Jess Johnson: we can’t keep going the way we’ve been going but we know no other way to go

Jess Johnson brings to life a complex fictional world through hand-drawn images that are inspired by her interests in science fiction, comic books, technology, architecture, and theories of consciousness. For this site-responsive commission in the SAM Atrium and Central Void, Johnson has created four 7-metre-long silk banners. They appear suspended in the expansive space, reminiscent of portals offering a glimpse into a different realm.

The concept of world-building lies at the heart of Johnson’s densely layered and visually rich artworks. She formulates worlds within worlds through self-replicating geometric patterns, temple-like structures, and obscure symbology. The world depicted in this series of banners is inhabited by a variety of humanoid figures, alien creatures, worms, prehistoric bugs, and deities that have become entangled into the patterning and internal architecture of this realm.

The exhibition title, we can’t keep going the way we’ve been going but we know no other way to go hints at a world on the brink of collapse under the weight of its own inherent structure. Across these banners, Johnson alludes to numerous literary references that forewarn of god complexes, including: the novelette Sandkings (1979) by George R. R. Martin, in which a man who controls a set of creatures in an aquarium goes from being worshipped with sand effigies made in his image to being subject to the creatures’ rebellion  for the cruelty he inflicts; the Greek myths of Icarus, flying too close to the sun, and Narcissus, becoming obsessed with his own image; and the biblical story, The Tower of Babel from the Book of Genesis, where the Babylonians presumptuously build a tower from earth to heaven only to be punished by God for their hubris. Johnson’s banners provide a timely reminder that self-replicating civilisations can flourish when left to their own devices but can also crumble in familiar patterns of societal collapse and rebellion against parasitic elites, gods or their creator.

Image: Flesh Nebula, 2022 (detail). Courtesy of the artist and Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney. 


Jess Johnson in her studio, 2022 © the artist. Photo courtesy of the artist.

we can’t keep going the way we’ve been going but we know no other way to go, 2022, installation view. Shepparton Art Museum, 2023. Photo by Leon Schoots

About the Artist

Jess Johnson (b. 1979 in New Zealand) is a contemporary artist who lives and works between the USA and New Zealand. Her artworks reflect ideologies of technology and flesh, both ancient and futuristic. Her drawing practice feeds into installations and collaborations in animation, music, fashion, virtual reality, and textile art. Johnson’s work has been exhibited extensively internationally including at Jack Hanley Gallery, New York; Art Basel, Hong Kong; Nanzuka Gallery, Tokyo; Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, UK; Centre Clark, Montreal; the National Gallery of Australia; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; and Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand. Jess Johnson is represented by Jack Hanley Gallery, New York; Darren Knight Gallery, Australia; Ivan Anthony Gallery, New Zealand; and Nanzuka Gallery, Tokyo.

Curator: Jess O'Farrell, Exhibitions Curator

Location: Museum Atrium & Central Void