Arts

Resident alien: an interview with Jess Johnson

Since 2006 the McCahon House residency program has harnessed Colin McCahon’s legacy to create opportunities for contemporary artists today. 2019 is also the 100th anniversary of McCahon’s birth.

Hamish Coney spoke with the 35th and most recent McCahon House resident artist, expatriate New Zealander Jess Johnson a few days before the conclusion of her three-month stay in late March.

Hamish Coney: You are coming to the end of your residency at the McCahon House in Titirangi. Tell us about your experience over the last three months.

Jess Johnson: For me this period has been very much about reconnecting with New Zealand. I left when I was twenty two in 2002. This has been the longest period that I have been back in the country. I’ve been living in New York for the last three years. The further I have been away from New Zealand the more I’ve felt the pull back here.

It has only been relatively recently that I have had a few invitations to exhibit in New Zealand. The McCahon residency has come just after being nominated as a finalist in the 2018 Walters Prize for the installation Whol Why Wurld (2017).

See Hamish Coney’s review of the Walters Prize finalists exhibition here.

Being nominated for the Walters Prize was a big thing for myself and my moving image collaborator Simon Ward. This long period of time in New Zealand, for the prize and then the McCahon residency, has been an opportunity to reconnect with the country, family and with old friends here. Plus having this work space has been great.

HC: Can we discuss your early New Zealand experience?

JJ: I was born in Tauranga, grew up there and moved to Christchurch when I was seventeen in the late 90s and went to art school at Ilam. These were really formative years.

HC: Much of the input in your work comes from a space outside the modern or contemporary art space, from worlds of popular culture, sci-fi, comic book and commercial art – practitioners that we don’t traditionally see in the fine art gallery system.

So, what was the discourse like for you when you went to art school? You bought a very different set of reference points with you.

JJ: All of those inputs that you describe were my avenues into art. Growing up in Tauranga, there were no art galleries. So, I learnt about art through sci-fi book covers, album artwork, posters and VHS covers. There was a lot of cosmic imagery. My parents had a record collection. I remember some Jefferson Airplane albums!

HC: When you were at art school and thinking about being an artist was there a context to discuss these things as your practice developed?

JJ: The answer to the question is ‘not really’. I do remember that at art school at the time, I had to wrap up the stuff that I was into and put it aside, and learn about this other thing called the art world that existed outside all of the things that got me into art in the first place. It took me some time to reconcile that what I was into was legitimate fodder for the art that I wanted to make. What I was drawing and making in my notebooks I had to keep to one side – lots of worms and bat faced aliens!

A recent Jess Johnson exhibition at Jack Hanley Gallery, New York. Photo: Supplied/Jess Johnson

HC: One of the consequences of this period was that you did a lot of things before you could come back to the bat faced aliens. What did you do before you came back to your art practice?

JJ: I travelled around a lot in London and Europe, mostly working crap jobs. I eventually settled in Melbourne and landed a job as a gallery technician at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art where I worked for over a decade. But when I first moved to Melbourne I was quite outside the arts scene, not having been to art school there or having any inroad into the community. At that time I was more involved in the music scene. So I was making artwork for gig flyers and the odd album cover and still drawing in my notebooks.

I guess I was still tangentially involved in the art world as a technician. But that was a wonderful learning arc because I learnt a lot of practical skills in terms of how you create large scale installations – how to build things such as lighting, rigging and exhibition design. I also learnt quite a lot working one-on-one with some major international artists. You can have quite an intimate experience working over a couple of weeks with an artist.

HC: Who were some of the artists you worked with?

JJ: Mike Nelson, Gillian Wearing, Jim Lambie, Pipilotti Rist… and I learnt a lot working with the artists’ technicians who travelled with them. That was extremely educational for understanding the art world and the practicalities of installing ambitious works.

HC: This was a period when you were transitioning back to your art career. Was there a show you recall from this period that resonated with you?

JJ: I saw a mid 2000’s exhibition by Mike Kelley in Berlin which had a big impact on me. I remember walking up a long flight of stairs and opening this heavy door to the gallery. Inside it was dark and hazy, like there was a smoke machine in the installation. It took a while for my eyes to adjust. Tubes were snaking across the floor and there was a maze of platforms with giant illuminated glass bell jars that housed dioramic scenes showing Kandor, Superman’s home city. That feeling of walking through a door into another world had a huge effect on me. It was a moment when I thought ‘wow, so this can be art too. You can create a portals to other worlds’.

HC: I first saw your work at Primavera 2013 at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Sydney. I remember thinking this was a very ambitious project for a young artist. But now understanding your background as a technician and planning and installing large scale projects it all makes sense.

JJ: I knew exactly what I could produce in the seven days I had to install the exhibition. I knew what I could achieve in the time available.

HC: In recent years your work has transitioned from static drawing to rich, complex 3D moving image and now virtual reality projects with Simon Ward. They posit as dreamscapes full of ritual. I have enjoyed watching people viewing your work. They soon swoon into a theta state – a kind of dreaming. Is the dreamscape, the pure world of the imagination, something you are trying to locate in your work?

