(as published in Artlink, Vol 21 No 4, December 2001, pp. 35-41)
Artlink asked Ian North, a writer and artist, to interview Tillers for this issue, in view of his longstanding interest in both Tillers's work and the landscape genre generally. North had organised Tillers's first museum show, Still Life 2, Link exhibition no. 1 at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1974, and renewed his association with the artist by including him in the exhibition Expanse: Aboriginalities, Spatialities and the Politics of Ecstasy, which he curated in 1998.
Imants Tillers was early recognised as a leading conceptual artist in the 1970s and a pre-eminent postmodernist thereafter. He continues to work according to strategies he evolved during the 1980s, but seeking now an art of directly positive value as much as deconstructive quotation. He has become especially known for his Book of Power, the collective name for his multi-part works on canvas boards undertaken since 1981 and which is subject to complex possibilities of subdivision, recombination and indefinite extension, thus underscoring the interweaving character of his subject matter. He moved to the small country town of Cooma, New South Wales, in 1996. His work subsequently registered an interest in the natural environment and the surrounding Monaro region as an encultured landscape: the area had seen post-war migrants working on the Snowy River hydro-electric scheme in isolation from mainstream Australian society, a situation paralleling that of the artist's Latvian-born parents in Sydney. The artist also began revisiting Aboriginal art as a reference point as he had done in the 1980s, this time from a position of one learning about the land as well as mapping references within the international art arena.
Of the reproductions here, The Bridge of Reversible Destiny, 1990, gives the clearest indication of the elements of the Book of Power. The selection also includes Monaro, 1998, Tillers's first major work to register the grey, pink and bronze hues of the Monaro region. The other, more recent works also variously cite the work of Colin McCahon (the 'T' form, so dominant in another major work, Mexico, etcetera, 2001), a ladder (from Robert Fludd, 1574-1637), "The Throw of the Dice," a poem by Mallarme from 1897, and cherubs from the early nineteenth century German romantic, Philipp Otto Runge. Multiple elements come together to form statements about originality, chance and locality, articulated--a first for this artist--over extended series of works (Landprints, Nature Speaks). Mexico was occasioned by Cooma's association with Guerrerd, Mexico, on a 1945 homoclimatic map, while Nature Speaks: W, 2001, deploys the word "horizon" (ever shifting) over a clear suggestion of a real landscape.
Born in Sydney in 1950, Tillers completed a BSc course in architecture at the University of Sydney 1969-1972, gaining the university medal. He has not undertaken any other formal training, but regards working while a student on Christoâ€™s Wrapped Coast, Little Bay, Sydney, as a formative experience confirming his interest in conceptual art and installation. Tillers held his first solo exhibition at the Watters Gallery, Sydney, in 1973, and his first solo museum show, Still Life 2, Link Exhibition no. 1, at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1974. Curated group exhibitions in which he has been represented include the XIII Bienal de Sao Paulo, 1975; Third Biennale of Sydney: European Dialogue, 1979; Popism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1982; An Australian Accent, PS1, New York, 1984; Venice Biennale, 1986; Osaka Painting Triennale, Osaka (awarded Grand Prize), 1993; Antipodean Currents, Guggenheim Gallery, New York, 1995; Colonial Postcolonial, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, 1996; Expanse: Aboriginalities, Spatialities and the Politics of Ecstasy, University of South Australia Art Museum, Adelaide, 1998; and Empathy (co-curated by the artist), Pori Art Museum, Finland, 2001. Several major surveys of his work have been presented internationally, in London, Wellington, Riga and Pori. In September 1999 the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey, Mexico, mounted the largest retrospective of his work to date: Towards Infinity: Works by Imants Tillers. He is represented principally by the Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide and the Sherman Gallery, Sydney.
