Artist Imants Tillers has long struggled to reconcile his Australian identity and Latvian heritage. (Supplied: Juris Podnieks Studio)
Imants Tillers’ family story is one familiar to many Australians — that of dislocation, migration and mixed identity.
The internationally renowned artist — who represented Australia in the Venice Biennale in 1986 and won the Wynne Prize for Australian landscape painting two years running in 2012-13 — says he has long paid tribute to his Latvian heritage in his works, but that this has largely gone unnoticed:
“A lot of the elements that I’ve used in various works over the years would have been unknown to most of the Australian audience because they referenced Latvian images or Latvian concerns.”
Now his ancestral country is bringing these references to the forefront, in a major exhibition at the Latvian National Museum of Art that welcomes him as one of its own.
Journey to Nowhere showcases many of the large-scale works the artist is known for, made up of canvas boards and often featuring landscape imagery overlaid with text.
It’s a long way from his rural property in Cooma, New South Wales — but is nonetheless a kind of homecoming.
Journey to Nowhere showcases 70 works spanning four decades of Tillers’ practice. (Supplied: Jennifer Slatyer)
A story of displacement
Tillers’ parents — both Latvian — met and married in a refugee camp in Germany, and came to Australia by boat in 1949.
They were known as “displaced persons” — but Tillers says these days they would be called asylum seekers.
He was born the following year in Sydney and spoke Latvian as his first language, only learning English when he went to school.
The artist says the Latvian community of his childhood was not a large one, but it was active.
“I think they felt — because Latvia was taken over by the Soviet Union and there was a deliberate policy of, you know, deportations and Russification — they somehow felt a responsibility to keep the Latvian culture alive in exile, as it were. And so that responsibility kind of fell on the children as well.”
Tillers first visited Latvia in 1976, when the country was still under Soviet rule.
He says the experience left him very grateful to have been born in Australia.
“It was in communist times, so it was two things: it was kind of like the recognition of landscape and language and food, but the circumstances were terrible really,” he recalls.
“The people there had been colonised, and [there was] quite a lot of anxiety, KGB informers everywhere.”
A relative in the Latvian parliament would later tell him the KGB had a file on Tillers himself.
Latvia honours its departed son in major exhibition
After 50 years of German and Russian occupation (preceded by a history of German and Russian rule dating back centuries), Latvia regained its independence in 1991.
Tillers’ first solo exhibition in the country soon followed, though it was a small affair compared to his current exhibition in Riga.
Journey to Nowhere showcases 70 works spanning four decades of Tillers’ practice, and a new feature-length documentary about the artist.
Tillers’ mixed identity is acknowledged with several Australian-Latvian cooperations, including a monograph jointly published by the Latvian National Museum of Art and the University of Sydney, and a performance at the Riga opening of compositions by Australian Rosalind Page that were inspired by Tillers’ works.
The title piece of the exhibition depicts the Riga skyline overlaid with text inspired by Tillers’ parents’ story. (Supplied: the artist/Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery)
The title piece of the exhibition is a large painting featuring an image of the Riga skyline taken from a 1991 poster, overlaid with text that Tillers says is inspired by his parents’ story and feeling vulnerable.
The work includes phrases like “flee no matter where”, “flee no matter how”, and “we have decided not to die”.
“The text is about running away, maybe finding refuge somewhere else or not finding refuge somewhere else, not finding sanctuary somewhere else,” Tillers says in the documentary made for the exhibition.
“It’s maybe the impulse to leave rather than to die.”
Tillers has been numbering each board he uses for years, and is now up to around 108,000. (Supplied: Jennifer Slatyer)
Journey to Nowhere is made up of the artist’s signature canvas boards, which he says give his works a pleasing transient quality, allowing them to be disassembled and stacked against the wall.
His reasons for taking up the material in the 1980s were largely practical.
“I think it was a moment when painting was being reinvented … it was a kind of return to painting after a decade of conceptual art etcetera, and people were looking for new approaches,” he says.
The boards Tillers uses are readily available at any art shop.
“Because it had that sort of amateur association, [using canvas boards] was something that people were looking at,” says the artist.
“But what I wanted to do with them was actually to make large-scale works, because I was working in the spare room of a flat in Sydney.”
There were other benefits too.
Tillers was unable to attend his first international solo show — so he sent two large works to London by post.
He has been numbering each board he uses for years, and is now up to around 108,000.
“I started counting them consecutively … from one to infinity, which is kind of a preposterous idea really, but it kind of keeps you going.”
Filmmaker Antra Cilinska was drawn to the “layers which come up” in Tillers’ works. (Supplied: the artist/Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery)
Questions of identity
Tillers’ devotion to his work is highlighted in the documentary made for his Riga exhibition, showing extended scenes of the artist carefully taking apart and putting together his paintings in a room stacked high with art theory books.
The film also showcases the artist’s struggle to reconcile his Australian identity and Latvian heritage.
In the opening minutes, Tillers says a friend told him he shouldn’t describe himself as having “Latvian roots” — he should say he’s Latvian.
“I mean he’s probably right,” Tillers says in the footage.
“But also I’m completely Australian, and many Australians come from different backgrounds. Maybe the answer is I’m a person in the contemporary world.”
Tillers says he has been returning yearly to Latvia and is feeling more at home there. (Supplied: Juris Podnieks Studio)
Filmmaker Antra Cilinska, who made Thrown Into the World at the request of the Latvian National Museum of Art, says it was the duality of his work that attracted her to Tillers as a subject.
“I think all these layers which come up in his works — I think this is … like a book, like a film, like life itself,” she said.
Cilinska also found the central question around identity compelling.
“If you know where you belong you can go anywhere and have no doubts about it, but when you start thinking ‘Where do I belong?’ — I think this really causes a lot of questions,” she says.
“And people who have this question … they are maybe sometimes spending their whole lifetime to get an answer.”
These days Tillers is a well-known name in Latvia, which he says is keen to claim any of its “exiles”.
He is yet to reconcile his place in his ancestral country, but says he is feeling more at home there — despite the fact that the tragedy of its history makes him want to cry.
“[My wife and I have] been going yearly for the last four years since this exhibition was proposed in Riga, and I’ve become kind of familiar with it, and it feels very welcoming,” he says.
“It’s another kind of ambivalent situation, where I feel attraction to go there but I’m actually Australian, and I’m back here.”
Journey to Nowhere runs until September 30 at the Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga