Matthew Ritchie wants you to become ‘The Demon in the Diagram’

The transdisciplinary artist’s new exhibition at the Moody encourages unconventional engagement and examination

Demons real and imagined are coming to campus, along with your chance to inhabit one yourself, thanks to an immersive virtual reality experience unlike anything Rice’s Moody Center for the Arts has ever hosted.

Artist Matthew Ritchie has spent the last two years creating “The Demon in the Diagram,” a site-specific installation commissioned by the Moody Center that spans its two largest galleries. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Artist Matthew Ritchie gave a tour of his newest installation to a group of students in Lina Dib’s First-Year Writing Intensive Seminar on contemporary art and environment. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Artist Matthew Ritchie has spent the last two years creating “The Demon in the Diagram,” a site-specific installation commissioned by the Moody Center that spans its two largest galleries. When the unprecedented installation opens Sept. 21 it will contain, among other features, a VR component with custom-made masks, a host of large metal screens on wheels that create a symphony of sounds and a timeline of history that’s occasionally interrupted by demons.

Ritchie last week led a group of students from the Shepherd School of Music on a tour of the exhibition in the midst of installation. Paintings were not yet hung; vinyl floor tiles were not yet laid down. And although it’s taken much of his time, Ritchie is neither selfish nor inflexible about his work or the ways others might engage with it.

Each student musician on last week’s tour will play pieces they composed in response to the themes of “The Demon in the Diagram.” That event will happen on Oct. 13. They visited the Moody not only to talk to Ritchie about what they have in mind for their performances, but also to discuss where and how those performances would take place.

“There will be carpet squares in the middle, so your audience could sit down and you could surround them,” Richie said to the musicians. “The paintings will be hung at eye level, so people could also lean up against the walls,” he suggested later. And, a little later, he mused: “If you know anyone who wants to do some improvisational stuff, Hope Mohr Dance will be here performing.” Any students who want to come and play alongside the dancers, he said, would be welcome.

Hope Mohr’s weeklong residency at the Moody and its performance Oct. 27 are part of a series of responses to “The Demon in the Diagram,” which will run through Dec. 22. Ritchie will also participate in 10 different classes across the Rice campus as the Brad and Leslie Bucher Artist-in-Residence — the largest number of classes to date for a Moody artist-in-residence and a robust illustration of the center’s mission to foster connections across disciplines.

Ritchie will work with Rice students across 10 different courses this semester. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Ritchie will work with Rice students across 10 different courses this semester. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Ritchie will work with students in such courses as English Literature and the Public Humanities, a First-Year Writing Intensive Seminar on contemporary art and environment and a graduate-level composition seminar in the Shepherd School of Music. He’s also co-hosting a daylong printmaking workshop Sept. 25 alongside Karin Broker, professor of printmaking and drawing, and Patrick Masterson, master printmaker at Burning Bones Press, open to both students and the general public. And Ritchie partnered with Michael Wolf, professor of mathematics with a research interest in topology mirroring Ritchie’s, to talk through the structural terms of the exhibition.

Working within and across various departments of a university was an attractive proposition to a transdisciplinary artist like Ritchie, whose own works dance across mediums and subjects. Digital designs printed onto large-scale wallpaper and oil paintings that overhang the gallery’s papered walls detail his interest in everything from Babylonian mythology to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to thermodynamics — specifically, in this exhibit, James Clerk Maxwell’s 1867 thought experiment in which the physicist suggested a hypothetical means of violating the second law of thermodynamics.

Maxwell’s demon, as the thought experiment is known, is a topic of conversation once again, finding new applications in the fields of nanotechnology and information theory. Ritchie’s manifestation of the creature finds it wreaking havoc in the giant timeline he’s wallpapered across the Brown Foundation and Central Galleries that roughly plots human attempts to codify, categorize and contextualize our world throughout history. Postmodernist ideals sprawl across one wall while Enlightenment philosophies underscore another; paradigms are created and destroyed within the swivel of a gaze.

