Dome screening review: XYZZY: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Neversphere

‘XYZZY’ is a visual and aural journey that tilts our world upside down.

XYZZY is an inherently ambitious project. It’s a 45-minute long illustration-to-animation film based off a score by four musicians, making its Australia premiere in a massive, temporary dome at the Melbourne Museum Plaza. Add to that the prodigious visual feast created by New Zealand artists Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, the result is a mind-boggling experience that tilts your world upside down (at times quite literally).

Having seen Johnson and Ward’s touring exhibition Terminus at Hyphen Wodonga quite recently, it is clear how they have taken a step further with XYZZY, scaling up the strength of virtual reality and gameplay to the full potential of a 360-degree dome. Seated on beanbags beneath the screen with sound echoing off from the spherical architecture, audiences are immediately carried into a new world – a space caught in some facet of the universe, unbound by knowledge and presumptions.

Latex figures of different skin tones perform choreographed, acrobatic movements, while giant space worms of all colours and textures swim in and out of crevasses. The surrounding environment shifts from architectural mazes to pixelated Minecraft caves, technicoloured passageways, dungeon towers and more. Fanged creatures with human limbs and bat-winged demons with checkered skin go about their activities, acknowledging our presence but unfazed by our existence.

While the delivery of XYZZY utilises awe-inspiring technology, it is aesthetically grounded in the hand-made. The marks of the artist’s hand are visible in crayon-textured strokes and tactile surfaces resembling wood, stone or cardboard. It’s a work that emphasises human labour and involvement, alongside otherworldly imagination.

This is felt equally through the music – created by Andrew Clarke, Lachlan Anderson, Stef Animal and Luke Rowell – that blends seamlessly through cinematic melodies, retro beats and eerie tempos. At the post-screening Q&A on 18 August, Ward likened making XYZZY to making a music video for a whole album. Here, music and movement are devices for storytelling, they transfer ideas and communicate visions.

Audiences are taken on the journey physically and mentally, as colossal guardians stand overhead and “pick up” the orb in which we appear to be housed. We are regarded temporarily with curiosity, before slipping from the palm of one to the other, tumbling through the universe in a dizzying journey where the end is thrilling but unpredictable.

Colossal guardians looking down at the audience in ‘XYZZY: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’, screen at the Neversphere 2023. Photo: ArtsHub.

There is something that feels deeply existential about Johnson’s visual language – the artist herself saying it’s a form of self-expression that could not be achieved with words. Perhaps due to this, it feels equally difficult to capture what her work is about through writing. There is logic to the chaos. Emotions of awe and wonder are constantly unsettled by the sense of the unknown – a reason why the work never loses its charm.

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The phrase that came to mind as the screen dimmed was: ‘The laws of the universe are constantly changing; we are only here by chance.’

XYZZY: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward is screening at the Neversphere from 18-27 August as part of Now or Never festival; tickets $20-$30.

XYZZY: Jess Johnson and Simon Ward is co-commissioned by Now or Never with Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. She took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs and was the project manager of ArtsHub’s diverse writers initiative, Amplify Collective. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram @lleizy_