Imants Tillers wins Alumni Award for Cultural Contribution

24 October 2023
Celebrating the artistic contributions of our distinguished alumnus
Though he was studying architecture, Imants Tillers (BSc (Architecture) '73) was drawn to the arts and the culture around the newly-formed Tin Sheds galleries. The style he developed in this period has made him one of Australia's most recognisable post-modern artists.

Imants Tillers - Artist, curator and writer.

Imants Tillers’ work is instantly recognisable in the Australian cultural landscape. Stretched across an ever-expanding assembly of canvas boards numbered one to infinity, known collectively as ‘The Book of Power’, his work deals in quotation and appropriation, drawing on a vast array of sources to tackle themes of authorial originality, the reproduction and distribution of images, diaspora and displacement, landscape and place, and metaphysics.

Having embedded themselves in the popular imagination in the 1980s, the concepts of quotation and appropriation – where an artist adapts other works into their own to generate new meaning – are likely familiar to contemporary audiences. Even so, Imants' work distinguishes itself with its broad outlook and philosophical approach that continues to hold the audience imagination long after viewing. 

The child of Latvian immigrants, Imants' home life had been quite insular, focused on the small Sydney community of Latvian migrants clinging to their culture in the wake of the Soviet Union. He grew up speaking Latvian at home.

His parents had finished high school in a displaced persons camp in Germany. On arriving in Australia, his father took night classes in mechanical engineering in order to better support his young family. It was expected that Imants would attend university.

“He said, ‘You’ve got a good brain. Use it,” Imants recalls. “He also said, ‘If you become an artist you’ll end up in the gutter.’ So, you know… there was no question. But I was very excited that university had all these incredible possibilities.”

Imants Tillers' work is held in numerous prominent gallery collections locally and internationally, including the National Gallery of Australia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga.

Architecture to art

Imants enrolled in an Architecture degree at the University of Sydney, which had recently updated its curriculum to encourage a broader education for aspiring architects. This included encouragement to go to events and workshops at the Tin Sheds, which in the 1970s were far from the sleek campus gallery space that exists today.

“They were just sheds. It was very dirty. I think it was full of cyanide – it wasn’t luxurious. The Fine Arts Faculty and the Power Institute were just up the road, and they would encourage students to hang out there and do some of their own work,” he says. “There were a few would-be artists hanging around there, and you need that when you’re a would-be artist.”

In 1969, Christo and Jeanne Claude were brought to Australia by collector, John Kaldor. Christo and Jeanne-Claude would become known for their large scale, site-specific environmental installations that engulf the physical world, but ‘Wrapped Coast, Little Bay’ was their first. The School of Architecture, Design and Planning organised a cohort of volunteers to help install the 90,000 sq metres of plastic fabric. Imants eagerly joined.  

It was something of a turning point, prompting him to further integrate his newfound passion into his studies. He continued working at the Tin Sheds in between his studies, even commencing work on the paintings for his first exhibition at Watters Gallery at the Tin Sheds. 

“I always considered that it was very fortunate to be there in that moment,” he says.  

His work culminated in an Honours thesis in 1972, entitled 'The Beginner’s Guide to Oil Painting', an investigation of Conceptual Art, a movement still in its formative phase at that time, which earned him the University Medal.   

You need role models. It’s important to see how artists that you respect have managed their careers... The key is finding a process that fits you and gives you the momentum to proceed.
Imants Tillers

Solidifying a style

Imants’ talent and obvious intellectual curiosity, combined with his drive, meant that his career took off quite quickly. Just two years after graduation he represented Australia at the 13th Bienal de São Paulo in Brazil, and by the 1980s, he was considered one of the leading Australian artists of his generation.  

Notably, when speaking of his work, Imants’ peers praise his ability to integrate his broad intellectual and philosophical outlook not only into his physical work, but into his conceptualising of art more broadly.   

“Tillers’ great achievement has been to reconceive what Australian art is and does,” writes Professor Ian McLean, Head of Art History and Curatorship at the University of Melbourne, citing Imants' responsiveness to the “multicultural and globalising currents that shaped the national consciousness from the latter 1960s”.  

Imants admits that having such a distinct style has sometimes been difficult to reckon with, when the public know one or two works, but don’t see the full range.   

Throughout the 1970s Imants says, his practice was often focused on flitting from one brilliant idea to the next to outdo himself. Now, he finds sustainability in having a regular practice. 

“I think it's important to look at other artists – you need role models. It’s important to see how artists that you respect have managed their output. The key is finding a process that fits you and gives you the momentum to proceed,” he says.

It’s an attitude he would like to pass on to younger artists. 

 “Finding a method and building on that method is the most sustainable because you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel all the time. You can do something that’s fairly simple, and it doesn’t matter because you know it’s part of a larger thing. You’re not putting pressure on yourself to always be as clever as you once were.”

A collection of Imants' essays on art and art history, Credo, is available now. Find out more.

Congratulations to Imants Tillers, winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for Culutral Contribution. Nominations for the 2024 Alumni Awards are now open. Learn more.

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