Who, in Latvia in 1900, would ever imagine that a descendent of Latvians would be collaborating with a Warlpiri artist. It’s quite incredible.1
Imants Tillers, December 2017
On the 6 July 2018 Australian artist Imants Tiller’s exhibition Journey to Nowhere opened in Riga, Latvia. While internationally acclaimed and well-known in academic and commercial art circles, Tillers is relatively unknown to the general public in his parent’s homeland of Latvia. How, then, did he come to be showing a major retrospective in the Latvian National Museum of Art in the year commemorating one hundred years of Latvian independence, accompanied by a feature-length documentary by Latvian filmmakers about his life and art? The answer is every bit as surprising as many of the other coincidences and unlikely connections that have marked his life and career. The twelve months preceding the Latvian show have been an important lead up to the retrospective, filled with significant events involving people and places he could never have dreamt of being connected to as a young artist.
Finding evidence of Tillers’s interest in meaningful coincidence and the metaphysical is not difficult, least of all because he has professed as much in his own writing. This interest extends to telepathy, psychic photography and numerology.2 His study of the metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico has resulted in many reinterpretations of this artist’s work, and an obsessive interest in its links to Australia, especially to Australian Aboriginal art.3 He explores this idea in recent paintings and writing under the heading of Metafisica Australe. Tillers explains, ‘it has to do with this strange connection between Aboriginal art, which I think is metaphysical, and the work of Giorgio de Chirico’.4 The best example of this is his observation that the zig zag pattern de Chirico uses to represent water in his Mysterious Bathers series is like that used in Aboriginal art to represent water.5
The development of the Western Desert art movement from its genesis in 1971 to the present day has been closely observed by Tillers, and he has been referencing Aboriginal artworks since the early 1980s. An introduction to Michael Nelson Jagamara, whose work he had previously extensively referenced, by mutual friend Michael Eather, led to what is now a seventeen year collaborative relationship, forming an integral part of his practice. Tillers acknowledges that without Eather this would never have come about,
He has created this relationship. Without him I wouldn’t be doing these collaborations. The collaborations have allowed me to explore Indigenous relations in more detail, whereas I would have been loath to do that if I hadn’t been working with [Jagamara].6
When told that Jagamara had declared their collaborative work was Aboriginal art, ‘Because that Tillers just does a bit on my painting’,7 Tillers was excited to have the genre confirmed. ‘Great, so I’m doing Aboriginal art now. That’s really fantastic and we kind of knew it because some of the collaborative works have been in shows of Aboriginal art’.8 The artists had an opportunity to celebrate the success of their collaboration in Brisbane last May. QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art), has reserved the painting Metafisica Australe (2017) for purchase and an event involving the artists was held to coincide with the launch of their show at FireWorks Gallery.
In April 2017 Tillers travelled to the Australian Western Desert with his wife and a group of friends and colleagues. Visiting the community of Papunya was a pilgrimage to meet his friend and collaborator Jagamara on his home ground. The men have met numerous times before at art events in various cities, and at FireWorks Gallery in Brisbane, a neutral, private ground. This time it was Tillers’s turn to go out of his way to see Jagamara, his family, and his country. While projects were mentioned, the journey was taken primarily to go the distance to show respect for a peer and senior Warlpiri lawman. Tillers found the experience remarkable,
It’s one of the most significant places I’ve been to because it’s all very well to read about these places and to know a lot about them and to see photos, but I think actually going there is profound. To see Michael Nelson in his home with his extended family was really quite moving and I think he thought it was great that we went there, that I went there. I did find it really moving and quite a turning point in a way.9
The two men would meet again in August 2017 in Canberra. The occasion was the opening of their collaborative exhibition Meeting Place, Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers, and the unveiling of the Australian Parliament House’s recent acquisition, their collaborative work The Messenger (2014). The work is a three-way conversation between Jagamara, Tillers and Giorgio de Chirico. Recurring symbols from Jagamara and de Chirico loom large from the 300 x 300cm painting. It would seem that Jagamara and de Chirico have overtaken Tillers, for we know that it is Jagamara’s own hand in the work as he has boldly signed it, and the de Chirico influence is so much like the artist’s original rendering that it could have been painted by him. Tillers is at once invisible and unmistakeable.
