Virtual reality (VR) can be a strange and powerful experience. When done well, it can provide a vivid insight into another world. It can also cause a feeling of vertigo and overwhelming disorientation as the viewer disassociates from their body and its surroundings. The first time I experienced the medium was through the work of artist Jess Johnson. Ixian Gate (2015) was made in collaboration with Simon Ward and formed the heart of the exhibition Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus at the NGV several years ago.
Although disorienting, Ixian Gate felt intentionally so, throwing me into an alternate universe where humanoid figures and alien deities occupied a complex architectural structure. I distinctly remember stepping into a room enveloped in dizzying wallpaper, Johnson’s hand-drawn patterns tessellating across every surface – acting as a threshold into her work. By the time I put on the Oculus Rift headset, I was already immersed in her world, and it felt entirely natural to walk through the entrance of a grand temple and wander around in this other realm.
Johnson’s work is deliberately immersive, concerned with structures of language, of world-building and concepts of reality. Over the past decade, she has been building an increasingly complex world of architectural elements – gridwork, columns, staircases, temples and palaces – occupied by fleshy humanoid clones and alien demigods along with their enmeshed social hierarchies.
When two of Johnson's artworks were selected for display in ACMI's new exhibition, I was immediately transported back to my first experience of her alternate world. The two works on display here are illustrative of the building blocks in her expansive visual universe. We Dream of Networks (2016) is a drawing featuring two figures wearing VR headsets, suspended within a networked grid. Meanwhile, the single-channel video work Webwurld (2017) offers a portal into another dimension, where Johnson’s ‘flesh suits’ float in a dark, weightless space alongside other-worldly creatures.
The elements of Johnson’s world are created initially in her drawings, made with pen, fibre-tipped markers, gouache and acrylic paint. Highly detailed, with repetitive patterns reaching to the edges of the paper, the drawings contain imperfections where you can see the hand of the creator. They also have their own internal logic, a language that has become self-generating as Johnson draws on earlier works to create new ones.
Since 2014, the artist has been collaborating on video and VR works with Ward, who transposes high-resolution scans of her drawings into a computer graphics editing program and animates them into three-dimensional form. In their first video work, Mnemonic Pulse (2014), which was projected in a circular format on the wall of Gertrude Contemporary, the first-person perspective led the viewer through Johnson’s constructed world. VR is a logical extension of this format, centring the experience of the viewer to communicate a version of reality.
In a 2018 interview with the NGA, on the occasion of the exhibition Terminus, Johnson reflected that VR was the most effective brain-to-brain communication that is available to us with present technology. By inviting audiences into her world, she can convey an immersive and speculative vision of an alternate reality, one that slips between time and gravity.
“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.”
– Julia Murphy
 Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus, NGV, Serena Bentley, 3 Dec 2015
by Chelsey O'Brien
Jess Johnson and Simon Ward's work is inspired by science fiction and fantasy. Johnson's hand-drawn illustrations are heavily detailed with geometric patterns and incorporate anthropomorphic characters amongst architectural environments in immersive other worlds.