Pink rubbery men scramble up geometric walls. Devotional temples rise from the depths. Giant worms roam through space, rooms explode and a tiny crab-like creature scuttles along an elevated pathway.

And thats only the beginning.

Artists Simon Ward and Jess Johnson in the exhibition space.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

Some people were moved to tears at this week's opening of Terminus, an immersive, virtual-reality installation by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward. Several ripped off the headset.

The work was commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia as part of the Balnaves Contemporary Intervention Series and is the first-ever virtual reality work to be included in the national collection. Curator Jaklyn Babington describes it as a "contemporary masterpiece", and in terms of scale, depth and form, it is a world first.

Its arrival was celebrated with a sold-out party of 650, complete with bar, DJs and disco lighting.


Terminus consists of a series of five separate VR experiences and a "pavilion room" with surrounding video projections, housed inside a Dungeons and Dragons-style maze.

It pushes the limits of VR technology and some people may find experiencing the works challenging. VR in itself can cause anxiety, vertigo or dizziness – let alone submitting oneself to the disturbing eternal void these artists have created.

A working drawing for Terminus.

Photo: Jess Johnson

But experiencing these works is exhilarating, and the pay-off is complete immersion.

The imagery – from Johnsons drawing practice and animated by Ward – is incredible, and in a breath youre transported from an art gallery in Canberra to a beautiful, dark, sci-fi wonderland, submitting all your senses to the art.

Each five-minute immersion plots a deep and elegant subconscious journey. After the first viewing I emerged blinking and disoriented.

Few other artworks – perhaps none, in fact – can boast such an effect on their audience.

A working drawing for Terminus.

Photo: Jess Johnson

An all-consuming journey

At the centre of Terminus is the quest allegory. Ward cites his and Johnson's shared love of '80s sci-fi films.

The exhibiton space housing the VR works plays off the quest theme.

Photo: Supplied

That narrative is apparent in the exhibition structure – featuring the consecutive story elements of initiation, mission, journey, strife and reward – and even in the process of entering the gallery, then the exhibition space and then the VR world.

It's all part of the conceptual journey of "worlds under worlds", as Ward puts it.

Although unique, there is also an odd familiarity to Terminus. There are nods to Dune and Star Wars, and detectable influences of comic books and puppetry.

Andrew Clarkes video game-referencing synth soundtrack keeps the narrative on pace while adding an essential soothing element.

The process to completion was painstaking, says Ward: "Weve been working on this since July, and Ive been in front of a computer since then. I havent had that many weekends or nights off."

VR is so central to Terminus that the pair planned out the installation itself using the technology. With Johnson living in New York and Ward in Wellington, they used VR communication to thrash out ideas and map out the physical exhibition space.

A working drawing for Terminus.

Photo: Jess Johnson

“We would meet up in these galactic training rooms and play space ball while were talking about the project," says Johnson.

"Wed have access to our computer screens so we could do walk-throughs of the scenes that Simon was making in VR – whilst in VR.”

The technology is now commonplace in many fields, from firefighting and the military to medicine and architecture. Its 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 was the beginning of the project that would become Terminus. The artists see Ixian Gate as the first chapter in the series.

When I interviewed Johnson in 2015 she said: "With this technology I dont have to tell someone what my psychedelic drug experience is – I can put the headset on them and download that experience into their brain."

Terminus is at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until August 26.

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