There is, of course, no one set of criteria to determine whether something is a truly great work of art; different people will have their own conceptions of what makes something truly great, and what makes something great to one might not make it so to another. To my mind, though, one thing art indubitably has the ability to do is alter our view of the everyday in some tangible or intangible way—whether that means giving us a different perspective on something, or simply reawakening our awareness of things we notice everyday without really reflecting on it.
Upon experiencing, for the first time, the transfinite, the new installation from multimedia artist Ryoji Ikeda that’s currently standing at the Park Avenue Armory, I found myself impressed by it, but in a rather detached way, inspiring little more than mostly intellectual contemplation. But then, after walking around in its darkly lit, strobe-light-flashy, numbers-heavy grip for an extended period of time, I then stepped into the “real” world outside and found myself unable to easily shake off the experience. Instead of buildings, I would see numbers pulsing through its surfaces; instead of coherent thoughts, I would see barcode-like line patterns flitting through my mind. The revelations of the transfinite, it seems, don’t make themselves truly apparent until you’ve stepped away from its imposing structures—but afterward, the cumulative effect is like seeing the world around you in a wholly different way than you did going in.
What is this thing Ikeda calls the transfinite, you’re probably wondering by now? A mere description will suffice, for the moment.
As you walk into the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, you’re greeted by a behemoth screen, one which spans the length of the floor in front of it and stands upright. As three DLP video projectors situated high up in the ceiling project computer-generated black-and-white patterns and lines onto the screen, one is invited to take off one’s shoes and walk onto the screen as those patterns and lines run underneath their feet; one can furthermore venture as close to the edge of the IMAX-size screen as one wishes. In that sense, one is given free rein around the artwork, to either gaze passively or literally go further into the images.
But that’s only the first half of Ikeda’s installation. Go behind the screen and you’re confronted with the second part of the transfinite: Instead of more black-and-white patterns and lines, you’re instead presented with a barrage of data—numbers and words—ordered on the screen in a mind-boggling array of configurations. And in front of this backside of the monolith are nine monitors, spaced equidistant from each other, that display more lines, numbers, and words arranged in even more configurations: numbers washing over a screen like waves in one; lines configured into molecular patterns in another; black-and-white squares moving across a monitor like a Windows disk defragmenting pattern.
All of this is bathed in darkness—the screens providing the only illumination—and, through speakers situated in different parts of the large space, scored to Ikeda’s own Brian Eno-ish ambient electronic music, with its melody-less beeps, blips, static, white noise, and slowly shifting drones. If you stand near the speakers on either side of the monolith, you may get an actual sense of what it might have been like for those space explorers in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovering that film’s famous monolith for the first time.
A key to determining what all of this might actually signify comes from its title. Webster’s New World Dictionary offers two definitions of the adjective “transfinite.” Abstractly, “transfinite” means “extending beyond or surpassing the finite.” But there is also a strictly mathematical definition: “designating or of a cardinal or ordinal number that is larger than any positive integer.” These two definitions, considered together, suggest a search for something beyond perceived experience, but it’s a search that’s carried out almost entirely through concrete means such as mathematics.
Is it possible to grasp the infinite through order? Scientists and mathematicians have, in their own ways, been dealing with this question for ages, and, in his artist statement, Ikeda himself admits to believing that “the purest beauty is the world of mathematics…It is similar to the experience we have when we confront the vast magnitude of the universe, which always leaves us open-mouthed.” the transfinite abstractly suggests such a confrontation through its setup: the way the front of the monolith greets us all with an impressive barrage of strobe lights and moving lines and patterns, and the way that you literally have to look behind it to glimpse the ordered universe underpinning it all.
The result is an experience that, if you’re willing to explore within the self-contained world it conjures forth, has the power to rewire your brain to perceive of a world that hovers just beyond our grasp. In a sense, the transfinite could be seen as a grand metaphor for art itself: the way artists often use ordered means—whether its numbers in mathematics, three-act structures in film and theater, or scales in music—to express things that are sometimes ineffable. Sometimes order can be beautiful. Ikeda’s new work certainly is.
See Ryoji Ikeda’s the transfinite at the Park Avenue Armory from May 20–June 11.