Imants Tillers
Nature Speaks
Notes on Nature Speaks
References from Nature Speaks
Gallery Images
inventing postmodern appropriation

Graham Coulter-Smith

Untitiled 1978

In 1978 Imants Tillers created Untitled. This analysis will demonstrate that the theory and practice informing this work indicates that Tillers developed an antipodean species of postmodern art independently of any American or European 'cultural centre'. Moreover, it will be argued that Untitled acts as a paradigm for Tillers' most sophisticated application of authorial appropriation in his canvasboard series of 1983-91 - the latter being produced when the strategy of postmodern appropriation was in the ascendancy as an international style.

Untitled, 1978, was produced using the then cutting edge Neco reprographic technology. As far as this author is aware no other artist had used this process at that time. The process enables the user to scan artwork - in this case reproductions of Hans Heysen's Summer, 1909 - digitally into a computer. The computer then controls full colour precision paint jets capable of creating large scale images on almost any surface. The surface chosen by Tillers was canvas.

Although Untitled consists of painting on canvas its doubled nature alerts the viewer to the fact that the work is not an original. Tillers had used authorial appropriation three years previously in another major work of his pre-canvasboard period, Conversations with the Bride, 1974-75. There he juxtaposes Heysen's Summer, 1909, with fragments from Marcel Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even, 1915-25. This juxtaposition involves a parodic play upon the provincialism issue. According to Tillers this topic was brought to his attention specifically by Terry Smith's landmark essay 'The Provincialism Problem' (Smith 1974).Note 1 What Tillers perceived as the parochial provincialism of the landscape tradition in white Australian art history is juxtaposed with the radical avant-gardism of Duchamp. Although Untitled also uses Heysen's Summer, it is evident that the parody of provincialism informing Conversations with the Bride is replaced by a remarkably postmodern-like self-reflexive and deconstructive use of authorial appropriation.

The sophistication of Tillers' deconstruction of authorship in Untitled, 1978, is evident in his writings associated with this work. For example, in his artist's book Three Facts, published in 1981, Tillers discusses Untitled in a manner that indicates he understood that the photomechanical reproduction of a photomechanically appropriated source led to a radical problematising of the issue of authorship. Tillers makes the following observations on Untitled, 1978:

With this ingenious Japanese process, [Neco] it was possible for Tillers to produce his own version of Summer which, when reproduced, was indistinguishable from the reproduction of Heysen's original. (Tillers 1981a, 38, §2.5)

In this passage it is evident that Tillers is aware that his use of photomechanically mediated appropriation leads to a radical dislocation of authorship staged in the domain of photomechanical reproduction. Tillers' statement indicates that his use of photomechanical doubling can lead into an authorial mise en abyme - becoming a photomechanical reproduction of a photomechanical reproduction of a photomechanical reproduction.

What is especially interesting about Untitled, and the theory that surrounds it, is that its precocious and particular postmodernity can be shown to have influenced Tillers' use of appropriation in the canvasboard works he produced during the ascendancy of international postmodern art in the 1980s. This is of significance because it indicates that some of Tillers' most sophisticated articulations of authorial appropriation in his canvasboard project can be explained without recourse to the Marxian and poststructuralist analyses of postmodern appropriation developed by New York based theorists such as Benjamin Buchloh (Buchloh 1982), Hal Foster (Foster 1985), Rosalind Krauss (Krauss 1984), and Craig Owens (Owens 1978). Thus rather than being stereotyped as a typically antipodean 'follower' of an international style Tillers can be understood as having developed and elaborated his self-deconstructive strategy of authorial appropriation independently.

The relationship between Tillers' theory and practice associated with Untitled and his canvasboard series is intimated when in 1994 Tillers observed that after he had appropriated another artist's work in his canvasboard works and then happened to see the original reproduced in a magazine or book:

it would be like a virtual version of my own work. It would have that same effect on me personally. (Coulter-Smith 1994, n. p.)

As in the quotation from Three Facts cited above Tillers points to a dislocation of authorship occurring in the domain of photomechanical reproduction. Once more he argues that the appropriated work ceases to appear to be that of another artist and seems to be his own.

