The Australian Obsession
And so a question emerges: why are we, as Australians, so obsessed with our landscape?
Dr Annika Herb says, whose PhD thesis partly explored the Australian landscape in regards to Australian literature, says the land is “pivotal” to our cultural identity. “Our landscape is so much a part of our identity as a country, our national identity, our personal identity,” she says.
For Brigette Uren, Gallery Director at Maitland Regional Art Gallery, our identification with the landscape comes from our immersion in it. “We understand light and climate very differently to the rest of the world, because that light is very unique to Australian landscape,” she says. “We respond very well to that because that is what we experience every day.”
The appearance of the Australian landscape in film is a relatively new concept. Dr Simon Weaving, a filmmaker and academic, explains the initiation of the Australian landscape into studio films back in the post-war period.
“There were very few films being made here and [UK filmmaker Harry Watt] came to Australia, spent 8 months going around the country, working out where to shoot a film,” Dr Weaving says. “He was used to making studio films and he came to the conclusion that Australia should make films set in the outback… and I think some of the film mythology comes from that era and that approach.”
The resulting film was The Overlanders (1946), set entirely outdoors and focused on the quintessential man-of-the-outback: the cattle drover.
Following the film industry’s shedding of light on the Australian landscape, the land has played an important role in cinema. “For a lot of filmmakers, the Australian landscape is a character in their film – it’s an important character,” Dr Weaving says.
Since The Overlanders, the landscape has been an ever present force in countless Australian films. Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation of the Joan Lindsay classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock, became an international success and showcased the Australian bush to the rest of the world. The landscape in Picnic is mystical, eerie and dangerous, drawing colonial schoolgirls into the bush and swallowing them whole.
“[The landscape in Picnic is] this emotionally hostile place that you don’t understand, and is old and dangerous… and to be, if not feared, at least held in awe,” Dr Weaving says.
The 2018 remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock, currently airing on Foxtel, follows in the same vein: the land is portrayed as a mysterious life force, almost like a puppeteer, luring and controlling the characters that exist within it.
It’s 1994, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert graced the silver screen. Priscilla is the ultimate road trip movie, following three drag queens as they journey from Sydney’s cityscape to outback Alice Springs. The trio travel through country towns, along dirt roads into the vastness of Australia’s Red Centre. Priscilla’s landscape becomes a place of friendship, belonging and individuality. And there’s something so stunning about glitter and feathers being thrust against the blue sky and orange desert.
The landscape features so prominently in Australian literature, too. The 1894 novel Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner showcases an Australian bush that is “very, very threatening”, says Dr Herb. The story follows the seven Woolcot children and their relationship to the bush, which eventually proves to be fatal to the family.
Tim Winton, one of the great Australian writers of the modern age, writes about the ocean so lovingly and reverently. His most recent book-turned-film is Breath, released this year, showcases Australia’s coastline as the star of the story.
The ‘Aussie beach’ is a facet of Australian landscape that is seen much less in our creative expression than the bush and outback, although perhaps is just as poignant. “We all live around the coast, near the water, in cities,” Dr Weaving says. “And yet, if you watched our movies, looked at our art, read our books, you’d believe we all lived in semi-desert outback.”
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So how can so many different versions of the landscape be created? Perhaps these versions are less about the land itself, and more about how each creator relates to it. “It’s a case of art imitating life in some capacity,” Uren says. “How an artist responds to place or environment is very closely linked to cultural discourse and where they fit in the landscape.”
An artwork becomes a mirror of the artist, and on a much bigger scale, the Australian story. “Is landscape painting actually creating a portrait of ourselves?” Uren asks. “If you look at how Australian art has looked at landscape over time, they are telling us a very specific story or portrait of Australian identity. The landscape is almost a tool to communicate that concept.”
Often, portrayals of landscape can become a reflection of the creator’s own angsts and tribulations in their personal relationship with land. “Of course it’s also very much a reflection of the writer’s own sensibilities, their perspectives and their anxieties in particular about not fitting into this landscape,” Dr Herb says. “We can see it so vastly different – something threatening, something untameable, something quite vibrant, something powerful…”
These differing perspectives of the landscape exist not only in Australia, but throughout the rest of the world. For Dr Weaving, the Australian connection to the bush is seen as the “equivalent of the West” in American culture; both vistas represent an untameable, rugged state – a place desired by colonists to be explored, ‘conquered’ and made sense of.
It’s a similar story for art. Scandinavian wintry scenes, English country sides and Austrian villages are all ways in which landscape is expressed overseas. “[European artists’] landscape is more intimately set than ours because we’ve got those big, open skies,” Uren says.
“Our population per square metre is so much less than overseas. I think it’s because we have that open space, and the distance of the scenes that are created between landmasses makes Australia’s relationship with landscape very special.”
While a connection to land is something that translates across the globe, the Australian connection seems to be ‘something else’. “Other countries certainly do have their own strong connections to land as they express through art, literature, film,” Dr Herb says. “The Australian one is quite strong, and potentially because of that tangled history and people trying to muddle their way through their own identity and connection to it, it changes it somewhat.”
With Australia’s shared history of Indigenous peoples and European settlers, our modern connection with land is made all the more complex. “Because it is one of the oldest lands out there, people have been living there for over 60, 000 plus years… and it’s still very relatively new in other ways,” Dr Herb says. “So that mix and tangle between the two can be quite complicated.
“[The current relationship to land] is so hugely connected to Indigenous culture… that would be the primary thing that foregrounds and almost bleeds through.”
Land was depicted as central to all parts of existence in Aboriginal tradition. European colonisation in the 18th century caused the portrayal to shift. “When the first painters arrived and were painting works, they didn’t actually see the countryside,” Dr Weaving says. “They painted these trees that were like English trees.”
From a colonial viewpoint, the settlers can be likened to a ‘fish-out-of-water’ – they didn’t belong to this ‘new land’. “Initially, it was trying to transpose this British sensibility,” Dr Herb says. “So the English fairy tales […] of course do not fit into the Australian landscape.
“Essentially what they’re trying to do a lot of the time is overwrite the Indigenous voices, the Indigenous history and that connection to the land that is ongoing. So it became a really difficult space.
“The space we’re in now… we can write alongside [Aboriginal culture],” Dr Herb says.
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And so we come back to the question asked earlier: why are we obsessed with the landscape?
“I think because we [mostly] live in dense cities, in a very suburbanised way,” Dr Weaving says. “I think we’re constantly attracted to the opposite of that, which is the wilderness that hasn’t been civilised – it may be dangerous but exciting, it holds adventures and is just beautiful as well.”
“And if you talk to most people, they’ve never been there… it lives in our imagination.”
The landscape then becomes more than just a background – it becomes part of who we are. “Often it’s a reflection of perspective and identity,” Dr Herb says.
“And I think it’s going to continue to be such a vibrant part of creative expression.”