ryoji Ikeda’s Superposition can only get top marks. Bottom line is a dramatic and memorable piece of theatre.

Did I like it? Did I put those earplugs in, freaked out by the sound and the light, or did I allow it to consume me completely and open my mind to new things?

Well those are purely subjective reactions that have little to do with the technical brilliance of this piece and its perfect delivery. It was unflawed.

Rating 4.5 out of 5

Superposition: Ryoji Ikeda

Carriageworks, Sydney

Concept, Direction & Music: Ryoji Ikeda
Programming, Graphics and Computer System: Tomonaga Tokuyama, Norimichi Hirakawa and Yoshito Onishi
Optical Devices: Norimichi Hirakawa

Production: Ryoji Ikeda Studio, Quaternaire (Paris), Forma (London)

23-26 September

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years.

She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW, and you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.