Though a bond of respect clearly exists between Jagamara and Tillers, few words pass between them. There is also a sense that words spoken between two such big men would be awkward, an unnatural happening where neither is in a position to offer deference to the other. This is why their mutual friend Michael Eather has been a necessary ingredient in the chemistry between the collaborators. Not only did Eather introduce the men and posit the idea of a collaboration, but he has been a faithful emissary for both. He has listened, translated and transmitted communications for nearly two decades, and known each artist for even longer,
My dialogue with Imants goes back to 1987 discussing his possible involvement in the exhibition Balance … He was extremely interested in the exhibition rationale, the words I used to describe ‘a foot in both camps’. I remember him asking when and where the exhibition was going to be staged and I said it hasn’t been confirmed but it’s going to be big! Holding my breath… he said, ‘It sounds really, really interesting, it’s such a complex topic, I would love to be involved’. Truth was I had no venue confirmed but once we had Imant’s name, boy were they keen to hear about Balance… It was staged at the Queensland Art Gallery and received record visitor numbers and widespread critical acclaim.
After Balance I conceived and co-curated a show with Marshall Bell called Commitments  which toured. This was essentially about collaborative projects and artworks between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists. In this show we proposed that Imants and Gordon Bennett might collaborate. It became a cat and mouse discussion resulting in a series of fax correspondences!10
Tillers created a work based on de Chirico’s Greetings from a distant friend (1916). ‘It was an image that he believes came to him telepathically from Bennett at 1.30pm on the 27 July 1993’.11 Of their dialogue, which included Bennett’s Nine Ricochets (1990), Eather believes, ‘There was destiny in their art practices to overlap, I’m sure’. Indeed, it is their mutual belief in conversations reaching beyond time, place and culture, that has deepened the bond between Tillers and Eather. Eather explains,
In terms of my own ongoing interest in Imants’s work, and more so, how it relates to my practice and the gallery [FireWorks] rationale, I have always been interested in finding art as common ground… Using art as a process that reveals what cannot be said or named… so obviously I’m interested in the systems, Imant’s ideas of origin and destination, performance, process and translation… and ultimately collaboration as an inherited virtue.12
In the lead up to Tillers’s retrospective in Latvia, FireWorks Gallery exhibited a selection of both Jagamara’s and Tillers’s work, new, old and some collaborative. Once again, the artists were drawn to this rendezvous point, a now familiar site, thick with a heritage of dreams painted into reality, and the air heavy with creative spirits that have lost none of their power over time. A new collaborative work was revealed, intriguingly titled The Call from Papunya (2017-2018). Another earlier work in the show, After Civilisation, for Geoff Barden (1986), has grown in potency over time. Having closely followed the development of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, Tillers naturally had an interest in the man who ‘was instrumental in stimulating the beginnings of the Papunya Tula art movement’.13 Boasting an illustrious exhibition history, After Civilisation was first shown in the United States in Australian Appropriations: The Recent Paintings of Imants Tillers, Vollum College Centre Gallery, Portland (1987), and then Balance 1990: Views, Visions, Influences (1990), Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, The Loaded Ground(2012), Australian National University, Canberra, and Meeting Place (2017), Australian Parliament House, Canberra.
