Exhibition review: GONDWANA VR: The Exhibition, South Australia Museum

This multisensory installation distils 100 years of climate data into a single day.
Gondwana. Image is rainforest and a young woman in a sleeveless patterned dress wearing a VR headset.

GONDWANA VR: The Exhibition welcomes visitors to explore the Daintree Rainforest as it fast-forwards through climate change projections up to 2090 in a 24-hour period, revealing the impact on the ecosystem. Each 24-hour period is different, as the computer system behind Gondwana selects a mixture of climate events and predictions that change the state of the rainforest.

Sometimes it will look like everything will be OK; at other times the rainforest will be devastated. The exhibition allows visitors to watch the digital Daintree Rainforest on a big screen, or delve into the rainforest and explore it with a virtual reality (VR) headset. It’s captivating, but is also disconnected from really teaching and demonstrating the dangers of climate change in a deeply impactful way.

The VR experience takes 15 minutes and bookings are available during the South Australian Museum’s opening hours. The climate change simulation runs regardless of who’s watching, playing out the full 24 hours, meaning that visitors will always be “dropping in” and only ever seeing a very small segment.

This is partly where GONDWANA VR: The exhibition hits a snag. In 15 minutes, things have changed, but not necessarily in a visible way. While moving through the rainforest, explorers can look at their virtual watch, bringing up a digital panel on the side that provides percentage statistics on the number of birds, insects, animals and the amount of canopy. These percentages would be interesting if they could be compared to the experience in the rainforest, and what they were at the start of the 15 minutes and at the end.

Unfortunately, there is no way to discover that over that quarter of an hour there’s been a massive change – or whether there was one at all, as the simulation playing at the time could be a much kinder version. It feels like a missed opportunity to truly generate an emotional impact.

The VR rainforest is a digital recreation using a concept art style – limited detail, simple block colouring. Animals and insects are silhouettes that can only be spotted in glimpses, while plants are bleached white to symbolise their death. This style makes the rainforest feel far away from the real one that inspired it, which is a feeling intensified by having sparkling particles floating around to direct the VR user where to go.

Following the particles doesn’t seem to lead to anything other than more rainforest, however, so going “your own way” is equally rewarding and makes this particular prompt pointless. Users are given tips for things to look out for, but only if they remember to glance down at the virtual watch. Even when prompted, it’s easy to miss the special insect or animal. Despite all this, the digital rainforest is a soothing place to be, with a beautiful soundscape of nature matched to the unfurling weather and time of day.

Visitors are welcome to spend as long as they like in the exhibition space but, surprisingly, there’s not much to see. There are beanbags and a few seats scattered in front of a long wall with the rainforest projected onto it, ticking through its simulation. It’s an enjoyable way to continue to be immersed in the rainforest with the sound of rain and the gentle chirping of birds, but without being in the driver’s seat, and having to choose where to look or go. In offshoot areas, there are taxidermied animals and insects that would live in the rainforest. Their little plaques give a bite-sized insight into them, but there’s no additional information sheets on the walls to understand their significance.

The information sheets that are on the wall provide context to the Gondwana VR experience: a snippet about what Gondawana and the Daintree are and how Gondwana VR was made. It’s strange to have an artistic experience that can evoke so much curiosity for real rainforests not be supported by further detailed information.

Read: Ballet review: Possum Magic The Ballet, Arts Centre Melbourne

GONDWANA VR: The Exhibition is a beautiful way to slow down and explore art, nature and the impacts of climate change. It’s an oddly soothing experience for a work that probes the risks of climate change, but perhaps if visitors could stay for the full 24-hour simulation, the true impact of this work could be realised (an experience that will become available as a special event for Adelaide Festival). Otherwise for visitors dropping by, Gondwana VR will leave them with their curiosity yet to be completely satisfied.  

GONDWANA VR: The exhibition, South Australia Museum
Creators: Ben Joseph Andrews and Emma Roberts

GONDWANA VR will be exhibited until 17 March 2024.

There will be a 48-hour continuous cycle of GONDWANA VR from 8-10 of March as part of Adelaide Festival 2024, which will see the Museum open for 24 hours a day alongside a full weekend of public programming to be announced in 2024.

Anita Sanders is a writer based in South Australia. She has written for radio, print and stage including The City street magazine, Radio Adelaide and South Australian Youth Arts Company. She is a graduate of Flinders University’s Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) and Deakin University’s Graduate Certificate of Business (Arts & Cultural Management).