Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus

These intricately drawn visions of other worlds are like windows or eyes into a parallel universe.
Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus

Image: supplied. 

In a room on the third floor of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) International is another world. Stepping off the escalator on the top floor into the small, dimly lit worm-shaped room the viewer could be forgiven for feeling a little disorientated as they time-slip into another place and time. Patterned wallpaper and tessellated flooring forms the environment for Wurm Haus, created by the New Zealand born, Melbourne based artist Jess Johnson for her immersive other reality.


Emerging from this back drop are 11 of Johnson’s large scale 2013 works in pen and ink, coloured fibre tipped pen, metallic paint and collage. These intricately drawn visions of other worlds are like windows or eyes into a parallel universe. Take Every 1 and everything on my back in which the head of a strange mythic or fantasy type being emerges from the highly detailed, patterned background spewing worm-like things from its great jaw or Gamma World in which strange hybrid creatures and humanoids balance delicately on each others backs under the arch of a window that looks beyond to a pyramid structure and a sky populated by disc-like space crafts: A snap-shot of Johnson’s evolving personal cosmology.

But it is the centre piece of the exhibition, Ixian Gate, sitting alter like in the middle of the room, that will, like a space craft, truly transport the viewer (through the use of headsets) to a world populated with strange creatures, mythical symbols and monumental architecture.

Using Oculus Rift technology, Johnson and her team, Simon Ward and Kenny Smith (animators) and Andrew Clark (sound designer) create an immersive, dystopian universe. This 360-degrees experience can initially be a little disorientating suggests Ward, commenting on the way people have reacted to the technology. ‘ Some people stand absolutely still,’ he says, ‘while others move about twisting their bodies in different directions.’ But it appears to be something Johnson wishes to cultivate, pushing the viewer ‘to question their own perception,’ suggests Serena Bentley, assistant curator, contemporary art. ‘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,’ says Johnson in a recent essay by Bentley, that can be accessed online as support material for the exhibition.  In the gallery space itself signage is kept to a minimum with didactic panels book-ending the works and a few text labels informing the viewer of works and mediums.

Johnson’s foray into three dimensions saw its genesis in Mnemonic Pulse, 2014, created for the Studio 12 exhibition at Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne. In her recent essay on Johnson, Bentley explains how Ward scanned a series of Johnson’s drawings from which he created a three dimensional computer environment, creating the experience of walking through the artist’s works; Ixian Gate being its off-spring. Commissioned and acquired by the NGV, Ixian Gate is the first virtual reality artwork in the NGV collection.

Although it is tempting to suggest that the iconography in Johnson’s artwork reflects her interests in popular culture, science fiction and game technology the origins of her personal cosmology appear to be a little more complex, reflecting interests that stem from childhood, and that have become layered and sophisticated with time, reflecting the evolution of a visual language that goes beyond words.

Recipient of a number of awards and residencies, Johnson’s work is held in private and public collections in Australia and New Zealand and like a character from one of her paintings she is about to head for the stars herself, taking up an Australia Council residency at Street studio, New York early 2016.

Wurm Haus is an exhibition that is both minimal in presentation and yet all absorbing in experience.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Wurm Haus 

Jess Johnson

National Gallery Victoria International 
Level 3, Contemporary Art & Design
5 December – 31 January 2016
Open 10am – 5pm daily

Mem Capp

Monday 7 December, 2015

About the author

Mem Capp is a Melbourne artist and writer.