The “Demon in the Diagram” presents an accumulation of all these changes over thousands of years. Humans today are becoming entirely different creatures, Ritchie argues — creatures who have both altered our own nature and the nature around us, the eventual effects of which can’t be predicted. Now, he said, “we are being changed by the nature that we have made and accepting that is going to be very difficult.”

“We’re going to have to step into this new version of ourselves and we’re not going to be able to do it by insisting on models of the past,” Ritchie said, gesturing to the diagrams on the wallpaper around him. “Not acknowledging that is inherently destructive.”

Ritchie's installation includes lightboxes, rolling metal screens and a virtual reality component. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

Ritchie’s installation includes lightboxes, rolling metal screens and a virtual reality component. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

Taken as a whole, the wallpaper almost has the look of richly annotated sheet music written very, very large. Fittingly, the music commissioned by Ritchie to accompany the movement of the giant metal screens will be similarly grand, creating a symphony of themes and melodies in a canon-like repetition as they twirl across vinyl tiles. Each of those tiles is tied to a fragment of music written by Ritchie’s longtime collaborators: musician Kelley Deal, lead guitarist of the Breeders, and noted composer and clarinetist Evan Ziporyn. As a screen rolls onto a tile, that tile’s melody will be triggered; as more screens move, the more layered the melodies will become.

Each screen, Ritchie pointed out, represents one of 24 different points in human history; the images on the screens are echoed in the timeline as well as the colorful oil paintings that will hang in front of the wallpaper.

Ultimately, “The Demon in the Diagram” is Ritchie’s investigation into the history of the diagram as a means of mapping both human knowledge and experience. And it’s an investigation he said was sparked by the opportunity to create an installation at a university such as Rice.

A visit to the MIT Media Lab inspired Ritchie’s “The Long Count/The Long Game,” a 2015 multimedia performance piece at ICA Boston about the nature of the creative act and the question of how one makes art. An 80-foot-high resin piece installed in a Cornell Tech atrium last year was inspired by a trip to the technology-focused campus; Ritchie told the New York Times that “Everything That Rises Must Converge” was conceived as a “history of logical thinking.”

“I’m really interested in the DNA of a place and saying, ‘What is it like if you really try to visualize that?’” Ritchie said. “The DNA of Rice is the idea of knowledge.”

“The DNA of Rice is the idea of knowledge," Ritchie said. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“The DNA of Rice is the idea of knowledge,” Ritchie said. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Many elements of the show, he said, were derived from the visual language of classrooms; the giant metal screens roll across the floor like whiteboards, for instance. “And in this case, the visual language gave me time to write a series of lectures contained inside a VR world,” Ritchie said.

“You can enter into the VR environment and it’s like another classroom, these nested knowledge spaces that are kind of like the pedagogical environment of Rice,” he said, in reference to Rice’s emphasis on cross-disciplinary education. “But it’s also the weirdest classroom you could ever encounter.”

Guests will be able to enter these virtual classrooms three at a time, donning masks that will transport them into Ritchie’s diagrams and robes that visually transform them into the “demon” inside. Between the VR “classroom,” the musical screens, the choreographed and composed responses to the exhibition and the various teaching engagements in classrooms across campus, there is a tremendous amount of energy around what is, ostensibly, one show.

“It’s engagement that’s singularly different from the engagement of a traditional exhibition,” Ritchie said.

Whether it’s to simply experience the art, or use it as a classroom or a workshop space, Ritchie added, “I want to make it clear that this is an open invitation to any department.”

“The Demon in the Diagram” is on view Sept. 21 through Dec. 22, with a public opening reception from 6-8 p.m. Sept. 21 and a student opening reception from 7-9 p.m. Sept. 22. Ritchie will present an artist-in-dialogue discussion at 6 p.m. Oct. 25. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, visit

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.