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IN: We might start in the Monaro, working our way to the interior later ... Your Landprint works, for example, are liberally sprinkled with place-names, the sites in all cases of settler-culture cemeteries. You are clearly asserting the right of different traditions, as well as nature, to speak, a fact which leads me to your long-time interest in the great religious artist Colin McCahon, and the cultural layering to be found in his work. Were his starkly pared landscapes, the cosmic voids of his word and number paintings, dark precursors, as it were, for your take on the spareness, light and grace of the Monaro?
IT: That's a very poetic way of putting it. McCahon is, in my mind, without doubt a major 20th century artist, comparable to Rothko, Pollock or Beuys. It is astonishing to think that he produced his great art in the insular, provincial setting of New Zealand in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. And indeed, on several trips to New Zealand in the late 80s and early 90s, I developed a taste for those starkly austere, sleepy provincial towns that still dot the New Zealand countryside. So when I found myself in Cooma surrounded by those bare, bronze hills of the Monaro, it did strongly remind me of places in New Zealand, like New Plymouth, for instance. The Monaro is a unique and distinctive part of Australia, quite unlike the typical red-earth outback that is quintessentially Australian. I do feel indebted to McCahon's sensibility in choosing to live here. I have now been here almost five years and it is the readymade poetry of place names and geographical feature that has attracted me and become a new feature of my work. I have also become interested again in engaging with Aboriginal art since the move from Sydney and I'm keen to explore both Aboriginal and Christian claims to the land on the Monaro and elsewhere through the examination of respective sacred sites. Here, too, McCahon is prescient in his engagement with both Maori and Christian belief systems. The Maori references in McCahon lately have helped spawn--by inspiration or irritation--the most interesting contemporary New Zealand art, in work by young Maori artists such as Shane Cotton, Jacqueline Fraser, Peter Robinson and Michael Parekowhai.
Recently my own researches have led me to a country auction, at Adaminaby, near Cooma. Leafing through an old Monaro family bible from the 19th century I found the following McCahon-like passage: "lest for want of tillers the land be turned into a wilderness."
IN: My essay "StarAboriginality" was triggered by our conversation in 1998 when you suggested the word "post-Aboriginality," an exciting but troubling term, as a way of designating what the Expanse catalogue attempted to lay out: a new cultural condition in Australia as a consequence of the sweeping triumph of Aboriginal art and the concomitant opening of the non-Indigenous mind to Aboriginal culture. It seemed as if Indigenous art had leap-frogged from left field, or should I say outback, over non-Indigenous art--still languishing in pop-minimal-conceptual confusion--to rehumanise our post-human times, in the process neatly turning Australia's 'provincialism problem' on its head. How do you see these matters now?
IT: The success of the exhibition Expanse, I felt, lay in its capacity to define some wide parameters within contemporary art in Australia dealing with the themes of spirit, place and identity, in a way, somehow, that the chosen works generated an uncanny resonance with each other, in spite of the wide diversity of approaches and media. The other triumph of this important exhibition was that the paintings of the Aboriginal artist Kathleen Petyarre fitted so seamlessly, so naturally, into the context provided by the non-Aboriginal artists. The compatibility rather than the difference of her work was perhaps what suggested to us that we were moving into a new, dare I say it, 'post-Aboriginal' cultural condition in Australia.
After all, the Aboriginal renaissance in art has been with us now for thirty years and indeed, many of us have been looking at, thinking about and consciously or unconsciously absorbing the new forms of this art for at least twenty years. As you pointed out in "StarAboriginality," this is really the distinctively unique cultural situation in which Australian artists have found themselves in the late 20th century.
