Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Sleepless nights

Ryoji Ikeda, spectra [paris]
Commissioned for Nuit Blanche Paris, 2008
Paris may be the ‘City of Lights’ but Ryoji Ikeda’s blinding tower of light, spectra [paris], elevates the cliché from banal to stratospheric. This new work by the Japanese artist was commissioned for Nuit Blanche, the city’s annual all night contemporary arts festival. Ikeda’s initial proposal was to make the 210-metre tall Montparnasse Tower disappear by surrounding it on all four sides with light. This proved to be a technical impossibility but also a stroke of luck, for the installation undoubtedly benefits from the Tower despite its unpopular appearance. A ghostly and compelling alternative imagining of the Tower, spectra [paris] softens the skyscraper’s harsh façade, supplying an awe and delicacy lacking in the original.

The 64 floodlights are arranged in an 8 x 8 formation, two metres apart, so that visitors can walk between and interact with the lights. The grid of lamps is accompanied by a matrix of speakers, broadcasting a 30 minute looped pattern of sine waves of varying frequencies. The audio element transforms the ephemeral lights into an altogether more physical sensation: an aural skin for floodlit bones.

While spectra [paris] acts as an artistic affirmation of the Tower, it’s also a sublime experience in its own right. The lights and sounds of spectra teeter precariously between sensory pleasure and pain: the high-pitched frequencies are sometimes unbearable and the lights are too bright to look at directly. But this environment is primal and addictive and when you start to walk away, an immediate desire to return takes over.

Initially I wasn’t convinced the installation would work, given the relatively low lines of Paris’s skyline. Ultimately the location couldn’t have been more appropriate. Had spectra [paris] been near the Eiffel Tower, it would have been obvious and self-defeating; anywhere else, and it would have been operating in a vacuum. Ikeda’s installation provides a new lens with which to view this sky-scraping behemoth, rendering it simply stunning, no mean feat given this is one of the least attractive buildings in a very beautiful city.

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