It is a great privilege and a special pleasure to have been invited to speak at this evening’s opening of Imants Tillers – Journey to Nowhere here at the Latvian National Museum of Art.
If this opening were occurring in Australia, it would be the custom there to acknowledge the aboriginal land on which we were meeting and to pay respect to elders past and present and to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the audience.
That is, we follow a custom that pays respect to the original custodians of the land. This diplomatic practice has been observed by hundreds of tribal groups across our vast land, and continues the unbroken cultural traditions that have spanned over more than 60,000 years. It is an important element of any ceremony and gives context and meaning way beyond just the words.
We are a long way from our place but it is impossible not to think of that custom and what it means even from this distance.
Over these opening days of this exhibition, many of you will have participated in the program of lectures, presentations, documentaries and dissertations. I hope that a good number of you will already have had the chance to read and savour the truly outstanding catalogue that has been prepared for this retrospective. These are all such rich offerings and are based on a shared desire by so many of us to acknowledge and celebrate the achievement of Imants over just about half a century of imagination, application, dedication and creativity.
It is also appropriate to recognise the enduring encouragement that Imants has received from his wife, Jenny, their daughters Isidore and Saskia, and a large supporting cast of artists, dealers, collectors, Museum directors and curators, art historians, writers, architects, lenders, sponsors, friends and, of course, the host for this exhibition, the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Curator, Elita Ansone, and Director, Mara Lace.
In her introduction to the catalogue, the Director wrote that three years ago, an ‘ambitious decision’ was made to organise this exhibition. She writes:
By staging this exhibition in Riga, the museum furthers its aim to show works by vivid personalities whose creative careers have progressed within the borders of other cultural territories, making significant contributions to the development of art’s processes in their countries of residence and internationally.
Australian artists are too infrequently afforded the privilege of presenting such an exhibition. Therefore, this is highly significant and is a matter of considerable pride for our country. Born in Sydney as an Australian of Latvian descent, Imants Tillers has produced over his lifetime so far a body of work deeply engaged with themes of migration, displacement, indigeneity, and the concepts of home and identity. He expresses through his art a profound sense of responsibility to his family and to all Latvians to maintain language, identity and culture and to repudiate those who would have them vanish. His oeuvre is at once visually alluring and deeply reflective.
Time after time, his artwork reveals the importance of coincidence in life, happenstance, chance, the force of nature and how all these factors influence fate and destiny. Imants walks side by side with the poetry of Latvian folk traditions that preceded Christianity. These poems sung as songs concern themselves with mythology, daily agrarian life, natural phenomena and the human life cycle. These threads are very present in his artwork through their imagery, their titles and their inner meanings. They form the soul of this considerable enterprise.
The images themselves are crafted, painstakingly perfected one small canvas panel at a time: pasting, carving, peeling, masking, stooping, twisting, turning: The physicality of the creative act. Layers, so many layers, of perspectives, of memories, of experiences, of paint etched back, pared and worked and reworked. Moving towards a horizon, engaging in collaboration, exposing variations of philosophies, honouring a mother and father’s presence, the work is restless, urgent, rich and textured.
The images that Imants creates for us are clearly not just for our visual appreciation although, to the delight of viewers, this is a task they perform with exemplary skill. But they require more of us than that. They are puzzles to be figured, maps to be decoded. The placement of words and expressions requires a high level of viewer participation. We linger on a phrase. Its position on the canvas matters. Its adjacency with another phrase or a graphic is a clue.
As ancient ideas swirl about with present day concerns, these phrases provide ballast:
To thyself be kind. The number that cannot be another. We have decided not to die. Blossoming flame, speaking flame. To thee, invisible God. Hymn to the night. Journey to nowhere.
Bit by bit, and requiring that we exercise our minds and demonstrate patience, the central idea is gifted across to us. Each of us has our own personal memories of how we first engaged with the work and how, over time, it formed part of our own conscience and our personal narratives of explanation and truth seeking.
