Jess Johnson is obsessed with building worlds. Alternative realities are a potent source of inspiration for the artist, who views reality itself as slippery, not static. As she stated in correspondence with me in November 2015, ‘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’.
Growing up in small town New Zealand in the 1980s, Johnson sought out windows into worlds that were different from hers, poring over books like The Inverted World (1974) by Christopher Priest and Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) that were as far removed from reality as possible. When she began making work in earnest five years ago, Johnson began exploring the possibilities of making worlds of her own, creating alternate realities of increasing complexity in pencil, felt pen and collage. These worlds reveal the artist’s fascination with the intersections between language, popular culture, science fiction and technology, and are inhabited by recurring motifs including tumbling humanoids, sandworms, symmetrical bat faces and fragments of architecture. This personal lexicon of symbols is accompanied by fragments of text that are employed as building blocks, upon which the artist assembles her compositions.
Alongside her dedicated drawing practice, Johnson keenly embraces new technologies and increasingly pushes her work into three dimensions. In 2015 she created Ixian Gate, her first work to utilise Oculus Rift technology, a virtual reality system that completely immerses the viewer inside virtual worlds. Made by the artist in collaboration with animators Simon Ward and Kenny Smith, and sound designer Andrew Clark, the work takes its name from the fictional planet Ix that appears in Herbert’s aforementioned novel, Dune. Ix was renowned for its supreme machine culture, and supplied technology to other planets. The title reflects Johnson’s interest in science fiction as well as acknowledging the new technologies embraced by the artist to create the work.
Ixian Gate was created using high-resolution scans of more than 300 of the artist’s drawings to build a 3D/stereoscopic computer-generated environment, enabling the viewer to have the simulated experience of entering the alternative world depicted in Johnson’s drawings. As elements of her drawings were transformed by Ward from two into three dimensions in Ixian Gate, the collaborators ensured that the quirks of the artist’s hand remained. As Johnson explained in an article for Huffington Post: ‘If the world were created entirely digitally it would be a really cold place. Making the human hand visible in the digital works seeds it with this little life-force. It attracts the psyche instead of repelling it as completely digital worlds can have a tendency to do’ (11 May 2016).
Viewed through Oculus Rift headsets, Ixian Gate (which includes the tessellated patterns, otherworldly figures and humanoids that recur across the artist’s oeuvre) takes the form of a ride, with viewers positioned on a virtual floor tile that moves them through the space. 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.
New technologies give Johnson the tools to further explore the thematics of infinite space, altered states, new perspectives, storytelling and world building found in her drawings. Traversing both the virtual and physical realms, Johnson’s work operates as an invitation into her worlds, where reality becomes unstuck.
Serena Bentley, Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2016)