The first indication that Untitled, 1978, significantly informed Tillers' approach to authorial appropriation occurred when he began using the work of the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. Tillers became especially interested in McCahon's evocations of divinity appropriating words such as 'I' and even more fortuitously for Imants Tillers 'IT'. The availability of such authorial and, or, identity motifs indicates a turning point for Tillers' expression of his anti-anthropocentric position in his canvasboard project, 1983-91.

The Letter I 1998
The Letter I 1998

The Letter T 1988

Tillers' works The Letter I and The Letter T, both dated 1988, are reproduced above. They display appropriated versions of a McCahon 'I' and a 'T' respectively. Like McCahon's originals, Tillers' appropriation of these initials are large in scale. The Letter I, and The Letter T consist of grids of 195 and 247 canvasboards respectively.

However, Tillers' most impressive treatment of these signifiers is evident in his monumental canvasboard work The Bridge of Reversible Destiny, 1990, reproduced below.

If The Bridge of Reversible Destiny, 1990, is examined it is evident that this work is an installation consisting of a large mounted canvasboard painting and several stacks of unmounted canvasboard paintings. It is obvious that the gigantic 'IT' dominating The Bridge of Reversible Destiny can be read as a somewhat ostentatious statement of authorship on Tillers' part. However, this presumption is undermined by the fact that Tillers appropriated these signifiers from the work of another artist.

The Bridge of Reversible Destiny 1990

It is obvious that Tillers' appropriation of the McCahonian 'I' and 'IT' motifs relates to the deconstruction of authorship informing postmodern appropriation. However, what is particularly interesting is that Tillers' self-deconstructive appropriation of such motifs can be explained in terms of the sophisticated and precocious theory and practice associated with Untitled, 1978.

The primary theoretical framework for the latter is 'Dialogue on False Mount Hayward' (Scullion 1978) This text concerns Michael Scullion's explanation of Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem to Tillers during their visit to the Flinders Ranges National Park, South Australia. This was in 1978, prior to Tillers' production of Untitled, 1978. It is in this dialogue between Scullion and Tillers that a frame of reference can be found for Tillers' paradoxical appropriation of 'his' initials from McCahon. A significant passage in 'Dialogue on False Mount Hayward' stated:

contingent circumstances intervene and IT and MS are spontaneously exchanged-IT is mapped onto MS and conversely MS is mapped onto IT. (Scullion 1978, 7)

In this excerpt 'IT' stands for Imants Tillers and 'MS' for Michael Scullion. Within the context of 'Dialogue on False Mount Hayward' the passage signifies that the two interlocutors swap identities by means of a process of 'mapping' parallel to that used by Gödel in his Theorem.

The context for the mapping between IT and MS is directly linked to the issue of authorial appropriation. It follows a point in 'Dialogue on False Mount Hayward' when Scullion makes an observation regarding a lone walk Tillers took in the Flinders Ranges National Park. Apropos Tillers' expedition Scullion comments: 'Aha… the way to False Mount Hayward - you were Heysen bound' to which Tillers responds 'Wholly Encompassed' (Scullion 1978, 9).

Tillers' reply needs to be taken in the context of his ongoing appropriation of Heysen in Conversations with the Bride, 1974-75, and Untitled, 1978. Against this background Scullion's observation that Tillers is 'Heysen bound', and Tillers' response that he is 'wholly encompassed' suggest that he bound up and 'wholly encompassed' in his appropriation of Heysen. Such observations suggest that Tillers' identity is metaphorically 'spontaneously exchanged' with that of Heysen in a manner that reflects his being 'mapped onto' Scullion. This has obvious affinity with Tillers' reference to 'virtual version[s]' of his own work quoted above.

Scullion and Tillers' use of the term 'mapping' in 'Dialogue on False Mount Hayward' stems from the crucial role played by 'mapping' in Gödel's Theorem. Tillers would have been especially interested in Gödel's use of this method because he had used techniques based on mathematical mapping himself in his first two major works of the 1970s: Moments of Inertia, 1972-73, and Conversations with the Bride, 1974-75.

