Ryoji Ikeda interview: 'Spectra is poised between past and present'

No, that wasn’t a UFO you saw last night: that was dozens of searchlights reaching for the sky. Time Out talks to Ryoji Ikeda, the elusive artist behind ‘Spectra’, London’s most spectacular WWI centenary tribute

'Spectra', 2014, by Ryoji Ikeda, view from Lambeth Bridge by Olivia Rutherford

'Spectra', 2014, by Ryoji Ikeda, view from Lambeth Bridge by Olivia Rutherford Commissioned and presented by Artangel, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW and the Mayor of London.

Us Londoners love our braggable 'had to be there' moments - the oft-quoted, never-repeated gig, party or performance. But to experience the most epic public art project you'll see all year, perhaps all decade, you only need to look outside, from pretty much anywhere in the city, at any time after 9pm for the next seven days. Raise your eyes to the sky and you'll see a soaring column of light beamed thousands of metres into the stratosphere. Installed in Victoria Tower Gardens, just beside the House of Lords, 'Spectra' is the work of Paris-based Japanese artist and composer Ryoji Ikeda, a master of minimalist electronica and installation art with an international reputation for hi-tech sublime.

'Spectra - literally meaning "image, apparition" - is derived from the Latin word specere, which means "to look",' Ikeda explains. 'What you see, in essence, is electromagnetic radiation arranged in a progressive series according to wavelength.'

While from afar the beams rise majestically to the heavens - part celestial body, part Bat-Signal - the effect at ground level is far from serene. Here at the business end of the artwork, the custom-made Xenon searchlights, arranged in a seven-by-seven grid, are almost blindingly white. You're invited to walk among them but, as Ikeda explains: 'You receive information into your eyes instantly and so intensely that you cannot see anything. The installation, therefore, becomes almost invisible.' To accentuate the experience, he has added a corresponding soundtrack of noises arranged according to frequency.

‘I set up the work and people create the rest’

A barcode representation of the artist

A barcode representation of the artist

There are certainly more iconic parks in London, but Victoria Tower Gardens suits the reclusive Ikeda. 'With its backdrop of the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and the London Eye, "Spectra" seems poised between London's past and present,' he says. 'As we look up, maybe we can imagine London's future. Plus, it's unusual in that it is in the heart of the city yet relatively unknown - if you asked your readers to point to it on a map, they might struggle.'
The venue certainly chimes with the work's low-key launch. 'Spectra' may be the latest presentation by tirelessly innovative art producers Artangel, but it was a closely guarded secret until ten o'clock last night when, during a WWI memorial service at Westminster Abbey, it sprang spectacularly to life. It's not the installation's first incarnation - cities from Barcelona to Buenos Aires have been bathed in its glow over the past decade - but this must be its most significant. Part of the '14-18 Now' WWI Centenary Art Commissions, it's timed to coincide with the end of the 'Lights Out' remembrance project, which was inspired by a remark made by Viscount Grey on the outbreak of war in 1914: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.' Even if your science is hazy, the symbolism is dazzling.

Ikeda's intention is for us to 'experience wonder or contemplation' while looking at his work. But despite having created the biggest grid of spotlights London is likely to see, he prefers to stay out of the public eye (in fact, he uses a barcode instead of a publicity shot). 'My feeling is that I set up the work and people create the rest,' he says. 'People will remember their own particular impressions of "Spectra", perhaps for years and years, but from my previous experiences, they don't remember that much about the artist. Which is also kind of my goal.'