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b. 1950

Lives and works in Cooma, New South Wales

Imants Tillers since the late 70’s has critiqued not only the art of the late 20th century Australian art but also international centres of the Western world. No discussion on postmodernism or appropriation can take place in Australia without reference to this significant artist.

Imants Tillers is the child of Latvian refugees who arrived in Australia in 1949, exiled from their homeland by war and political turmoil, part of the great post-war European diaspora. It is this experience of being displaced to a new land, isolated from cultural and personal histories, which has become a central component of Tillers’ work.

While he was born in Australia, in 1950, his first language was Latvian and therefore the questions he asks in his work are informed by the diasporic experience and longing—about place, relationships to the past and the self, of locality and identity. Together, the more than 100,000 canvasboards in Tillers’ paintings form a long poem with many verses. They are informed, as Tillers said of Colin McCahon, by “a constant tension between the search for meaning, the desire for transcendence and a pervasive, immovable scepticism.”

His landscapes are made up of fragments of borrowed images and of language—marks, words, phrases and names used to create the country, to give it form and place oneself within it. Using simple means—hundreds of small canvasboards combined into huge gridded paintings—they exist as part of a long, continuing series, or like a poem in many, fragmented verses.

Tillers’ works map a space of influence, combining, quoting and knitting together words, images and ideas, ghosts and other associations, with source material contributing fragments to his continuing, multi-part epic. The connections he draws together are at once his own and connections to a wider dialogue.



The doubting and the doubting nothing.

Torn between skepticism and blind faith, I continue to pursue my concept of Metafisica Australe.

This exhibition is the next installment of a new body of work which attempts to find common ground between contemporary Western Desert painting and the metaphysical paintings of the 20th century Italian master, Giorgio de Chirico. It continues the premise of the exhibition 'Dreamings: Aboriginal art meets De Chirico' curated by Ian McLean and Erica Izett at the Carlo Bilotti Museum in Rome in 2014, in which seven of my works (from 1986 to 2014) formed a kind of bridge between the 20 works by Giorgio de Chirico which are on permanent display in the museum and the exhibition of Western Desert paintings from the Sordello Missana Collection from Antibes, France.
- Imants Tillers 

One of Australia’s most internationally successful contemporary artists, Imants Tillers has exhibited widely since the late 1960s, and has represented Australia at important international exhibitions, such as the Sao Paulo Bienal in 1975, Documenta 7 in 1982, and the 42nd Venice Biennale in 1986, and won the Grand Prize at the Osaka Painting Triennial in Japan in 1993. In 2006 was the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. He was included in the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (2013).

Major solo surveys of Tillers’ work include Imants Tillers: works 1978 – 1988 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1988); Imants Tillers: 19301, at the National Art Gallery, Wellington (1989); Diaspora, National Art Museum, Riga, Latvia (1993); Diaspora in Context at the Pori Art Museum, Pori in Finland (1995); Towards Infinity: Works by Imants Tillers, Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO) in Monterrey, Mexico (1999); Imants Tillers: one world many visions, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2006); The Long Poem, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth (2009) and Dreamings: Aboriginal Australia art meets de Chirico, Carlo Bilotti Museum, Rome (2014).



Since 1980, Tillers has composed his large grid paintings using small individual canvas boards and has sequentially numbered each one therefore connecting the individual parts to make the greater whole.

His imagery, both historic and contemporary, engages the notion that provincial culture derives its influences from imports of dominant cultures and concepts of displacement, both geological and spiritual. Taking inspiration from the late Albert Namatjira who, through his watercolours of Central Australia, found a way to repair some of the psychic and spiritual damage – what Kevin Gilbert has called ‘a rape of the soul’ – long endured by Aboriginal Australia.


In the 1970’s the Aboriginal activist and writer, Kevin Gilbert wrote:

It is my thesis that Aboriginal Australia underwent a rape of the soul so profound that the blight continues in the minds of most blacks today. It is this psychological blight, more than anything else, that causes the conditions that we see on reserves and missions. And it is repeated down the generations.

The artist Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959), I feel, found a way to repair some of this psychic and spiritual damage. His body of work – an art of healing – is the antecedent to the Papunya Tula art movement which arose like a phoenix from the despair of the desert displacement camps at Papunya in the early 1970’s, paving the way for the spectacular and unexpected blossoming of contemporary Aboriginal art which now occupies the mainstream of Australian art.



Imants Tillers, 31 January 2014

Kevin Gilbert quoted in Robyn Davidson, “Tracks” (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), (first published 1980), p46.

Nature Speaks


This exhibition is a kind of homage to the work of one of Australia’s great artists, Fred Williams. In the 1970’s as a young artist I thought that Fred Williams had painted the definitive, quintessential Australian landscape. At that time, neither I nor any of my artistic peers wanted to engage with the Australian landscape tradition – we found it conservative and stifling and besides, conceptual art offered a compelling alternative. However, since the 1980’s, Aboriginal artists have spectacularly reclaimed and reinterpreted this landscape tradition, inadvertently bestowing a new relevance on Williams’ work. In his distinctive abstractions of the Australian bush, which he typically organises into a somewhat chaotic pattern of hieroglyphs, we recognise some kind of arcane language (an “ur-text”) and we see that nature, indeed, “speaks” but not in a language we can comprehend.

In recent years I have been experimenting with Williams’ imagery in my own work – of particular interest to me now is his last, somewhat maligned, Pilbara Series 1979-1981. A number of works in my exhibition, such as Melancholy Landscape VII 2011 and Thou Majestic: D 2011 draw on this series. In particular they reproduce the line of undulating mountains from his Karratha Landscape 1981. In this painting, the uncanny regularity of the contours of the mountain (or is it a hill?) reminded me of the very distinctive ‘journey lines’ in certain Aboriginal paintings and perhaps they suggest a hidden affinity that Williams’ art has with Aboriginal depictions of landscape. It is worth noting that the Pilbara series was an unusual departure for Williams into the ‘outback’ – artistic terrain that he otherwise left to artists such as Russell Drysdale, Sidney Nolan, and John Olsen to explore and colonise.