The issue of mapping comes to the fore in 'Dialogue on False Mount Hayward' when Tillers asks Scullion, 'but how does MAPPING come into it?' Scullion replies:

Well that was how Gödel got his results. He made a series of pictures, as it were, isomorphic resemblances between two categories, like these two hands-whatever one did was matched by the other, until his got this double reflection, as it were, in his results. (Scullion 1978, 7)

Scullion's example of two hands is a good analogy for the doubling or 'copying' process that is intrinsic to isomorphic mapping. Isomorphic mapping is not concerned with one-to-one 'copies' but with transformative 'copies'. An interesting notion in the context of authorial appropriation. The symmetry of one's left and right hands is not a one-to-one copy but involves a transformation, in this case, mirror reflection. Evidence of Tillers' application of mapping prior to his contact with Gödel's Theorem is graphically illustrated in image '16c' from the 112 interrelated images that make up Conversations with the Bride, 1974-75. Image '16c' is reproduced below.

Image 16c from Conversations with the Bride

In image '16c' Tillers uses arrow symbols such as ' ' which in the context of mathematics denote the process of mapping. The background for this and most of the other 112 images in Conversations with the Bride is a mirror-inverted version of Heysen's, Summer. Tillers' aesthetic is influenced by an enduring ecopolitical position evident in his insertion of 'woodsmen' with axes into Heysen's idyllic landscape. In the bottom middle of the image 'woodsmen' are evident in the form of mirror-inverted copies that directly anticipate Scullion's 'two hands' analogy. Tillers pursued his rhetoric of mirroring further in Conversations with the Bride not only by mirror-inverting his appropriation of Summer but also by using a mirrored surface on the backs of all the images.

'Dialogue on False Mount Hayward' not only provides a valuable framework for interpreting Tillers' appropriation of 'his' initials from McCahon but also for his appropriation of another 'I' motif from the Japanese-American artist Shusaku Arakawa. Tillers' Arakawean 'I' motif will be referred to here as the 'beacon', or beacon-'I' motif. The motif is labelled 'beacon' after the fact that Tillers entitled one of the works in which he used the motif, The Beacon.

The Beacon 1989

In The Beacon, 1989, reproduced above, Tillers superimposes the beacon motif over an appropriation of one of McCahon's works and in so doing provides an indisputable connection between the beacon motif and Tillers' appropriations of 'I' and 'IT' from McCahon.

Another conjunction of Tillers' appropriation of authorial motifs from both McCahon and Arakawa in the same work is evident in The Bridge of Reversible Destiny, 1990. This work is reproduced further below with a detail showing Tillers' use of two beacon-'I' motifs to the right of the large 'T'. Tillers' self-deconstructive statement of authorship evident in the 'IT' is communicated rhetorically, by proximity, to beacon-'I' motif.

It is also noteworthy that the beacon-'I' motif in The Bridge of Reversible Destiny is doubled. A similar doubling is evident implicitly and explicitly in other works such as The Fountainhead, 1987, and The Forming of Place 1987, which are also reproduced below.

The Fountainhead, 1987, consists of a mounted canvasboard painting in front of which is a demounted canvasboard work in the form of a stack. Another feature of the beacon motif in The Fountainhead is evident in the demounted canvasboard work that stands in front of the mounted work. Like the beacon itself, this canvasboard stack is 'I-like' in shape.

Consequently, there is an implicit doubling of the beacon as a sign of identity. Tillers' doubling of the beacon motif becomes explicit in The Forming of Place in a manner akin to that evident in The Bridge of Reversible Destiny.

The Fountainhead 1987

Tillers' doubling of the beacon-'I' as an authorial sign returns the analysis to the theory and practice informing Untitled, 1978, because it is the latter that provides the most significant precedent and paradigm for Tillers' use of doubling. Accordingly, Tillers' doubling of his beacon-I motif can be interpreted in a manner parallel to the interpretation of Tillers' doubled appropriation in Untitled, 1978. Like Tillers' doubled appropriation of Heysen's Summer Tillers' doubled beacon-I motif deconstructs any notion of stable identity/authorship, leading the latter into a domain of paradox.