The landmark exhibition Papunya Tula in 2000--an exhibition that was as memorable as the best exhibitions I have seen in recent years, including Jackson Pollock at MoMA, Matisse in Paris and El Greco in Vienna--traced the genesis and development of Western Desert painting from its origins in 1971 to the present. I can only agree with Joan Kerr's assessment that Papunya Tula can lay claim to being an important contemporary art movement in the 20th century equivalent to, say, European cubism or American abstract expressionism. Papunya Tula art can also be seen as the catalyst for the veritable explosion in all the diverse forms of Aboriginal art from Arnhem Land barks to the postmodern paintings of Gordon Bennett or the photographs of Tracey Moffatt (the cosmological analogy to the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe seems impossible to avoid!). So I think in this context one could speak of "post-Aboriginal" art also as that art that follows historically from this period 1971-2001 in which Aboriginal art unexpectedly and incredibly became the mainstream of Australian contemporary art practice. This is not to say that all art that follows will be "post-Aboriginal" but certainly that art which not only takes this Aboriginal art phenomenon into account but which also has been formed by it. This possibility is unique to our cultural situation here--unique to Australian artists.
IN: Some of your recent work, Mexico etcetera, for example, includes Aboriginal 'airport' paintings attached with Velcro to their surfaces, a step beyond and away from painted appropriation. But "appropriation" is now a doubly dirty word: avoided as being unfashionable by the art world with the type of disdain reserved in the real world for decayed prawns, it is also confused in debates around Aboriginal art between a once-faintly-scandalous, now neutral, art historical term for a postmodernist tactic, and as signifying the crime of theft. As I recall it, much of the adverse commentary you encountered in the 1980s and early 1990s for appropriating the work of, say, Timmy Tjapanardi or Michael Nelson Jagamara failed to take into sufficient account your recognition of Aboriginal art as a significant contemporary art phenomenon, nor the two-way potentiality of such recognition, as evidenced, for example, by the bounce Gordon Bennett gained from incorporating your work. What do you think now about the quite complicated interplays at work in these matters, and Howard Morphy's recent expressed idea that one should include within the category "Aboriginal art" other art which has influenced Aboriginal artists--yours, for example?
IT: Despite the artworld abandonment of the word "appropriation" in recent times, I personally am not afraid of it. In fact the forthcoming book on my own work by Graham Coulter-Smith has the word in its title-- Appropriation en abyme: the Postmodern Art of Imants Tillers.
As Coulter-Smith points out, "appropriation was a dominant force in international avant-gardist art throughout the 1980s to the extent that it has become synonymous with the concept of postmodern art." His book traces the scientific poetics which informs what he calls my "mode of deconstructive authorial appropriation"--such ideas as isomorphic mapping, Godelian undecidability and other ideas informed by systems theory, quantum mechanics and complexity theory. Part of the reason that appropriation is still a potent mode for me, when it has waned for many other practitioners, is that I have enlisted it for more complex purposes than simply authorial deconstruction. This partly stems from the fact that my canvasboard works are not just individual paintings but are also conceived as part of a larger totality--an ever-expanding whole which is the canvasboard system. Appropriation is a form of mapping in this context, so that while individual appropriations from the works of say Timmy Tjapanardi or from Michael Nelson Jagamara can be taken and criticised at face value, on another level they have a positional value within the totality of the canvasboard system which, while hidden from the viewer, is of an entirely different nature.
In any case the process of appropriation, even in its simple form, is not straightforward--it produces unexpected complexities, ironies and paradoxes. I would like to mention two such instances in relation to Gordon Bennett. The first occurred with respect to his appropriation of my work in his Nine Ricochets, 1990, which was a response to the appropriation of part of Michael Nelson Jagamara's Five Dreamings, 1984, in my Nine Shots, 1985. The Nine Ricochets won Bennett the Moet & Chandon Prize and helped propel his work to serious critical consideration and subsequently he has attained a substantial reputation which is reflected in his extensive presence in The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture. Because of his appropriation of my work, I am inextricably bound to him, like his shadow, so I also appear in the Companion, and my work, too, is part of Aboriginal Art! The other irony which I would like to mention is that circumstances have been such that I have now begun a series of collaborations with Michael Nelson Jagamara. This collaboration has been facilitated by Michael Eather and his Campfire Group in Brisbane--The process has just begun and the direction it is taking is still unclear.
