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The Pebble in the Pacific: Imants Tiller's 'Kangaroo Blank' and Aboriginal misrepresentation

Imants Tiller's 'Kangaroo Blank' (1988)

In this short essay, I will be examining Imants Tillers’ Kangaroo Blank (1988) and its ability to call upon contemporary ideas as a mode to re-examine our understanding of historical art and vice versa. This interchangeability of recontextualization of imagery highlights the rippling effects of colonialist actions that transcend time and space. I would like to start with a bit of context about this essay. I am writing it for a short talk I will be doing on the artwork, held at TATE Liverpool, as part of the Visitor Engagement experience at the gallery. So, it is important to highlight that the piece is currently part of the permanent and rotating collection that aims to confront and readdress the organisation’s part in the biased and unbalanced misrepresentation of artists and ideas. Whilst previous collections from this gallery and institutions like it have focused predominantly on white, male, heteronormative, and colonialist values, the current art climate is calling for a belated awakening to uncover complicated and undervalued histories and voices.

Tillers is an Australian artist who came to prominence in the 1970s and is considered an influential advocate of conceptual and postmodern art and ideas. In the 1980s, he was a front runner to engaging with Aboriginal misrepresentation and land rights issues as a contemporary artistic concern, rather than a historical footnote in the endlessly long story of British colonialisation. His key style is a grid-like system, created by fitting smaller canvas-board panels together like a jigsaw puzzle to create a larger image. If one were to flip Kangaroo Blank’s panels around, we would see a numbering system, one which he started in 1981 and is continuous throughout his work. It is best to think of each panel like a page in a book, and each panel makes a chapter – the overall constructed image. Each chapter is part of his ongoing body of work, which he calls “the Book of Power.” The Book of Power’s visual language is one of appropriation. He uses historical paintings, poetry, and literature, like the ready-mades of the early 20th century, and juxtaposes them with contemporary motifs to create a conflict. This conflict uncovers an extra layer of contextualisation, revealing the deep-rooted issues that are not just of our time but are systematically woven throughout history.

George Stubbs' 'the Kongouro from New Holland' (1770)

For Kangaroo Blank, the key appropriation made is that of George Stubbs’ painting The Kongouro from New Holland (1770). Stubbs was the foremost animal painter in the UK at the time and was commissioned to make this piece after Captain James Cook returned from his first voyage to the Pacific. This voyage is important because it was the first British exploration to land on Australian shores, the first “discovery” of the landscape and its wildlife (most importantly, in this case, the kangaroo) and Aboriginal people. It also marked the collection of various artifacts that were taken from the people and land, including forty to fifty spears. It is notable that Stubbs never actually visited Australia, nor did he ever see a kangaroo. But when we look at Tillers’ painting, we can see that the barren landscape is a direct appropriation of Stubbs’ misrepresentation. The critical factor that is noticeably negated is the strange-looking kangaroo itself, which has been replaced with a blank panel.

Shusaka Arakawa's 'A Tomb of Chance I' (1982)

This brings us to Tillers’ next reference, that of the Japanese conceptual artist of the 1960s, Shusaka Arakawa. The emanating lines and cage-like structure in Tillers’ painting are nods to Arakawa’s style. But it is his literary forms that we want to pay attention to, specifically a piece he co-published with Madeline Gins called To Not To Die. Released only the previous year before the conception of this painting, the publication reflects upon ideas of blankness. They suggest that emptiness has its own fullness, an absent presence. I like to think of it as a haunting, sense of space and understanding that the absence of an object can still be linguistically and visually understood as its own entity. Tillers uses this concept of thick emptiness to visualise Australian peoples’ paradoxical feeling of simultaneously belonging and not belonging in their landscape due to colonialist pasts and historical erasure. By rubbing the past and the present together, Tiller creates a conflict of ideas that reshape our understanding of both contexts.

The idea of blankness also brings us to terra nullius, the Latin for ‘unoccupied’ or ‘uninhabited’. Theorist, Jussi Parikka, said it best in his essay A Slow Violence: Damaged Environments of Technological Culture (2016):

“Many of the colonials forms of power as well as the modern conquest of nature relied on measures that ensured that there was visually nothing: the invention of indigenous nations as terra nullius and the wider sense is which the non-human world was res nullius in itself was both a militarised way of seeing and capturing space.”

So, terra nullius is problematic on two major levels. The first is that because Aboriginal people never signed a British legal document to claim ownership of their land, colonisers never acknowledged that it could belong to native groups. Rather than seeing Aboriginal peoples as equal human beings with rights of their own, they were negated from the picture (like in Stubbs’ painting) and seen as no more than flora and fauna. The second is how this relies on the human-exceptionalist view that “unclaimed” land is a blank slate ready to be stripped of its resources for the sake of colonial technological “progress”. These linguistics allow for the visualisation of a barren landscape (again seen in Stubbs’ depiction), due to a belief that nonhuman life is irrelevant. It is this othering that has allowed the Westernised world to separate from its natural origins and has forced many other Indigenous groups to follow suit through colonialisation. Rather than seeing other humans and nonhumans as kin, they become alienated and ‘less than.’ The removal of the misrepresented kangaroo and the replacement with the blank space and the cage-like structure could be a signifier of not just the misrepresentation and erasure of Indigenous people but also the environmental slow violence against whole nonhuman species too.

This brings us around to 1980s Australia when Kangaroo Blank was painted. Surrounding him, Tiller will be seeing recent campaigns of environmental concern such as political discourse around the Tasmanian wilderness, Franklin River, and the potential introduction of dams (another example of the treatment of the ecosystem as just a resource and not a shared home). As well as this, there is also ongoing activist activity surrounding land rights. Examples can be seen in protests at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games and the release of Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987), a breakthrough memoir discussing the Aboriginal experience. This sense of urgency for justice, both for humans and nonhumans alike, and these attempts to bridge the gap of understanding and empathy in contemporary culture must have been a key influence on Tillers’ development of this chapter in his ‘book.’

To summarise, Kangaroo Blank is a post-modern commentary on the way Australia (its people and landscape) have been misrepresented throughout the last two hundred and fifty years. The artwork highlights erasure and silencing through disinterest in the understanding of alternative perspectives, leading to the mythologisation and alienation of Aboriginal people and their home. Tillers highlights Captain Cooks’ voyage and George Stubbs’ subsequent misleading painting as the pebble that dropped into the Pacific Ocean and created the ripples that spread out through time and space, still affecting landscapes and generations to this day.


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