Tillers articulates this paradox when he observes that after he had appropriated another artist's work in his canvasboard works and then happened to see the original reproduced in a magazine or book: 'it would be like a virtual version of my own work.' (Coulter-Smith 1994, n. p.). It has been noted that this statement reflects his observation on Untitled, made thirteen years earlier, when he suggests that via the Neco process it was possible to: 'produce his own version of Summer which, when reproduced, was indistinguishable from the reproduction of Heysen's original.' (Tillers 1981a, 38, §2.5).

Another link can be added to the chain of connections between Tillers' pre-canvasboard theory and practice of photomechanically mediated appropriation. This link arises out of a relationship between Tillers' use of photomechanically mediated appropriation and his mythopoetic conception of a counter-rational parallel world.

The latter originated in Tillers' theory and practice associated with Conversations with the Bride, 1974-75. Tillers initially expressed his notion of a counter-rational parallel world via his rhetoric of mirroring alluded to above. Influenced by Smith's 'The Provincialism Problem' (Smith 1974), Tillers used the metaphor of mirror inversion as a means of mythologising the antipodes and thereby deconstructing the perceived provincialism of non-indigenous antipodean art. In Untitled, 1978, Tillers turned from mirror-inversion to photomechanical reproduction as his key metaphor for an antipodean counter-rational world.

Evidence for this contention is available in an article by Tillers published in the same year as Three Facts and entitled 'Tom Roberts - Some Reflections' (Tillers 1981b). Here Tillers discusses the relationship between art and photography and in so doing creates a link between photomechanical reproduction and his mythopoetic notion of a counter-rational parallel world. The latter is evident in Tillers' description of photography as:

a parallel shadow-world populated by melancholy residues - paper-thin displacements of the 3D objects to which they refer (Tillers 1981b, 272)

He goes on to include photomechanical reproduction:

Naturally, reproductions in books and magazines are caught in this double bind. …they add to this shadow-world …(Tillers 1981b, 272)

There appears to be a connection between Tillers' turn to photomechanical reproduction as a metaphor for his notion of counter-rational parallel world and the two statements quoted above in which Tillers stages his problematising of authorship in the domain of photomechanical reproduction. This relationship is reinforced by the fact that Tillers has on several occasions sought to place his work entirely in the domain of photographic and, or, photomechanical reproduction.

The first instance of this radical strategy in Tillers' oeuvre occurs in his One Painting, Cleaving series, 1980-82. This work is extraordinary in that it consists of a small series of works that appear to be identical but which have different images painted underneath the surface image. These underpaintings exist only as Polaroid photographs or photomechanical reproductions thereof. Tillers' One Painting, Cleaving series, 1980-82, immediately precedes his canvasboard series and its strange technique resonates through Tillers' canvasboard works in his use of unmounted stacks of canvasboard works where only the top image is visible and the rest are hidden.

Another powerful resonance of One Painting, Cleaving within Tillers' canvasboard project is evident, significantly, in one of the examples of the doubled beacon motif cited above, The Forming of Place, 1987.

The Forming of Place, 1987, is reproduced below. This work is exceptional within Tillers' canvasboard series, 1983-91, due to the fact that it never been and, according to the framework in which Tillers conceived it, never will be exhibited. Tillers has only hung the work for the purposes of photographic documentation. Thus its physical existence is momentary in the manner of the hidden layers in Tillers' One Painting, Cleaving series, 1980-82.

The Forming of Place 1987

Curiously, Untitled, 1978, has also become a work that exists only in the 'parallel 'shadow world' of photographic reproduction. It was purchased by the Australian National Gallery. However, in 1995 Tillers was informed that the Australian National Gallery had inadvertently disposed of the work which had been crated in the gallery's archive. Although this work could be reconstructed so long as the Neco process is still available Tillers decided against this. Consequently, Untitled, 1978, now exists only in the form of photography and photomechanical reproduction in a manner akin to Tillers' Polaroid records of his One Painting, Cleaving series and the photographic condition of The Forming of Place.Note 2

The conclusion to this examination of Tillers' deconstructive play with authorship in his canvasboard series, 1983-91, is that there is a great deal of evidence to show that Tillers assimilated the strategy of postmodern appropriation into his pre-postmodern theory and practice rather than vice versa.

