The Digital Abyss

“When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you,” wrote German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil. This is my initial thought as I take in and make sense of the “db”(abbreviated form of “decibel”) exhibit by Ryoji Ikeda in Hamburger Bahnhof.

Building off of the characteristic style of Ikeda’s visual and sound compositions, the artist employs minimal use of sound and visual elements for his exhibit which is spread out on both wings of the Hamburger Bahnhof.  Do not let the word “minimal” mislead you – the white light that is used in the exhibit is what appears to the human eye when every possible visible light color (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) is combined. That and the sound’s high-pitched frequency is anything but what we would perceive as being minimal.

Humans as Insects Attracted to Light

Walking into the “db” exhibition space that takes up the East Wing, one is immediately greeted by a high-pitched sound – the kind of noise that used to drive my dog absolutely crazy. The room is pitch black, minus a large searchlight projecting a stream of white light toward the end of the room opposite the entrance.  Huge symmetrical black screens line the wall with what appears to be TV static playing – upon closer look the static is made up of an infinite number of digits in constant flux. The screens jingle in a piercing medley, and the searchlight’s constant fan reminds me of long afternoons or late nights stuck in front of my laptop screen.

The fascinating part, aside from the sudden feeling of being stuck within the dark and vibrating confines of my laptop, is that the dark figures and silhouettes – other people visiting the exhibit – eerily remind me insects attracted to light; everyone is drawn to the light and the hole in the wall that the light shines through at the end of the room.

Humans attracted by the lightHumans attracted by the Light – Ryoji Ikeda. Photo: Julie Anne Miranda-Brobeck.

Is This What Digital Heaven Feels Like?

The West Wing complements the East Wing in that it is exactly the opposite.  A room with the whitest of white walls, floor, and ceiling illuminates everything and starkly contrasts against the seemingly uniform black placards on the wall (look closer: they have a million digits printed lightly on them). The privacy and anonymity felt in the previous black room is obliterated. A black loudspeaker in the room transmits a wave of sound, which pulses in response to the movement of people in the room. Apparently the sine wave sounding out is the most basic musical building block. A moment of auditory-relief is found when the sound temporarily shuts off, everyone freezes. That was unexpected

Has our reliance on the digital, what is reduced to mathematics and an immortal
reality –world of constants and infinity, come to define us? The sensory trip of this exhibit plunges you into an intriguing, yet nightmarish abyss taken over by digital, static visuals and high-pitched sounds. By the end, my ears ache terribly and all I can think is: Please, turn it off. 

  •  Hamburger Bahnhof, “DB. Ryoji Ikeda”, January 28th –  April 9th 2012, Tuesday – Sunday: 10am – 6pm, Saturday 11am – 8pm