A large work, 254 x 254cm, painted in hot colours of the Australian desert, After Civilisation dances to life like a shimmering mirage. The central meeting place iconography is made white hot by a pairing of yellow and dark orange, running fuse-like to the centre of the circle. White possum and kangaroo tracks travel to the edges of the canvas, running over the sitting room scene and the Greek ruins beyond the window frame. After Civilisation is an art historian’s dream case study. A major Australian artist, referencing Michael Nelson Jagamara and Giorgio de Chirico (who incidentally remain, twenty-two years on, his dominant influences), to paint a place for a contemporary who shared his recognition of the enduring metaphysical properties of Western Desert painting. Not only does this work mark an important place in Australia’s artistic heritage, it is also visually arresting, evoking the heat and light of our desert interior. Tillers recognises that without this quality, everything else is pointless,
To me, the visual impact is all important. Whatever you have put into the work it has to grab the viewer, has to get the viewer’s attention, and even if everything isn’t revealed in the same instant, it doesn’t matter because things tend to be revealed over time. If people have a connection to the beauty of the work, I think that’s extremely important because that’s the first step.14
Perhaps Tillers’s most beautiful exhibition to date is In Normal Times, shown at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney in late 2017. This show courted the audience with gentle palettes and romantic landscapes. While de Chirico was still invited to the party, the majority of works were from the Nature Speaks series.15 This series represents impressions of nature, some actual landscapes, and others explorations of the most luxuriant colours, shapes and movement. Text is overlaid so unobtrusively that it does not interrupt the splendour of the composition. A number of these new works, including a majestic view of the Riga skyline viewed from the river Daugava, Journey to Nowhere (2017), are destined for Latvia. In his artist statement Tillers explains,
In Normal Times is a kind of prelude to what I believe is perhaps the most crucial exhibition of my life and career, a retrospective entitled Journey to Nowhere… the future moment when everything will be brought into sharp and perhaps unbearable focus.16
Survey shows and retrospectives have been important markers in Tillers career. He has had many survey shows in Australia and abroad and a major retrospective, Imants Tillers: one world many visions at the National Gallery of Australia in 2006. This was curated by Deborah Hart who also edited the catalogue which is essentially a book, such is the quality and volume of text and photographic illustration. The artist views these shows as an opportunity to reflect and generate critical feedback,
Survey shows are really crucial. For a start, you get people writing about your work, it brings out all these other elements. You’re also looking at your own history which can be quite confronting.17
The Riga exhibition goes back significantly further than his 2006 retrospective which spanned the years 1984 to 2006 and consisted of forty works. Twelve years on, and with many more works having entered Tillers’s oeuvre, Journey to Nowhere reaches back to 1975, through to 2017, and will show seventy works. A considerably larger event, the artist feels its significance weighing upon him,
There’s a lot more emotion attached to it. I waver between poles of feeling quite elated to feeling a bit stressed. A lot of people from Australia want to go, a lot of our friends and collectors and gallerists which is quite amazing really. It’s very unusual for an Australian artist to be invited to do a retrospective in a foreign country.18
Such a big and historically broad exhibition is at once rewarding and potentially unnerving for the artist. Tillers served only to assist the curator Elita Ansone with an overall awareness of his oeuvre, and it was she who made the selection. In Tillers’s words, ‘With each new exhibition the artist puts his life, reputation and wellbeing on the line’.19
The exhibition will be accompanied by a two hundred page bilingual (English/Latvian) catalogue with fifty reproductions, jointly published by the Latvian Museum of Art and the Power Institute at the University of Sydney. Essays have been contributed by Elita Ansone, Ian McLean, Graham Coulter-Smith and Tillers. Tillers’s own essay for the exhibition neatly caps off a collection of his own writing, Metafisica Australe to be published by Giramondo Publications, Sydney in 2019. This book has been in the pipeline for more than ten years. Although the individual essays were released to accompany shows or written for arts journals over the years, Tillers is aware they are not always accessed, ‘People these days don’t really read’. However, it’s not something that concerns him,
