Bennett Miller’s residency was characterised by movement, from his journeys from Fremantle, journeys on waterways like the Kalgan River, the journeys of the residents to Mount Barker, to the journeys of the SUVs he saw on the road, ludicrously overloaded with masses of belongings. Taking as a starting point the theme of rural utopias, Miller became interested in what motivates people to seek their own utopia; the sanctuary they find in a place and the impact they have upon it. His installation brings together found objects and sculptures to recreate an Albany Highway landscape, a dry roadside scene encountered repeatedly on approach to the lush greenery and rivers of Mount Barker.
Miller immersed himself in the history of the area, particularly in the 19th century when Albany was being considered for the state capital and the Great Southern was being colonised simultaneously by the French and the British. The Porongorups are an extremely significant Aboriginal site, believed to be the resting place of the wagyl, but in the present day the region’s identity remains focused on the farming, food production and land management practices that were imported by the European colonisers.
For Miller this period of utopian European aspirations for Australia is reflected in the work of Buvelot, a Swiss artist then based in Victoria and whose work influenced the Heidelberg school of Australian landscape art, which contributed to the formation and visual representation of national identity.
Buvelot’s representation of lush greenery is contrasted with the muted, dull tones of Miller’s installation, representing the failure of these colonial dreams which were based in utopian hope and aspiration but ultimately resulted in violence and destruction. It also marks the passage of time between the 19th and 21st century, a marker of the ongoing environmental damage that tends to result from these European aspirations for regional Australian landscapes.
Employing Buvelot’s landscape to symbolise a significant period of history as well as the marker of time between then and now, and the associated environmental degradation that has resulted from it, Miller’s installation reflects on the tendency of any modern culture to treat all landscapes first and foremost as a resource to control and exploit.