Terminus

This week I flew across a mysterious alien world on a digital travelator, passing humanoid clones and slipping down through tunnels and into orbs that gently allowed me to float on by.

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward have opened Terminus, a stunning virtual reality world at Tauranga Art Gallery. I went to have a look and found myself quickly immersed in the dream realms of Jess’s mind brought to life by Simon’s digital imagery.

Commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia and the Balnaves Foundation, Terminus was premiered at the NGA in May 2018. This is the first time it’s being shown in NZ.

Simon met me at the gallery and we stepped through to Jess’s complex worlds of layered patterns and figures. I thought I’d find the paintings hanging on the gallery walls confronting or disturbing, because I was expecting the more irrational juxtaposition of images that can be found in surrealism. However I found myself experiencing a sense of rational detachment, appeased by her colour palette, ideas, and objects. They combine in patterns and ways that are dreamlike in their strangeness but which give my mind a softly tranquillising effect.

Along one wall there are large-scale quilts, a collaboration between Jess and her mother Cynthia Johnson. For these, Cynthia has taken Jess’s drawings and given them newer layers of language that enhance again the sense of texture but in a different way.

Without even slipping through into the virtual world via the five virtual reality stations housed within bespoke structures, there are many unique aspects to this exhibition that make me want to come back and experience it again. The soft colour grading through the paintings, tapestries and installations is offset by the appealing use of brighter greens, blues, magenta and reds printed into a floor maze that links the works and  virtual portals. The pinks, greys and soothing salmons are interspersed with geometric and cryptic patterns.

For those who come from a world of gaming, there will be recognised references to earlier gaming experiences woven into the designs. For myself, I see a world of geometry and maths, populated by fantastical and unusual objects and mannequins. Gradually I relax into the mental disruption I find I have where for moments it makes sense and then it doesn’t make sense. As our minds reach to understand these worlds of Jess’s, I find mine plucking out what seem to be Egyptian pyramids, bricks, altars, and figures, with unusual symbols that beckon. I wonder if she sees these as dreams or nightmares or something else again.

Once I don a headset I find that Simon has taken Jess’s drawings and fantastically transformed them into 3D worlds that stretch in all directions around you. I turn around and find free-standing pillars rising and towering above me. A large worm-like creature curls and floats from around a brick wall towards me. As it opens its mouth and passes by, I reach out to touch it but find I can’t see my hand and I’m not touching anything. I look down and find myself standing on a small circular digital mat.

The bricked courtyard I’m in slowly starts to turn and curve away from me and I find I’m slowly drifting down through layers of worlds that revolve slowly as I pass through them.

Simon and Jess are both Kiwis. Simon works in Wellington and Jess is in New York. His video and virtual reality collaborations and Jess’s work have been shown in many cities including New York, Tokyo, Edinburgh, Melbourne, Sydney and Hong Kong. How they collaborate is itself a wonderful mystery, as I find that Simon’s translation of Jess’s imagery is true to her original vision yet opens up a fantastical experience.

There is the sense of having no power or control over the worlds they have created with Terminus, yet at various points I find I can head-butt coils of large coloured string and floating mannequins as they float with me inside a large red orb. In another world I can move my head changing the colour background of the world that I’m travelling through. The orb appears again, benign and friendly, yet later I wonder if it symbolically represents the power or mind behind these worlds, keeping me lulled.

As I experience the slippage through time and space, I find my journey propels me across five distinct realms - Fleshold Crossing, Known Unknown, the Scumm Engine, Gog & Magog, and the psychedelic Tumblewych. In each one I brace myself, initially on guard, and waiting for a monster or some evil to befall me. Each time, I find I am a mostly passive observer, and nothing dark or ominous happens. The large spider doesn’t get me, the worm doesn’t swallow me, and I’m not harmed. It helps that I’m holding on to Simon’s arm for some of these virtual rides. Later, while talking with him, I find myself starting to look for the story in these worlds. Why are there humanoids, what are they doing, why do they float with me through the orb? Who is in control of this world I find myself in?

To experience this for yourself, go to the Tauranga Art Gallery from now until October 27 between 10am – 4.30pm daily