JJ: Yes, it is. Because if you ask me any direct questions about the ritual or the imagery in the work, I can get quite tongue tied. I feel I am not making conscious decisions about the imagery when I am working. You could call it deep psyche or the sub-conscious going on. The process that I have developed to construct the drawings and the actual time and labour that this requires, allows for ideas to come to the surface. I’m not making many conscious decisions. However, I don’t like to suggest that the work is entirely subconscious, you know automated, and I am just a conduit.

I think what I’m trying to do is to manifest another reality into this one. I’m mostly inspired by film directors or authors who are able to pull universes into existence through determination and willpower alone – who can dazzle audiences into belief by injecting an abundance of complexity and detail into their creations. I was never satisfied by framing a drawing on the gallery wall. I want to create a portal into these other worlds and that is why I started creating installations as backdrops to the drawings and eventually the animations and VR.

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward - Whol Why Wurld installation. Photo: Supplied/Jess Johnson and Simon Ward.

HC:The space that your work occupies is not seen as gender neutral. To put it bluntly, it tends to be seen as geek boy world. Is there a community of female practitioners in this space? Or are you there all by yourself?

JJ: When I was growing up and reading sci-fi it was very much a white, male world. But as I got older and dug deeper the authors that I respond to more are female. One of my favourite authors is Octavia E. Butler, an African American who has recently died. She wrote about fifteen books. I do know a number of female comic artists or artists in the art world who are going down their respective wormholes with their world building activities. So, no I don’t think I’m the only one at all.

But I think that a number of people who follow me on Instagram think I am a boy when I read the comments. But that doesn’t bother me. I don’t feel gendered in the work at all. However, some people have commented that they view my world as a matriarchal utopia. And I’ve had comments via my New York dealer that a lot of younger visitors to my exhibitions there thought that I was transgender. I think people project their own stuff into the work. But the avatars and the humanoids in my worlds are not gendered. Simon calls them flesh suits!

HC: One of the things I see you in your work and I think that the viewers do too, is that the wealth of detail, the pattern making is cross-cultural. Whether it is Māori design that we understand in New Zealand, Byzantine tiles or Marquesan tattoo, many cultures prize pattern making as an intellectual and spiritual portal into the world of the imagination. Do you look at indigenous pattern making as fertile source material? You travel the world. You must have a lot of exposure to different aspects of this internationally?

JJ: I notice pattern everywhere. Many cultures use this density of design to hallucinatory effect so they can utilise abundance of detail to reinforce belief or even as a tool for indoctrination and messaging.

HC: Do you think that this intensity of design, whether it is in the sci fi world, indigenous practice or even mosaic floor tiles requires such visual and intellectual brain work that the complexity shunts the cognitive, descriptive role of language out of the way?

JJ: You can become a receiver. It is important to me and it is hard to talk about. I have a story that may illustrate this. In about 2013 I had a studio at Gertrude Street in Melbourne. At that time I was listening to a lot of podcasts recorded by Terence McKenna who is this psychonaut, ethnobiologist is how I could describe him. I got onto him when I was exploring early virtual reality technology and he was very interested in this. He gave lectures at raves and that sort of thing.

There were hundreds of these freeform lectures on psychedelics and Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).  DMT is an organic compound found in many species of plants and which occurs naturally in some mammals brains - including the pineal gland of humans. There is a theory that when we dream the pineal gland releases small amounts of DMT into the brain and this causes intense dreams and near-death experiences as the brain is flooded with this compound.

He is very interested in this drug because there is a strange commonality of experience amongst those people that take it. They report visiting these planetariums made of self-replicating geometric architecture that sings itself into existence. These structures are populated by entities that McKenna calls machine elves that create these architectural forms. I was listening to these podcasts and his descriptions of what people see on DMT is really similar to my drawings. Then I started getting messages from stoner kids on Instagram asking me ‘are these your DMT visions’. I still get them every week.

HC: You are packing up in the next few days and returning to New York. What’s next?

JJ: Another residency! In Brooklyn, in the neighbourhood of Red Hook at an organisation called Pioneer Works which presents a lot of art, science, technology and music crossover at their complex. It is a six-month residency. The day that I get back to New York I have my orientation and I’m straight into it! Simon (Ward) who is based in Wellington will join me in May and we’ll be working at Pioneer Works until September.

In September I have a solo show at Jack Hanley gallery in New York, then late October I’m going to Melbourne and the Heide Museum will be presenting Terminus, the five-part VR installation we originally made for the National Gallery of Australia last year. Terminus will be touring for the next three years and Heide is the first stop. In November, Simon and I are having our first solo show in Tokyo at the Nanzuka Gallery and I hope to be back in New Zealand for Christmas.

Jess Johnson is represented by Jack Hanley Gallery, New York, Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney and Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland ivananthony.com.

McCahon House is located at 67 Otitori Road, Tititrangi a open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday. For further details see mcchahonhouse.org.nz.

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