But the experience of these works is exhilarating and the result is total immersion.
The imagery – from Johnson’s drawing practice and brought to life by Ward – is incredible, and in one breath you’re transported from an art gallery in Canberra to a beautiful dark sci-fi wonderland, subduing all your senses to art.
Each five-minute immersion traces a deep and elegant subconscious journey. After the first viewing, I emerged blinking and bewildered.
Few other works of art – perhaps none, in fact – can claim to have such an effect on their audience.
A devouring journey
In the center of Terminus is the allegory of the quest. Ward cites his shared love with Johnson for ’80s sci-fi movies.
This narrative is apparent in the structure of the exhibition – featuring the consecutive elements of the story of initiation, mission, journey, conflict and reward – and even in the process of entering into the gallery, then in the exhibition space, then in the world of virtual reality.
It’s all part of the conceptual journey of “worlds under worlds”, as Ward puts it.
Although unique, there is also an uncanny familiarity with Terminus. There are nods to Dunes and star wars, and detectable influences from comic books and puppets.
Andrew Clarke’s video game-referencing synth soundtrack keeps the narrative flowing while adding an essential soothing element.
The process to completion was painstaking, Ward says: “We’ve been working on it since July, and I’ve been at a computer ever since. I haven’t had as many weekends or nights off.”
Virtual reality is so central to Terminus that the pair planned the installation themselves using technology. With Johnson living in New York and Ward in Wellington, they used VR communication to brainstorm ideas and map the physical exhibition space.
“We would meet in these galactic training rooms and play space ball while we talked about the project,” Johnson explains.
“We would have access to our computer screens so we could walk through the scenes that Simon was doing in VR – while he was in VR.”
The technology is now mainstream in many fields, from firefighting and the military to medicine and architecture. It’s refreshing to see it explored here in art, in ways that test consciousness and expand experience.
When Johnson and Ward released their first VR work Ixian Gate in 2015, it is the beginning of the project which will become Terminus. The artists see Ixian Gate as the first chapter of the series.
When I interviewed Johnson in 2015, she said, “With this technology, I don’t have to tell anyone what my psychedelic drug experience is – I can put the headset on them and upload that experience to their brain.”
Terminus is at National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until August 26.