Nothing much happens on the surface of planet Ix. The real activity is underground, where the technology is made. A fictional world described by Frank Herbert in his 1965 science fiction novel Dune, Ix is home to a supreme machine culture and is a leader in producing technology for other planets. For New Zealand–born, Melbourne-based artist Jess Johnson, Dune – and its themes of ecology, drug use, precognition and spiritual enlightenment – is a ‘cosmic beacon’ that resonates with her own desire to create virtual worlds.1 Jess Johnson, unpublished quote from interview with Paul James, ‘Ixian Gate’ is a mind-bending VR ride through the world of artist Jess Johnson’, 23 Sep. 2015, Road to VR, <http://www.roadtovr.com/ixian-gate-is-a-mind-bending-vr-ride-through-the-mind-of-artist-jess-johnson/>, accessed 27 Nov. 2015.
Johnson is renowned for highly detailed drawings of alternative realms that reveal her fascination with the intersections between language, popular culture, technology and science fiction. The artist’s interest in the latter, however, is a ruse, as she explains:
Saying I am influenced by science fiction is as meaningless as saying I am influenced by ‘music’ or ‘landscape’. It’s an easy sound bite for people which means I don’t have to talk about things that I don’t know how to talk about. Most of what truly interests me has an awkward fit within language.2 Jess Johnson, email correspondence with the author, 4 Nov. 2015.
Johnson’s distinct visual language is characterised by complex, hand-drawn patterning and recurring symbols – witness her floating, perfectly symmetrical bat faces and fleshy pink humanoids – set within fragments of imposing architecture. Her visual cosmology is becoming increasingly sophisticated; clear hierarchies are emerging between figures, and the imagery – according to the artist – has almost reached the point of self-generation:
There’s been an emergence of alien architecture, rituals and social hierarchies. I make reference to early drawings, so an internal dialogue and logic has been built up over time. It’s got to this point where it feels very ‘real’ to me.3 Jess Johnson, unpublished quote from interview with Rose Johnstone, ‘Wurm Haus’, Time Out Melbourne, <http://www.au.timeout.com/melbourne/art/events/15835/wurm-haus>, accessed 27 Nov. 2015.
The context in which these drawings are shown has always been important. Johnson often transforms the exhibition space with patterned wallpaper and tessellated flooring, creating constructed environments that act as physical portals into the artist’s hypnotic drawings (the NGV Collection work Outer head of the order (Vestibule incarnate), 2013, is a good example). In 2014 Johnson pushed her drawings into three dimensions for the first time. The result was Mnemonic Pulse, 2014, a circular video experienced from a first-person perspective, created for her Studio 12 exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne. The work’s title refers to an instrument in Herbert’s Dune designed to imprint images onto the mind of the wearer. Mnemonic Pulse was made in collaboration with Wellington-based animator and music video director Simon Ward, and sound designer Andrew Clark (a fan of early 8- and 16-bit computer music). Ward scanned a series of Johnson’s drawings and fabricated a three-dimensional computer environment from them in order to simulate the experience of walking through one of her works.
It was during the development of Mnemonic Pulse that Ixian Gate – the centrepiece of Johnson’s NGV exhibition Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus – was born, emerging out of the artist’s collaboration with Ward, recent advances in virtual reality technology and a desire to expand her practice. Ixian Gate is the first work created by the artist utilising Oculus Rift; a virtual reality system not due for public release until early 2016 that immerses the viewer in an artificial world. Ward scanned all of Johnson’s drawings from the past three years and, with the assistance of video effects artist Kenny Smith, fleshed out the world of Ixian Gate using the game engine Unity – a software framework designed for the creation and development of video games.
The result is otherworldly. After donning Oculus Rift headsets, viewers navigate an alternate reality while standing on a hovering tile that moves them through space, magic carpet style. The experience is not easily described; it involves the body and how we inhabit it – or leave it – as we succumb to an immersive, 360-degree animated realm populated by Johnson’s sand worms, humanoids and Masonic architecture. As viewers slip away from their physical body, their experience of Ixian Gate can become disorienting; an effect Johnson is not averse to cultivating in her viewers, especially as they begin to question their own perception.
Ixian Gate and the Wurm Haus exhibition generate a cleverly tailored slippage between the real and virtual worlds. Elements of the exhibition design – such as the artist-designed wallpaper, complete with tumbling figures and monochromatic checked flooring – also appear in the animation, facilitating one’s entry into the virtual space as the physical space melts away. Reality is a potent concept for Johnson, and one that remains unfixed:
My reality is different to your reality. We’re taught to think of reality as a fixed and absolute thing; like concrete or bedrock. I think of it as flowing lava, moving under the surface of time. Reality can be different speeds and densities. It can be multidimensional. It can be harnessed and bought into existence by words and symbols. The human brain can conceive of something that did not exist before and then go out and make it. You can make something out of nothing and alter the universe around you. By anyone’s definition that’s magic.4 Johnson, email correspondence with the author.
This magic can be witnessed in the ritualised behaviours of audience members as they assemble, five at a time, around the rainbow-banded obelisk that is the Wurm Haus, the exhibition’s focal point, which contains the Oculus Rift technology. Johnson is excited that this will be many people’s first experience with virtual reality. Like Herbert’s mnemonic pulse, Johnson uses Ixian Gate to pull us through the doorway into her worlds, imprinting her strange visions of the future on our pliable minds.
Jess Johnson, unpublished quote from interview with Paul James, ‘Ixian Gate’ is a mind-bending VR ride through the world of artist Jess Johnson’, 23 Sep. 2015, Road to VR, <http://www.roadtovr.com/ixian-gate-is-a-mind-bending-vr-ride-through-the-mind-of-artist-jess-johnson/>, accessed 27 Nov. 2015.
Jess Johnson, email correspondence with the author, 4 Nov. 2015.
Jess Johnson, unpublished quote from interview with Rose Johnstone, ‘Wurm Haus’, Time Out Melbourne, <http://www.au.timeout.com/melbourne/art/events/15835/wurm-haus>, accessed 27 Nov. 2015.
Johnson, email correspondence with the author.