For me, one of those stepping-stones was in 2006, when the National Gallery of Australia hosted Imants Tillers ‘One World Many Visions’. The curator of that exhibition, Deborah Hart, explained a quality that informs his art and life as a sense of “in-betweenness – belonging partly to two cultures and not fully to either…” Much of his work exposes us to the truths of loss and dislocation of peoples from their homelands, and it can be raw and bring up emotions in ourselves that we didn’t know were there. This powerful point of reference reinforced for me with great clarity a greater understanding of the pain and challenge that indigenous people in Australia and throughout the world experience from the loss of culture and land.
Another stepping-stone was four years ago in Rome, at an exhibition entitled ‘Dreaming’s at the Museo Carlo Billotti. Imants’s work was exhibited alongside aboriginal work from the Sordello Missana Collection and a large number of works by the great master of the last century, Giorgio de Chirico. That exhibition explored the broad themes of creation and custom, preservation of identity, continuity and belonging. In doing so, it drew together considered and refined expressions of artistry and covered a vast terrain of the metaphysical as well as the domains of different territories and places.
And now we have this full Retrospective that allows each of us to see anew our own stepping-stones. Imants has placed a new puzzle before us by naming it ‘Journey to Nowhere’. By implication, he is inviting each of us to think about what makes somewhere somewhere. This is a fine puzzle and a decent challenge for each of us to think about our own cultural markers and how to form a society that knows itself culturally. We Australians specifically are challenged to think about how peoples coming together in a distant land can develop cultural confidence for ourselves derived from our unique histories and circumstances, synthesizing new and old stories.
Cultural confidence as an idea is certainly not a new concept to our continent. Culture through its expression and practice has not just been central to all facets of aboriginal life, it sits at the threshold to belief, knowledge, even existence itself. Culture animates the past, every present day and the future. Our understanding of this is central to how we must think about our great southern land.
In contemplating the work of this retrospective, how it has been curated and the central ideas of it, imagine for a moment that the epic narrative that Imants has constructed might be supported by another narrative. At an event in Parliament House, Canberra, last year to celebrate the creation of the Australia Council 50 years earlier, it seemed entirely appropriate to refer to the powerful narrative of the formation of our unique Australian identity espoused by aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson. It is based on his description of three epic journeys to our continent: the first out of Africa over 60,000 years ago, the second of 1770 and others of the 18th Century being journeys of discovery and of the Enlightenment and the third being all those journeys of individuals and families escaping persecution, prosecution, war zones or seeking economic improvement. In that narrative of the three journeys, we all belong together.
At the heart of our cultural expression and inspiration is the entwinement of these three journeys. Individually, they are extraordinary enough. However, the woven narrative of these three journeys creates and asserts a cultural power unique to our nation.
This retrospective powerfully exercises this woven narrative. These works are motivating to their audience. They exude a confidence about how the world is and what our roles might be. They express a cultural democracy in which the ideas of many are simultaneously combined and considered with respect. They give us cultural memory and a pride in what has gone before and what might come again. They illuminate cultural heritage and inspire us to action. They shift our boundaries, grow our relationships and give multiple meanings to our personal and community identities. They exert an influence over us all and cajole us and charm us into thinking deeply about these matters. That is their power. They contribute mightily to explain us to us and us to others. That they do so under the guise of a journey to nowhere is both profound and self effacing. Somewhere was nowhere first.
Visiting Imants and Jenny earlier this year in their garden and studio in Cooma in regional Australia, I was able to observe how an inner rhythm in the work and their lives reveals itself. In the midst of discussions about the themes of this Retrospective, there was plenty of time for humour and whimsy, romance, pragmatism, barren hilltops and lush gardens, grass trees and hellebores, cured mountain trout and produce from the garden, salad with avocado and gorgonzola, Sam the dog, books stacked high, artworks stacked higher. What a delight that visit was.
The garden was being prepared for three separate open days for the public. Despite the exceptionally dry conditions of the last summer and parched grazing land nearby, the garden managed to look verdant, healthy and well loved. It is beautifully maintained. However, the deciduous trees had figured out what was going on around them. Despite the continuing warmth of the season, many of the leaves had already fallen. That lunchtime, the sunlight was passing through the newly bare boughs illuminating the grass and garden beds. To my eyes, the colour palette was that of a garden in springtime not autumn. Summoning the opposite season from the other hemisphere, it seemed to be quietly asserting its own place of knowing itself well and appearing as the other: nature following the human heart, a different way of being.