“We promised at the election that we would preserve the Wran legacy and keep the Powerhouse open. We are doing just that,” said NSW Arts Minister, John Graham, in a press release of 2 September, last year. In direct contradiction of that election promise, the Minns government is now planning to close the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo for at least three years, as of 4 February. The friends of the Museum suspect it will be closed for a considerably longer period and unrecognisable when re-opened. In Canberra, plans are afoot to close the National Gallery of Australia for several years while repairs are undertaken on the roof and windows (although I’ve since been assured they’ll be staying open!)
The Chinese would laugh at the preposterous slowness of renovations and repairs that eliminate Australia’s major public assets for years at a time. Their building speeds are beyond our abilties, for lots of reasons, but surely we could move just a little faster.
After two-and-a-half years, at a cost of $19.2 million, Artspace is finally back in business in Wolloomooloo. The renovations are uniformly excellent, but compared to the PHM or the NGA, it’s a boutique job, with exhibition spaces large and small, improved office facilities and an impressive set of artists’ studios on the top floor. As for how an artist secures one of these studios, you’ll have to ask Artspace director, Alexie Glass-Kantor.
The opening exhibition is an ambitious project by Jonathan Jones, called Untitled (Transcriptions of Country). It was inevitable that the first show in the new Artspace would have a First Nations dimension, and Jones has shown us many times that he’s not frightened of scale, being happy to work with an army of collaborators.
The main part of the exhibition consists of more than 300 embroidered doilies, each featuring a black silhouette of a plant specimen collected by the French explorers who travelled to Australia on Nicolas Baudin’s voyage of 1800-04. Most of the sewing was done by the ACE Embroiderers Collective, a multi-ethnic group of women working out of Parramatta, who came to Australia as migrants or refugees.
Jones did his research in the Herbarium of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, where he tracked down the plant specimens collected by Baudin’s naturalists, Péron and Lesueur. There’s no record of what became of most of the animals that were taken to France, although they did better than Baudin himself, who died on the way home. The kangaroos, emus and black swans would live on the grounds of Napoleon’s chateau, Malmaison, although we know the emperor would give the swans as gifts to other heads of state, and occasionally take pot-shots at them.
Along with the doilies, presented on long rows of lecterns so recently made one can smell the fresh wood, Jones has included a video by Jazz Money, a soundscape featuring Lille Madden. He has also created a set of complementary installations. Engraved emu eggs and piles of yellow blossoms are clustered on the tops of antique tables, the ghostly plaster casts of traditional Aboriginal weapons heaped on the floor. The most striking work, untitled (remembering Eora), features six large, ornamental wreaths made from emu eggs, seashells, gum nuts, paperdaisies and possum fur. Within each of them is a portrait of one of the early inhabitants of Port Jackson, sketched by Baudin’s artist, Nicolas-Martin Petit, and engraved for publication in France.
These portraits are the most accurate and individualised records we have of the Eora, even though the engravers have taken some licence, making them conform to their preconceptions of the “savage” – noble or otherwise. The wreaths are spectacular, as wreaths should be. I wish I could say the same about the embroidered doilies, but sheer repetition induces a sense of monotony. Look at a few dozen, and you feel like saying, “OK, OK, I get the picture.” It is, however, an ingenious way of filling a large room.
For Jones, the various elements of this show, with its references to the items Baudin collected and the people he met, constitute “a reply to empire”. With his many collaborators, the artist aims to symbolically reclaim these objects from Napoleon’s imperial clutches and reinvest them with the significance they once held for the Eora.
This project was originally exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and Malmaison in late 2021- early 2022. The homecoming is celebrated by a hardcover brick of a catalogue, which heralds a new landmark in Artspace’s spotty list of art publications. One hopes they haven’t peaked too soon.
If Jones’s work may be seen as broadly representative of contemporary art’s current preoccupations, Imants Tillers, showing at the Mosman Art Gallery, belongs to a previous generation. For Jones, art acts as a vehicle for exploring social and political issues – the legacy of colonialism, the persistence and revitalisation of Indigenous culture. He is a textbook example of the kind of artist favoured by museums and art galleries that have suddenly discovered their social conscience.