In my versions of Williams’ landscape the location is the Western Desert in Central Australia bearing the names of places such as Papunya, Tanami, Haasts Bluff, Kintore, Jupiter Well, and the names of the disappearing tribes of those areas – Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara, Pintupi, Luritja. I am also somehow reminded of Albert Namatjira and the words of the German poet Novalis who observed that “every individual is the centre of a system of emanation.” Above all, for me, the desert is a metaphor for the self: “I shall become no more than movement or stillness or an idea of being – there is no-one here.” The desert is a tabula rasa – a surface on which the writing has been erased, ready to be written on again.


This exhibition also celebrates the 200th work in my own series Nature Speaks – Nature Speaks: CZ 2011. I began this series in September 1998 almost two years after I moved with my family from Sydney to the rural town of Cooma in south-east New South Wales. Ten years later after selecting this title, for what is arguably now one of my most significant bodies of work, I came across Antonin Artaud’s “50 drawings to murder magic”, published by Seagull Books in 2008. Written in a mental asylum in France, the last lines of what were Artaud’s last utterances are worth recounting:

“so my drawings reproduce
the forms
thrown up in this way
these worlds
of marvels
these objects
where the way passes
and what
used to be called the Great Work
of alchemy now
pulverised because we are
no longer in chemistry
but in nature
and I do believe 
is about to speak.”

Antonin Artaud
31 January 1948



“Reality works in overt mystery” Jorge Luis Borges

This work consists of 120 canvasboard panels installed as a painting on a wall (one could call this ‘element1’) with 6 sculptures on plinths arranged in front of it (this could be ‘element 2’). Each of the 6 sculptures consists of 144 5” x 7” canvasboard panels cast in bronze. This new work incorporates an earlier painting, Leap of Faith, 1995, and transforms another, Tableau with closed loop, 1993, bringing them together and thereby creating a new totality.

Leap of Faith, 2009, spans 16 years from its gestation to its completion and comprises 984 panels (including the now inseparable bronze panels) and the work is numbered accordingly from 85904 – 86888.

The sculptural part of this work suggests to me a kind of ‘self-portrait’ but of the type explored by Jorge Luis Borges in his essay of 1922, The Nothingness of Personality, in which he wants “to tear down the exceptional pre-eminence now generally accorded to the self.” It is a ‘self-portrait’ which declares: “There is no whole self”; “I am like everyone else”; “the self does not exist”. And in being turned to bronze the immaterial, the evanescent, the dispersible canvasboard (self) becomes solidified, frozen and fixed forever.

There are echoes of this in the painting on the wall, in those panels which are inscribed by the word ‘NEZINAMS’ – meaning ‘unknown’ in Latvian. These are transcriptions from tombstones in a cemetery in Liepaja – my mother’s birthplace in Latvia, referring to the ‘unknown soldiers’ buried there, unable to be identified. As Ben MacIntyre wrote recently in The Times - London; “World War II tore Latvia to shreds. Annexed by the Soviet Union, occupied by Nazi Germany, then occupied again by the Red Army, brutalised, degraded and devastated, Latvia suffered dictatorship, colonisation and mass murder.” My father’s and mother’s lives were profoundly shaped by this tragic history and their trauma is part of the legacy that I have inherited. Leap of Faith is a tragic work. The strange but distinctive loop, which its two components (element 1 and element 2) share, is a kind of secret mark or cipher of destiny, which occurs in Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical painting Politics 1916 where it adjoins a map of some unfamiliar and indeterminate geography - a premonition, maybe, of the secret pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939 that sealed Latvia’s desolate fate.

Leap of Faith is nevertheless infused with the redemptive spirit of the German artist Joseph Beuys. As Pierre Restany has written, Beuys came to be recognized in post-war West Germany as the intellectual model of the “good German”; “socialist and not communist; anarchist and not terrorist; poet of nature and lucid critic of the consumer society.” Part of his redemptive aura also “came with his involvement with the spontaneous practice of the expanded arts, a multimedia expansion of every kind of expression as advocated by the Lithuanian inventor of FLUXUS, George Maciunas.” Here there was a Latvian connection too, in the form of Valdis Abolins who took part with Beuys in one of the very first FLUXUS events - held in Wiesbaden in 1962 (Abolins’ name is celebrated in Leap of Faith). Indeed there are a number of references to Beuys in my work, in both imagery and text - in particular to his ‘action’ Manresa of 1966.

Leap of Faith also reproduces, in the original German, Beuys last powerful pronouncement that he transmitted by telephone from his sickbed, to a performance being enacted by Nam June Paik and Henning Christiansen in Hamburg in 1985. His brief but weighty words were a strong plea for the release of all the creative power that was held captive inside people (like the New Zealand artist/prophet Colin McCahon, Beuys spoke of “load–bearing structures”). For Beuys believed that ‘everyone is an artist’ and that it was this huge untapped reserve of creativity which could be humanity’s salvation if it could only be set free. Thus Leap of Faith is a tragic work that also contains much hope. Could this be part of the meaning of the enigmatic litany from the ‘action’ Manresa that can be found here and there in Leap of Faith:

“Here speaks FLUXUS / FLUXUS
Here speaks FLUXUS / FLUXUS
Now element 2 has climbed up to element 1
Now element 1 has climbed down to element 2
Now element 2 has climbed up to element 1
Now element 1 has climbed down to element 2
Repeat, repeat etc…”