Power Publications recently had the great privilege to partner with the Latvian National Museum of Art to produce the bilingual monograph Imants Tillers: Journey to Nowhere. Power’s Publications Manager, Marni Williams, reflects on its previously untold story and the imprint’s role in sharing art’s global connections.
There has been more than one major retrospective and substantial book published on the practice of Australian artist Imants Tillers, but until now none have struck at its cultural bedrock in Latvian folklore. Tillers is well-known for painting an exhaustive system of canvas boards—108,224 and counting—and for an appropriation strategy that mines and re-stratifies art, poetry and philosophy, cultivating a productive diaspora of imagery and ideas. But while appropriations of his Western contemporaries first raised eyebrows in New York and London in the early 80s, and his use of Aboriginal motifs garnered much scrutiny when he appropriated from Michael Nelson Jagamara without permission in 1988 (who would later become his collaborator), his extensive use of Latvian imagery, and indeed his identity as a ‘Latvian in exile’, remained largely hidden beneath a surface of more widely recognisable references—that is, until Australian audiences were invited to revisit four decades of his art from a point of view outside our dominant cultural perspective.
Tillers is the son of Latvian parents who met and married at a refugee camp in Germany during the Second World War, later arriving to Australia as ‘displaced persons’ by boat in 1949. He spoke Latvian before English and, like many second-generation migrants, was expected to keep his inherited and chronically colonised culture alive. Art wasn’t an immediate path for Tillers, and in a piece written for the book he credits volunteering on Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Coast, One Million Square Feet—Little Bay, Sydney, Australia in 1968 while a Sydney University student as formative in his choice to make the shift from architecture to art.
This watershed moment happened to be in that same year that the University acted on its biggest bequest to date, from surgeon and artist John Joseph Wardell Power, who wanted, ‘to make available to the people of Australia the latest ideas and theories in plastic arts … to bring the people of Australia in direct touch with the latest art developments’. As a Paris-based migrant, Power had wanted to see the best and brightest of the artistic centres of the world reach Australia—given that Power wrote those words when Australia’s visual vocabulary was still reliant on the kind of canonised Western art that was made into small print reproductions in Art in Australia, it can be understood as a motivation very much of its time.
Back in Sydney, Tillers soon found himself engaged among the Institute’s very first cohort of students and art historians, responding to the provinciality of his location by engaging critically with art as a holistic system of signifiers—signifiers he remembers as being accessible for the most part as reproductions in books and magazines. Ever since, Tillers has used what he has called his ‘radical isolation’ to create a practice that reaches not only across geographies and cultures but time; and Power Publications has shifted, too, from a focus on bringing the outside in, to engaging with Australian artists and art historians as their work projects outwards, through publications such as this and others that tease out the shared histories of art in its various global contexts.
While not all of our books can be expected to share such parallel histories, the intersections between the local and global have been reflected in our other publishing activities of late, which this year have included the anthology Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, 1945–1990, published with National Gallery of Singapore—already in its second print run—and What is Performance Art? Australian Perspectives, a compilation that connects an Australian history of performance with many international threads through the voices of forty scholars, curators and artists. We also published our final issues of the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Art, wrapping up five years of production that have reflected an increasingly diverse cast of scholars and subjects. With access to an international readership online, the Journal has now registered almost 30,000 full text downloads and continues to grow its audience. I’d like to thank the issue editors I’ve worked with over the years and acknowledge those for Issue 1, 2018, Donna West Brett—also the Journal’s tireless Reviews Editor—and Deborah Ascher Barnstone; and for Issue 2, Ann Elias and Stephen Whiteman. I’m very grateful to Power’s Assistant Editor, Toby Fitch, for his marshalling and copy editing of the Journal this year, and for his work on all Power’s publications.
As for next year, we are looking forward to celebrating another quintessentially Australian crossing of cultures, this time inflected with the feminist aesthetics of Greek-Australian photomedia artist Eugenia Raskopoulos. We’re pleased to be publishing her monograph Vestiges of the Tongue alongside local imprint Formist. We’re also partnering with Melbourne University Publishing to tell a new story of emigré influence with the anthology Bauhaus Diaspora and Beyond: Transforming Education through Art, Design and Architecture to coincide with the centenary of the Bauhaus. Power also will be working with Prague-based co-publishers, NAMU, to bring you Geoffrey Batchen’s latest, Apparitions: Photography and Dissemination, a history that privileges the story of early commercial photography’s newfound capacity for circulation through print technologies over the rarified photographic objects that remain. Power will also be working on Rex Butler and ADS Donaldson’s history of Australian art ‘from the outside in’, and a major new publication with the University Art Museum for one of the first shows of the Power collection works at the new Chau Chak Wing Museum.
As a not-for-profit academic press of growing ambitions and modest scale, we cannot produce rigorous scholarship and make quality books without working with supporters and partners. I’d like to acknowledge those who have provided much-needed financial support for our publishing programs and related launch events, all the writers who have contributed their expertise and efforts, our esteemed co-publishers who have come on the journey with us, and the advice and collegiality I have enjoyed from members of the Journal’s Editorial Advisory Board and Power’s Advisory Committee.
Working in a small team means you share a lot of the joy and just as much of the load, and I want to thank Mark Ledbury, Susan Thomas and Kate Ukleja for another great and blisteringly productive year. My warmest thanks this season are for our outgoing Deputy Director, Stephen Whiteman, who has for four years been Power Publications’ greatest challenger and champion—thank you for your unflagging support. I wish you quality edits and great success.
Before I sign off for the summer weeks ahead of reading new manuscripts and finding new perspectives, I should return to Journey to Nowhere. And there are very many journeys to be taken: Mark Ledbury introduces Tillers as a ‘history painter for our times’; Tillers himself reflects on his productive state between worlds; Graham Coulter-Smith traces a mytho-poetic conception of the Antipodes; Ian McLean finds metaphysical pathways through mimicry; and Elita Ansone reveals the hundred-odd folktales, children’s book illustrations and cultural symbols that were there all along.
Art history reveals social histories from visual angles, but it can require different viewpoints to see things that were hiding in plain sight. I’m delighted that this book, and those in the coming year challenge what we think we know about how we see the world. I hope you’ll read along with us as we answer Power’s challenge to bring ‘the latest ideas’ by seeking out more diverse collectives, overlooked angles and alternate views.