IMANTS TILLERS: Q&A
In Australia, with art being reproduced, it's almost like a cargo cult.
We used to see one or two examples o£ what was going on elsewhere, and
so then that image, even if it was a bad one - we had no way of knowing -
almost became like a fetish. We gave it more importance than it deserved.
So from that point of view I think it's appropriate for an Australian
artist to be working with appropriation.
WHAT DOES THAT WORD 'APPROPRIATION' MEAN, TO YOU?
Well, appropriation, as a word, has really only come into use in the last
three or four years. Before that, there was this debate about it - was it
just copying, or parody?
One of the things that came out of the Seventies was that the context
for a work of art was something you came to consider, that people no
longer looked at works of art in isolation. So I think appropriation
comes out of that attitude as well. That one can do a version of a work
that already exists, but because we now consider the context in which
the new work is made, as part of the work, it is different.
What I guess I'm interested to do is use that as a starting point,
and try to transform it into something positive and original.
DO YOU SEE YOUR WORK AS CORRELATINC TO THE SO-CALLED 'RETURN
One of the reasons I'm attracted to painting is that one of the drawbacks
with Seventies'-style art is that it was complex, especially if you were
involved with something like performance or video. The actual logistics of
that, getting equipment, were quite complex. Whereas painting is such an
YOU WORK ON SMALL CANVASBOARD PANELS, WHICH ARE ASSEMBLED TO
MAKE-UP A FINISHED PICTURE. WHY SO?
I guess what I like about the canvasboard panels is that it's like working
on a physical object which is rigid. I guess I like the idea of the scale,
but I also like it that when they're stacked they turn into a three-
dimensional thing. I mean, one of the artists I think I've been influenced
quite a lot by is Carl Andre, one of the leading minimal artists. He's a sculptor
who used ready-made materials, like bricks, or metallic panels, and he placed
these components together to form a structure, and I guess I like the reference
The other relevant thing too is that when you work on separate panels
what it means is that each unit of the painting had an equal intensity.
So it's l Ike the all-over-ness you get in abstract-expressionism, and I’ve
always been interested in that.
I guess what the panel structure does as well is that you always have
Several readings of my work. You get a reading which is the overall image,
where it emerges out of this combination of elements, and then you can
read the detail. I like the oscillation between the part and the whole.
HOW DO YOU ACTUALLY WORK ON THE PANELS?
What I do now... I mean, some of the paintings I do consist of only one
image, others consist of a combination of different images. I find a
suitable image in a book, or a magazine or a catalogue, and I just tear
it out, and I just grid it up to the right proportions...
BUT WHAT IS IT THAT DRAWS YOU TO A PARTICULAR IMAGE?
I'm sort of drawn to images which somehow suggest the way I do my painting
as well. I guess all the time the impulse in choosing images, well, it's trying
to expand the range of looks the paintings can have. And I sort of work
on association: the decision to juxtapose images - I might juxtapose them
because they're so opposite. Or because I want to do pa painting that's
Each image I select I select because it will help me develop the next
step, in my progress.
I think this moment in history is very interesting. You know, it's been
described as post-modern, but I think another way of looking at it: A lot
artists are attempting to synthesize what happened in modernism. It's
not necessarily a reaction against it, but it is a re-evaluation, and out
of that I'm sure something new will come.
One of the things that's always been like a handicap... I think one
of the things about the Seventies was that one didn't have to be a painter,
that was one of the effects of conceptual art, minimal art - in a strange
way, because that work was so elitist - but it did actually suggest a way
of making art where one didn't have to be an expert. Or skilled. One could
be intelligent, resourceful, and that was enough. I guess it did create
the climate for a whole lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have been
involved in art. I guess the directions of my concerns went towards
So I think for artists this is a very good time, because it's so
confusing it gives you quite a lot of freedom.
YOU STUDIED ARCHITECTURE, DID THAT HAVE A LASTING IMPACT?
I guess what was good about it was that art training in this country
tends to be very limited, and it was probably a better thing for me to
have gone through architecture than art school. I didn’t have any pre-
conceptions about what art should be.
