Flesh, unflesh. Body, unbody. Being, unbeing. Jess Johnson and Simon Ward’s XYZZY is a mind-melting trip into a realm that only broaches on the familiar. An undulating, hypnotic experience that will challenge your comfort with worms and maybe make you a little motion sick.
Currently showing at the newly refurbished Stardome Observatory and Planetarium, I took an unsuspecting date along to the media screening of XYZZY last Saturday. I had never been to the Stardome before and it was charmingly endearing to see a few dozen grown adults entertain themselves with the educational astronomy exhibitions while they waited for the planetarium to open its doors.
Once we had all settled into the tilted seats of the planetarium theatre there was a quick health and safety briefing and a warning that “some parts get a bit fast” so we may want to close our eyes if we get motion sick. Then we were plunged into darkness.
XYZZY is a very unique piece of work. It comes to life through the partnership of contemporary artist Jess Johnson and director Simon Ward and was originally created as a commissioned piece for Tūhura Otago Museum (NZ) and Now or Never Festival (AU).
For those not familiar with Johnson’s work, it has a pastel psychedelic, messianic, unknowable and yet all-knowing aura to it. There’s so much for the eye to take in and at times feels intentionally obscure, with secrets held at bay from the viewer.
With great skill, video director Simon Ward has taken a selection of Johnson’s drawings from the last decade and formed them into a new dimension. The experience feels akin to an early ’90s sci-fi dungeon-crawling video game morphing into a contemporary VR-adjacent experience.
The whole atmosphere is built upon fittingly electronic synthesizer tracks from musicians Andrew Clarke, Luke Rowell, Stef Animal and Lachlan Anderson. It’s the audial elements that pull the work together, fleshing out its personality and curating the emotional resonance for the audience. In tandem, the imagery and music at times create a mediative experience that cradles the senses.
Now, I don’t want to give too go into too much detail—XYZZY is definitely something you’ll want to experience yourself—but I’ll give you some highlights.
The human adjacent bodies of waxy flesh tones, blindfolded and glistening in artificial lighting. Bent in impossible angles and independent limbs running rampant.
A clockwork tower with checkboard devils, winding upwards to an unreachable place.
An alien-mask team foot race, littered with death traps straight from an early PlayStation action-adventure game, all culminate in nude yoga.
Too many fucking undulating, pulsing, squirming worms.
One critique I have is that XYZZY rarely surprises you on its fixed path. Sure, the environment you’re traversing through is constantly evolving in discombobulating ways, with giant striped aliens and Galaga-esque paved hallways, but it all feels like typical beats on a theme park rollercoaster ride. I can probably chalk this up to the planetarium-style screening but, in my opinion, there’s a little room for excitement on this trippy train ride.
Otherwise, XYZZY is an experiential work that challenges the limitations of conventional art exhibitions. Johnson’s work is transformed by Ward, and in this new mode, invites audiences to engage with her complex, never-truly-knowable worlds. Though you’ll probably walk out thinking you’ve just participated in a mass hysteria event, hopefully, the technicolour dream/nightmarescape that is XYZZY will leave you questioning the boundaries of art in contemporary society. Buzzy.
My date also said he liked it, so if my review was too much of a ramble, maybe listen to him instead and head over to the Stardome.
XYZZY is on at Stardome Observatory and Planetarium until Tuesday 19 December. If you would like to head along you can find tickets over on the Stardome website.