Untitled, 1978, is remarkable because it is a prime example of 'postmodern appropriation' created several years before postmodern appropriation became the basis for an international style. Moreover, the theory and practice surrounding this work is at a level of sophistication capable of informing Tillers' deconstruction of authorship via appropriation in his canvasboard project of the period 1983-91.

Once this crucial paradigm is accepted it must be acknowledged that Tillers' pre-canvasboard theory and practice achieved such a high level of theoretical and practical sophistication that it was capable of providing Tillers with not only an entry into the genre of postmodern appropriation in the 1980s but a highly innovative and distinctive contribution to that genre.

Another essay could be written demonstrating the influence of Conversations with the Bride, 1974-75, and Tillers' One Painting, Cleaving series, 1980-82, on his canvasboard series.Note 3 Certainly the time has come to acknowledge that Tillers' canvasboard series, 1983-91, should be understood as a development of his theory and practice of the 1970s. Moreover, recognition of this fact ought to lead to an acceptance that the integrity and sophistication of Tillers' oeuvre is sufficiently substantial to transcend even such a major influence as the international style of postmodern art that dominated the 1980s.

In the context of the present exhibition the question can be posed as to whether Tillers' current work can be located within the more coherent conception of his oeuvre outlined in part above. The answer is that it can.

As well as the enduring strands in Tillers' theory and practice explored here there are other equally important threads. For example, Tillers' theory and practice in the period 1972-99 is marked by his development of a counter-rational aesthetic based on post-classical science. This began with holistic systems theory (Tillers 1973), to which was added the non-Euclidian notion of a fourth spatial dimension (Tillers 1978), then Gödel's Theorem, then quantum theory (Tillers 1982) and more recently chaos and complexity theory.

Tillers' post-classical scientific aesthetic possesses an ideological dimension which is comparable to that of deep ecology. Above, it was mentioned briefly that Tillers' inclusion of 'woodsmen' into the mirror- inverted Heysen landscape in Conversations with the Bride, 1974-75, was motivated by an ecopolitical stance. The thinking behind Tillers' inclusion of the 'woodsmen' and their axes is revealed in an attack on environmental degradation made by Tillers in 1973:

We…exploit the seashore for profit, sterilise the landscape for profit, fell the great forests for profit, fill protective marshes for profit. (Tillers 1973, 30) [my emphasis]

In the same text Tillers describes an ecopolitical alternative:

the antithesis of the exploitative view of nature is the ecological view of man's dependence on nature not as a separate entity but as part of many interdependent systems. (Tillers 1973, 39)

After 1991 Tillers become interested in the exploration of nonlinear systems evident in chaos and complexity theory. The literally infinite complexity of self-reflexive embedding in fractal geometry is now accepted as contributing to our knowledge of the deep structure of nature. The influence of such ideas is evident in a statement made by Tillers in 1998 when he observed:

Atoms are wholes consisting of sub-atomic parts… likewise cells within tissues within organs within organism, organism within societies, societies within ecosystems, ecosystems within Gaia, Gaia in the Solar System, the Solar System in the Galaxy and so on. (Tillers 1998, 34)

Tillers' quotation resonates with the central thesis explored in this essay which concerns his deconstruction of authorship by the photomechanical reproduction of a photomechanical reproduction of a photomechanical reproduction. There is strong evidence that Tillers' authorial deconstruction in his canvasboard works is motivated by a desire to express the author's dependence on representational systems 'not as a separate entity but as part of many interdependent systems'.

Taken in the context of such issues the deconstruction of identity/authorship in Tillers' work examined in this essay moves beyond parallels with postmodern appropriation into a more broadly relevant ecopolitical dimension. The 'death of the author-god' evident in Tillers' work becomes understandable as a deconstruction of the rational 'cogito', the self-absorbed and self-destructive hubris of capitalist techno-science. In its stead Tillers posits a human subjectivity that realises its imminence in the matrices that surround it and as a consequence is able to experience a renewed respect for the natural systems, internal and external, in which we are all encompassed.