IN: You mentioned to me a year or so ago that you were planning to venture the centre of Australia for the first time, Uluru and all that, a consequence of an intimation that it would reinforce your aspirations towards an art of more directly spoken positivity--and perhaps trigger another of your periodic forays as a writer. Are you ready, yet, to report back?
IT: Yes, I did go to the centre of Australia--twice, both in 2000. Firstly I was invited to fly in a light plane with three others across Australia from the south-east to the north-west: from Bendigo to Coober Pedy, William Creek, Lake Eyre, Alice Springs to Hall's Creek, Kununurra and Faraway Bay in the remote Kimberley area. This was an initiation into the red expanse of Australia's physical and psychic interior. A wonderful experience: I produced a flow of consciousness notation, both verbal and visual, of this experience--it was particularly intense during the three hours it took to traverse the Tanami Desert. It now forms part of an intermittent diary which I keep as my "Daily Research."
Then, several months later, I took all of my family to the spiritual centre of Australia; Uluru, which was truly amazing. I haven't quite got to grips with these experiences yet in terms of specifically new work but I sense that the "Canvasboard System" has already happily accommodated these experiences and I can see myself moving tentatively into new directions--mapping new psychic terrain.
Interview conducted by fax and telephone exchanges, 4 - 9 November 2001
Expanse, University of South Australia Art Museum, Adelaide, 1998. The exhibition included work by Jon Cattapan, Rosalie Gascoigne, Antony Hamilton and Kathleen Petyarre as well as Tillers
This form is also to be found, inter alia, in the other four works in Tillers's Diaspora series, 1992 - 1998, of which Monaro is the culmination. The use of the 'T' form, or Tau cross, refers to a form found repeatedly in McCahon, but also refers to the initial letter of Tillers's family name. The 'T' images in Monaro also relate to many small paintings the artist has made of the Monaro landscape
Fludd's ladder has also lent its form to a sculpture by the artist, The Attractor, 2001, painted steel, 2500 x 370 x 70 cm, plus engraved stone elements (in progress), for the Sydney Olympic Cauldron Relocation and Overflow Park project at Homebush Bay, Sydney
The Nature Speaks series, for example, is to total 100 works
"Monaroâ€”South Coast Region," Homoclimatic Map, N.S.W. Forestry Commission, Government of New South Wales, 1945
Genesis. 47:19 DV
Conversation with the author c. 10 August 1988, about his essay "Expanse: Aboriginalities, Spatialities and the Politics of Ecstasy," in catalogue of same title, University of South Australia Art Museum, Adelaide, 1998, pp. 1 â€“ 15. See also "StarAboriginality," in Charles Green (ed.), Postcolonial plus Art: Where Now? Artspace Visual Arts Centre, Sydney, 2001, n.p. The word "post-Aboriginality" is entirely positive in its intended connotations, but needs careful explanation to avoid implications of negativity
Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius, curated by Hetti Perkins and Hannah Fink, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, in association with Papunya Tula artists, 2000
Joan Kerr, "Papunya Tula: a great contemporary art movement," Art Asia Pacific, Issue 31, 2001, p.33
Of the two panels in Mexico, etcetera, both purchased at Sydney airport, one is painted by Corinna Nanpijinpa Ryan and the other by an unidentified Anmatyerr artist
Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press, London 1998, p. 420
Graham Coulter-Smith, Appropriation en abyme: the Postmodern Art of Imants Tillers, 1971-2001, Fine Art Research Centre, Southhampton Institute, Southhampton, forthcoming
Sylvia Kleinert and Margot Neale (eds.), Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 2000
E.g. Imants Tillers, "Locality Fails," Art & Text 6, Winter 1982, pp.51 - 60; and "In Perpetual Mourning," ZG/Art & Text, Summer 1984 pp. 22 - 24, 27. For further references, see Wystan Curnow, Imants Tillers and the 'Book of Power,' Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, p. 154