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Oculus Rift Artwork or Out-Of-Body Experience?

We tried out Jess Johnson's VR artwork, currently on display at the NGV, and it was like a Magic Eye had come to life.
Installation view of "Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus" at NGV International. Photo by Tobias Titz, courtesy of NGV

Confession: I’m not a gadgets guy. Or a gamer. Or what you’d call an "early adopter” of anything, especially not of technology. In fact, I’m probably a bit of a skeptic when it comes to tech. Despite this, I felt genuinely excited as I made my way up to the third floor of the National Gallery of Victoria to sink my eyes into Jess Johnson’s Wurm Haus exhibition. Specifically, the anticipated virtual reality artwork "Ixian Gate", which she created in collaboration with filmmaker Simon Ward.


Walking into the exhibition room itself was mind-bending. The patterned wallpaper and trippy, tessellated flooring was the perfect prelude to the main attraction: the Oculus Rift viewing station in the middle of the room, which Johnson refers to as the ‘altar’. Putting on the headset and headphones, I was immediately cast into a world that felt like a Magic Eye had come to life. All the chitter-chatter in the room disappeared. Up, down, left and right, I searched for a gap in the headset where my real-life surroundings might peek through. There was no gap. I panicked a little, adjusting the position of my arms too many times as I got used to the 360-degree experience. I soon settled, and became entirely immersed in the artist’s imagination.

Installation view of "Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus" at NGV International. Photo by Tobias Titz, courtesy of NGV

In the real world, I stood still in one spot. In the virtual world, I was hovering on a tile adorned with an ancient-looking gold star. I floated past a group of Roman-looking figures who formed a human ladder. A dragon’s head (or was that a bat’s head?) appeared off in the distance. I continued to feel as though I was physically floating through this VR universe, despite standing with two feet firmly on the ground. In front of me was a giant imposing temple. To my left, more groups of figures were in acrobatic positions. Suddenly, a huge worm surfaced as if from nowhere.

My vessel veered left and the ground in front of me opened up to reveal a set of stairs. I felt palpable giddy as I descended. Next, inside some sort of underground tomb, I was met with an infinitely long corridor and a string of human-size worms flying toward me. The worms looked so lifelike and my perception was so suspended that I went to take out my iPhone to take a photo (which in itself was a weird validation of reality). These worms had even terrified Johnson when she first saw them rendered in their 3D form, she told us earlier this year.


For four plus minutes my journey continued like this: more strange creatures, alien architecture, and ancient symbols. The sense of depth, scale, vertiginous drops, and surround-sound made it feel like some sort of spiritual or higher experience. And like most experiences of this kind, I didn’t want it to end. When it did, I was left feeling over-stimulated and wanting more, like coming off an outer-body or drug-induced experience.

"Ixian Gate" is the first work created by Johnson utilising Oculs Rift, the Facebook-owned system not due for public release until early 2016. To get it where it is today, Ward and video effects artist Kenny Smith scanned all of Johnson’s drawings from the past three years and developed them into a 3D-animated videoscape using a game technology called Unity. With the addition of sound designer Andrew Clarke, Johnson’s illustrations—incredibly detailed, psychedelic and densely layered—are elevated to a strange and consuming universe.

The Oculus Rift artwork raises many questions about reality, and the difference between real and virtual worlds—and people’s perceptions of reality vary. Perhaps that’s one of the deeper aspects of the artwork: that you can literally plug into this thing and experience someone else’s reality. From the moment you plug in until the moment you leave, you are positioned within Johnson’s artwork. You don’t get to choose whether you want to engage with it or not; by putting on the headset you are at the behest of the artist.


“My reality is different to your reality. We’re taught to think of reality as fixed and absolute thing; like concrete or bedrock.” Johnson said in an interview with NGV. “I think of it as flowing lava, moving under the surface of time. Reality can be different speeds and densities. It can be multidimensional.”

Installation view of "Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus" at NGV International. Photo by Tobias Titz, courtesy of NGV

"We want to live" (2013) by Jess Johnson, courtesy of Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney; and Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland

You can experience the "Ixian Gate" VR artwork currently showing as part of Jess Johnson: Wurm Haus until January 31, 2016, at NGV International Level 3, Contemporary Art & Design. You can find out more info here.


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