Tillers is more broad ranging in his themes and ideas. Whereas Jones’s approach is ideological – right down to his admiration for Bruce Pascoe’s unscholarly claims in Dark Emu, Tillers is – and always has been – a seeker after those “mystical truths” the American conceptualist, Bruce Nauman, saw as the goal of the artist’s quest.
In Jones’s work, the world divides neatly into black and white, good and bad. For Tillers, it’s a much more complicated arrangement. One of his favourite quotations is Mallarmé’s A throw of the dice will never abolish chance, which appears again and again, creeping around the edges of a work. He has a longstanding interest in Indigenous art but is less taken with historical and political verities, than with random associations. In his essay, Locality Fails, reprinted in the Giramondo Press anthology, Credo (2022), Tillers begins by noting that Albert Namatjira shares a birthday with Marcel Duchamp.
The survey, Imants Tillers: The Mosman Years, looks at the works produced from 1981-89, when the artist and his family lived on Sydney’s North Shore, and later pieces. It was during the 80s that Tillers started to experiment with small, store-bought canvasboards that could be laid side-by-side, like tiles, to create wall-sized compositions.
The show includes the artist’s first ever canvasboard piece, Suppressed Imagery (1981): 49 panels, 7X7, featuring idiosyncratic drawings copied from Latvian childrens’ books, works by Giorgio De Chirico, and a blurred postcard of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. It’s already an enigmatic mix that invites us to search for affinities. Each panel is lightly gridded in pencil, to assist the image transfer, and numbered. Seeing canvasboard no. 1 is like viewing some rare museum artefact. There are now more than 100,000 boards in this ongoing sequence.
The final work in the show is View (1989), painted just before Tillers left Mosman. A scaled-up copy of Tom Roberts’s The camp, Sirius Cove (1899), hidden behind a storm of numerals borrowed from Colin McCahon’s Numbers (1966), it celebrates the centenary of Roberts’s painting and Tillers’s departure for fresh fields. There’s a feeling of nostalgia in this work, and a sense of empathy with the almost supernatural appeal numbers held for McCahon. It’s as if these hand-drawn figures contained the key to some great secret.
As ever with Tillers, the most systematic manner of working is combined with a choice of imagery hinting at connections and insights that challenge the viewer to puzzle them out, although one suspects there’s a good deal of intuition and whimsy involved. To combine a dandyish still life by Mosman artist, Adrian Feint with a geometrical flourish by American postmodernist, Philip Taaffe, is almost slapstick. It may be even stranger to pair another Mosman resident, Margaret Preston, with Minimalist sculptor, Carl Andre.
If there is a constant presence in Tillers’s work, it’s the Italian master, Giorgio De Chirico. One of the most paradoxical artists of all time, De Chirico was worshipped by the Surrealists but wanted nothing to do with them, styling himself a painter in the classical mode. His “metaphysical” philosophy of art gave him a licence to leap around in time, borrowing from the Greeks and Romans, and later from the artists of the Baroque era. When the market rejected his late works, he produced a long line of ‘self-forgeries’ of earlier pictures which are sold today for vastly less than the first versions. Both the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria have recently acquired examples.
Tillers could hardly fail to love an artist who so wilfully blurred the line between originality and reproduction, who defied convention and embraced mystery. De Chirico finds his way into After Civilisation (for Geoff Bardon) (1986) – his distinctive motifs set against a copy of a painting by Papunya artist, Michael Nelson Jagamara. The work questions where “civilisation” begins and ends.
The major De Chirico appropriation in this show is The Vortex (1984), which borrows its basic forms from The Archaeologists (1927). In De Chirico’s painting, two seated, blank-faced figures in togas hold a jumble of classical ruins on their laps. In Tillers’s massive 4 X 3.4 metre composition, the two figures hold images from many different times and places, including Papunya painting. The earlier artist’s fixation on the classical world, like Jonathan Jones’s single-minded focus on First Nations matters, is not sufficient for Tillers. In these years he sought to rove freely across space and time, using Mosman as a launching pad from which to explore the constellations.
Jonathan Jones: Untitled (Transcriptions of Country)
Artspace, 15 December, 2023 – 11 February, 2024
Imants Tillers: The Mosman Years
Mosman Art Gallery, 11 November, 2023 – 4 February, 2024
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 January, 2024