vera mšller: labland

Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne
14 June - 6 July 2002

The Labland world created by Vera Miller is an alternate, albeit parallel, reflection of our own, that continues the artist's preoccupation with human interaction and abstraction of the natural world. Belying the cute look, the exhibition is an acute hermeneutic investigation into the complexities of how mimesis mediates our experience and knowledge of the world. Through an ambiguous visual morphology combining object and image, the exhibition invites both narrative and epistemological speculation.

The genesis of the project was a chance encounter between newly born mice and small biomorphic sculptures in the artist's studio. This natural intervention into Miller's practice was unheralded, and although unplanned, offered poetic potential in an area in which her practice is already situated. Prior to training as an artist in Melbourne, Miller studied (micro)biology and theology in Wurzburg and Munich, Germany. This conjunction of art, life, science and faith has been an ongoing point of reference in her artistic operations and it finds consummate articulation in the diminutive world of La bland where the natural and artificial eloquently coalesce.

To begin with, the cool-white minimalism of the installation seems traditionally conservative, however within the context of the exhibition the spatial organisation appears to parody the natural history museum. Miller achieves this through the appropriation of nineteenth century museological display conventions in which her biomorphic sculptures are exhibited on a vitrine style surface and juxtaposed with photographs of their interaction with the baby mice. Whether artistic or scientific, the museum legislates figurative and theoretical narratives of how we gain knowledge and thus moderate our position in the world. Miller's critique of this site appears aimed at the anthropomorphic contingencies that underpin the institution of the museum, which provided the foundation of how we interpolate the natural world. This is refiected in the raised strategic vantage point ~f the camera in Miller's photographs, which looks down upon its subject implying an impartial and objective perspective. The resulting images of the mice in maternal, absurd and existential scenarios such as suckling, climbing and ambling through a forest fabricate a visual narrative through which the co-habitation of the surreal flora and fauna appears perfectly natural and uncontrived.

Miller compliments these ideas in the key thematic reference given in the exhibition's title; the science laboratory. Like the museum space, the laboratory is also a repository of knowledge. Increasingly however its role has developed beyond the description and narration of the natural world toward biotechnical intervention. Whereas initially the mice appear as protagonists within the context of a nature documentary, within the laboratory they are the agents of unseen human intervention. Miller deftly negotiates the visibility of anthropomorphic intervention through an indeterminate oscillation between contexts and conceptualisations of culture and nature. The primary achievement of the exhibition is the vivid and unified portrait it paints of how we understand and develop theoretical models of our environment. Unlike new media practices of similar content, Miller's play on the 'truth of photography' provides added analogue punch over digital practices. While the exhibition address very contemporary concerns, the leitmotif of Labland is classic trompe l’oeil.