Partly I write these texts for my own benefit so that you put down what you’re thinking about… It’s quite good to formalise it into an essay. I don’t mind that people haven’t really accessed the texts that much because eventually they will, if you write something significant people will actually read it eventually, even if it’s in fifty years time, but it’s quite good to have it recorded.20
The artist’s view on interpretations of his work which fall short of their intent, even when presented with accompanying text, is calmly philosophical,
You can’t really do anything about it. Once it is in the public domain you lose control of it and it can be used or abused in different ways. That’s just the nature of what we do. Art has autonomy.21
Still further insight into Tillers’s artistic process can be gleaned from the documentary being released to coincide with the Latvian retrospective Journey to Nowhere. Produced by Jura Podnieka Film Studio in Riga and titled Thrown into the World, the film was shot in Papunya, Sydney, Melbourne, Cooma, Newcastle and Riga. Like the retrospective it was created to accompany, the documentary was initiated on discovery of how accomplished this son of Latvia is. Film director Antra Cilinska explains, ‘After making a short research on Imants, I discovered him as more than just an interesting artist. He deserved a film!’.22
So how, then, did Tillers come to be holding this retrospective in Latvia in such a nationally important year? It is largely down to a friend, acclaimed Latvian-American artist Vija Celmins. The story goes back three decades,
I was once in New York in the ’80s, on my own, and Vija asked me to a launch of photographs from these people who worked at this print workshop in New York. So it was anyone from Andy Warhol to Jasper Johns, and at the launch she introduced me to her friends. There was Brice Marden and Elizabeth Murray, they were all major American artists in her period.23
Fast forward thirty years and Celmins, with whom Tillers has stayed in contact, is talking to Elita Ansone, curator at the Latvian National Museum of Art who curated her very successful 2014 retrospective, Double Reality, at the Museum. Celmins suggested she look at Tillers’s work. Catalogues were supplied to Ansone and the rest, as they say, is history. Once again, chance and connections have paved the way forward for an artist who keeps surprising his audience, and, one suspects, himself.
Imants Tillers Journey To Nowhere, 2017. Acrylic, gouache on 90 canvas boards, 228.5 × 355cm. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Imants Tillers Nature Speaks: U, 2006. Acrylic, gouache on 16 canvas boards, 101 × 142cm. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers, Metafisica Australe, 2017. Synthetic polymer paint and gouache on 72 canvas boards, 229 x 285cm. Collection of Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Image courtesy the artists and FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane. Image © The artists.
Michael Nelson Jagamara and Imants Tillers, The Call from Papunya, 2017-2018. Synthetic polymer paint, gouache on 64 canvas boards, 203 x 284cm. Image courtesy the artists and FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane. Image © The artists.
1. Imants Tillers, interview with the author, 25 November 2017.
2. See for example Imants Tillers, ‘Fear of Texture’, Art + Text, No.10, June 1983 and Tillers, ‘An Auspicious Entanglement’, The Loaded Ground: Michael Nelson Jagamara & Imants Tillers, ex. cat., Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 2012.
3. See Jennifer Slatyer, ‘The Enigma of Imitation: The Metaphysical Paintings of Imants Tillers’, A Life of Blank, works by Imants Tillers, ex. cat., University of Tasmania, 1992, pp.7-19.
4. Imants Tillers, Interview, op. cit.
5. Tillers, The Solid Mandala, artist’s statement for the Wynne Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2016.
6. Imants Tillers, Interview, op. cit.
7. Michael Nelson Jagamara, conversation with the author, 18 August 2017.
8. Imants Tillers, Interview, op. cit. Exhibitions include, Vivid Memories, An Aboriginal Art History, Musee d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux, France, 2013.
9. Imants Tillers, ibid.
10. Michael Eather, personal communication, 9 December 2017.
11. Deborah Hart, Imants Tillers: one world many visions, ex. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp.12-13.
12. Michael Eather, op. cit.
13. Imants Tillers, ‘An Auspicious Entanglement’, The Loaded Ground: Michael Nelson Jagamara & Imants Tillers, ex. cat., Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 2012.
14. Imants Tillers, Interview, op. cit.
15. See Tillers, ‘When locality prevails’, Heat, No.8 new series, 2004.
16. Tillers, In Normal Times, ex. cat., Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 2017, p.4.
17. Imants Tillers, Interview, op. cit.
18. Imants Tillers, ibid.
19. Imants Tillers, ibid.
20. Imants Tillers, ibid.
21. Imants Tillers, ibid.
22. Antra Cilinska, personal correspondence, 22 November 2017.
23. Imants Tillers, Interview, op. cit.
Katrina Chapman is an art writer based in Cairns.