WHAT EFFECT DO YOU THINK BEING LATVIAN - OR AT LEAST A FIRST-
GENERATION AUSTRALIAN OF LATVIAN DESCENT - HAS HAD ON YOUR ART?
I think in Australian society, up until recently, art and culture haven't
had much status. Whereas to Europeans it does, and I guess being brought-
up with those values made it easier to pursue that direction.
But my parents, you know, could've gone from the displaced
camps in Germany to any number of places, so it was a chance
factor, my being Australian. The tag of being Australian is sort of
irrelevant. I mean, I hope people don't make an issue of it...
Artists here should be able to function on an international level. I
think it's negative for the Australian scene to be confined, because you
get artificial values. I think it's better if the references aren't
But I do think the artists of my generation are approaching their
work in a different way, to what previous generations have.
They're thinking in terms of not being... functioning in a wider context.
I mean, they're not thinking that this is the only place
they're going to have an effect. And I think that's really good, and that
it will have an impact, on the international arena.
HOW CAN YOU MAKE THAT HAPPEN FOR YOURSELF? I MEAN, IN TERMS OF
'SELLING YOURSELF’ OVERSEAS?
Well, l've been showing regularly for twelve years, so in terms of all
that, l'm quite accomplished. But last year was the first year
l'd been able to live off work, and it took twelve years! An artist
living off his work is living off a very low income.
BUT OVERSEAS, YOU'VE MADE AS MUCH IF NOT MORE OF AN IMPACT THAN ANY AUSTRALIAN ARTIST.
The biggest break really was the Australian Accent show in New York. But
you know, one show in itself doesn't do that much either. l guess what
was more important was the realization that being an international artist
the same as the artists I'd always admired, mightn't have been within
immediate reach but it was a possibility. And even if the shows
themselves don't have a great impact, they give experience to the artists
involved. And it really is a different thing, seeing your work in a
different context, up against other shows and all...
I suppose what I felt was, you know, there was nothing wrong with the
work l'd been doing. In terms of the way it was done, and what it was
concerned with. But what was lacking was confidence. The confidence is
manifested in the presence the work has, and in quantity, and this
was what was lacking.
So it was more like, it was really deciding to change gears, I'd been
running in low-gear and that's not good enough.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHEN A PICTURE IS FINISHED, SUCCESSFUL, WHAT WILL BE PUT ON DISPLAY OR NOT?
Oh well, I... I mean, usually I can tell if a painting's going well,
because I feel sort of euphoric and... just excited. I mean, if I didn't
get that from painting I wouldn't do it. With painting you can feel
exhilaration. Some of the time.
But a lot of the time it is just physical... toil. I guess a lot of
time when I'm painting too I just feel sort of blank. And then I have to
make a decision.
I think any authentic art has to be a clear expression of one's own
self. And that's why the problem for every artist is to try and discover
what that is. It's tied up with your attitude to yourself. And so
as you come to terms with yourself your art gets better.
WILL YOU CONTINUE TO LIVE AND WORK WITHIN AUSTRALIA?
Yeah, I think there are a lot of advantages to living in Australia. The
problem up till now was that if one wanted to be showing in New
York, one had to go and live there, but those attitudes have changed.
I don't know: In a sense, the work I do relates to my perception of its
context, and if it changed, if it was having more impact, it would have to
change, but I don't how.
CAN ART HAVE A REAL EFFECT IN AUSTRALIA ANYWAY?
Well, the idea of the avant-garde, which was an elitist thing, I don't
think there is an avant-garde any more. I think any art that's worthwhile
will reach a mass audience sooner or later. So within Australia - what
I'm saying I guess is that one doesn't have to make an effort, to reach the
masses, because if you do something significant it will eventually reach
But I do think in Australia there is this hostility to art. Probably
sport occupies a higher place in Australian minds. Whereas the situation
is quite different in America, but I don't know that that's so good
either, because there, art has become a consumer item.
But for me, l see art as one of the few areas left in our society
where you have complete freedom, of action. Not even so much of expression
but action. You can choose to do whatever you like. So it's a little arena
of freedom. And that's what I respond to.