Choose your own adventure or fated quest? Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s cybernetic world captures the unease of reality.

Elizabeth Harris  |  Ed: Francesca Gransden  |  6 March 2020

Jess Johnson © Courtesy of the artists and the galleries.

The National Gallery of Australia, in partnership with the Balnaves Foundation, has commissioned its first virtual reality (VR) work. Created by New Zealand born artists Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Terminus explores the unease and wonder of virtual reality and questions what is truly ‘real’ in an increasingly digital society.

Billed as a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience, Terminus mirrors the journey of the reader of those popular gamebooks of yore – taking on the role of protagonist, the visitor not so much wanders through, but is drawn around, Johnson and Ward’s universe by the ambivalent whims of whoever created the mysterious landscape. Given the illusion of control – deciding where to look, whether to engage and how much to dare to see – the participant experiences a world larger than could be imagined when first presented with the VR goggles. Time slippage, and the dissonance between the physical world of the gallery and the disorienting quest embodied by Terminus, challenge the viewer to experience discomfort in a visceral way.

© Courtesy of the artists and the galleries.

In an interview with the NGA, Johnson described VR as a tool to ‘seduce someone into accepting an entirely new reality’. On entering the Terminus installation, one finds oneself standing on a Dungeons and Dragons-style board, confronted with sculptural pieces featuring Johnson’s tribal, otherworldly distorted figures. Like stepping into the matrix, on entering Terminus you become convinced that Johnson’s drawings – created over seven years – are a viable reality. A sense of alienation from the physical world is replaced by a deep connection to Johnson and Ward’s imaginings, mirroring the potential of VR to disrupt the way we live, communicate and collaborate. Indeed, the creation of Terminus was facilitated by the group meeting up via VR headsets in their respective homes and studios, spread across the globe. 

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Genetekker Archaic © Courtesy of the artists and the galleries.

Each of the five experiences – Fleshold Crossing, Known Unknown, Scumm Engine, Gog & Magog and Tumblewych – allows the visitor to take the wheel in a different phase of a typical narrative arch. In Gog and Magog, confronted by two spiders who guard the sphere at the top of a tower, you must battle evil to find what you are seeking.  What exactly are you hoping to find? It’s not clear. Johnson and Ward seem to suggest that the archetypical narrative act of ‘seeking’ is enough to motivate your journey. And despite the oddities of the landscape, you find yourself in, the discovery that narrative tropes can be pushed to their limits in such a way is more than enough to give meaning to Terminus.

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward © Courtesy of the artist.

About the artists

© Courtesy of the artists and the galleries.

Jess Johnson (@flesh_dozer) was born in Tauranga, New Zealand in 1979. She lives and works in New York.  Johnson is represented by @darrenknightgallery, Sydney; @ivan_anthony_gallery, Auckland; @jackhanleygallery, New York.

Simon Ward was born in Wellington, New Zealand. He is a co-director the animated comedy series Aroha Bridge

Past Shows and Fair Booths

Artist’s residency

2019 Pioneer Works, in Red Hook (NY),  in the fields of visual art and music.

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