Front of house gallery staff, Kalou Koefoed, remembers Terminus, an exhibition by Jess Johnson and Simon Ward at Tauranga Art Gallery, 2019.
I thought I knew about VR already, but Terminus was not what I expected. At once alien and otherworldly, and yet somehow eerily familiar, it’s a ride and a half, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I have found myself describing it to gallery visitors that it’s like being inside someone else’s dream. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a math equation: Jess Johnson’s analogue illustrations and world-building together with the narrative element of moving image collaborator, Simon Ward, equals a journey through alternate times and space. It’s escapism at its finest.
I’m here at TAG. It’s Sunday morning and I’m the only one in the building. The gallery doesn’t open for another hour. I work here, lucky me.
Terminus closes tomorrow. One last slide into the matrix for me. I power up the computers and start at Known Unknown, which was my first Terminus experience back in June, my VR cherry pop. It is the seated one in the middle, the second of the five realms/VR stations in the gallery space.
The music by soundscape architect Andrew Clarke draws you in before even putting on the headset, which is coming apart at the seams after three months of heavy wear, with hundreds of visitors trying them on each day.
The dial with the spinning triangle aligns and opens up, letting me in.
A temple. An endless labyrinthian landscape. Contorting humanoid worshippers perform strange rituals on the forecourt. ‘The Rats who Built the Labyrinth from which they Plan to Escape’ is written high up on the temple wall. It’s morning. I am the viewer and the hero in here. It is both calm and unnerving. Dreamlike. I’m being shown something important that I don’t quite understand. So many ways to interpret this, so many simultaneous emotional responses, as well as the physical sensation of being up high, teetering on the edge. If only I could decipher the code, I would… what? Reach a state of total bliss? It has that possibility. A secret has been shared. What do I do with it?
Night falls. I enter the box to the sounds of a Balinese synth fever dream. And then it ends. It’s been five minutes. It feels like aeons.
Aside from having Terminus all to myself this morning, the best part for me as gallery staff has been seeing people’s reactions to Terminus. We’ve had ladies whooping and shrieking, young as well as old narrating the whole experience to an unseen audience, individuals wobbling with vertigo as they are transported through Jess Johnson’s imagination, their brains telling them that they are moving along, though they know with certainty that their feet are planted on the gallery floor. Big dudes also get vertigo. One blanched and sweating rugby-dad said, “my feet just went from under me.” An eighty-six-year-old ex-fighter pilot, seated on the designated Terminus chair, continually exclaimed, “Hallelujah! Well hello there! Stop the bus!” as he travelled through Fleshold Crossing. The woman who could fly, no longer bound to her wheelchair, not needing her legs, emerging dreamy-eyed and thankful from Tumblewych in the Vault. And then of course Sir Richard O’Brien who sauntered in thrice in tight white jeans and fabulous boots and was so blown away by Terminus, he felt compelled to write to the local paper about “one of the most wonderful visits to an art exhibition” and urging people to head to Tauranga Art Gallery for “some virtual unreality.”
Terminus leaves tomorrow. Next stop Heide Museum in Melbourne, then onto Japan.
Fast forward to March 2020. COVID-19 happened and suddenly the act of putting on the same headset as the person before you, no matter how vigilantly wiped by gallery staff, has become impossible.
When the world powers back up, I hope Terminus comes to a city near you, for you to experience a few timeless moments visiting and sharing the slippery reality and lucid dreams of Jess Johnson.