Metafisica Australe

* This article features in Issue One (53.2): Extraterritoriality and is reproduced here with images, as the author intended.


When Giorgio de Chirico died in 1978, Japanese-American artist Shusaku Arakawa wrote a brief, somewhat enigmatic tribute to him. This note was passed on to me and I took notice because while I knew little about de Chirico at the time, I knew quite a lot about Arakawa.

In the early 1970s, I produced a work entitled Still Life 2, a black box containing an array of boxed elements, which was exhibited as part of my first solo exhibition, Moments of Inertia at Watters Gallery, Sydney, in 1973. It was pointed out to me then that this work had affinities to the work of Marcel Duchamp. Totally ignorant of Duchamp’s work, I conducted an intensive study. I was particularly drawn to his celebrated work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), also known as The Large Glass. Needless to say, I pored over the contents of The Green Box (1934), Duchamp’s notes and projects for The Large Glass. I tried to fathom the unfathomable.

Around this time I also noticed in a catalogue of art books one with a very compelling title, The Mechanism of Meaning, by Arakawa and Madeline Gins.[1] I obtained the first edition, only available in German, published in Munich in 1971; one had to wait until 1979 for the first English edition. Nevertheless The Mechanism of Meaning together with The Large Glass came to occupy my mind in the 1970s. Michael Govan, who curated the Arakawa and Gins retrospective titled Reversible Destiny for the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1997, describes The Mechanism of Meaning (which was both a publication and a multi-panel cycle begun in 1963 and completed in large part by 1973) as ‘a touchstone of conceptual art’.[2] Govan notes that Duchamp had said that through his own work he wanted ‘to put art back at the service of the mind’. Arakawa, according to Govan, wanted art ‘to question the very nature of the mind that contemplates it’. Legend has it that when Arakawa left Japan ‘under a cloud’, he arrived in New York in 1961 penniless, with only a scrap of paper with one phone number scrawled on it—that of Marcel Duchamp.[3] Soon after he met Duchamp they became friends, and by 1964 Arakawa had produced his own homage to Duchamp: Diagram with Duchamp’s Glass as a Minor Detail.[4] Govan sees Arakawa as the natural heir to Duchamp’s artistic legacy, rather than those other aspiring American bachelors of the time, John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, whom Arakawa knew very well. (Needless to say, this is not a popular view.)

So when on de Chirico’s death Arakawa sought to recuperate his reputation and draw attention to his profound importance, I listened. Arakawa’s piece was entitled ‘Towards Francis Picabia’, written in New York City on 3 December 1978:

Just as Stephane Mallarmé was once maligned I am afraid that this too might be happening in our time to Giorgio di [sic] Chirico. Now as then this is ultimately not important at all. Despite foolish murmurings about such trivial matters as time, place and style within an enormous body of work, the artist pursues his intention.

After the great metaphysical discoveries, an even more magnificent one of a personal order, that is, what to do with these discoveries. He had almost no choice. Evidently, a rigorous epistemological study was required. So, unlike Marcel Duchamp, for example, he undertook such an investigation but completely hidden from view. In what he has been doing, there is almost no process which can be seen. Luckily I had some suspicions for a long time. Then recently I had a chance to meet him.

When we spoke about the so called ‘scandalous’ dates, he replied: ‘Why do people care so much about numbers? I can put any number I wish. Can’t people distinguish between imitation and variation? Many artists make variations but when I make extremely exact variations people complain.’ (Nearly totally exact in his variations which on such occasions hide a process of discovery which he internalizes.)

When asked by M. Gins, ‘What is missing from this world?’ he replied immediately: ‘Morality, kindness and a sense of justice.’

Regarding the quality of layered transparency in his work, the important discovery he has written was ‘no longer dried pigment, but colored matter’.

During our conversation he emphasized:

‘I hate lemons, but love lemon pies.’

These are only a few examples to roughly spell out a hidden process. This might be thought of as a private language in public terms. Giorgio di [sic] Chirico might paint anything supposedly easily recognizable to all but it is intended into his secret process not out to the viewer. Oddly this is completely a one-man show or act, nameless and unrecognizable at this time, but in the near future we will call it an effort toward the construction of a model of being, mind.[5]

In 1979 I visited New York with my wife, Jennifer Slatyer, for the first time. One fortunate and unexpected outcome was that we met Arakawa and Madeline Gins. It was not until the 1980s however, when I began to exhibit regularly in New York, that we formed a friendship. Arakawa described me as a ‘very porous’ character—no doubt because as an appropriation artist my work was potentially open to any and every influence—and told me I should rotate my canvasboard panels off the wall into space to create sculptural forms. I do this now, in a sense, when I exhibit two-dimensional elements with three-dimensional stacks of painted and unpainted panels. In any case, every individual work I produce, while it can stand alone, is also part of what I have called The Book of Power—an accumulating and evolving entity that consists of all the canvasboard panels I have ever painted since 1981. To emphasise this, each canvasboard has been consecutively numbered from one to infinity. At the time of writing, I am close to 100,000. The Book of Power could be an all-encompassing ‘book’, an ‘inventory’, a ‘compendium’, a ‘system’, a ‘neural network’ or maybe even, to use Arakawa’s term, a crude ‘model of being’.

Not long after I had absorbed ‘Towards Francis Picabia’, I came across the book De Chirico, introduced by his wife, Isabella Far, and published by Harry N. Abrams in 1968, in a second-hand bookshop. This must have been in the early 1980s—coincidentally, at the same time I became aware of the Papunya Tula art movement. Both bodies of work attracted me and I began to use imagery from each, mostly separately but by the mid-1980s they met in a handful of works, most significantly in Antipodean Manifesto (1986).

Antipodean Manifesto takes de Chirico’s Dead Sun in a Metaphysical Interior (1971) as its starting point. (I’ve also seen this work titled, strangely, Metaphysical Interior with Sun Turned Off.) At the time I paid no heed to the title or date but chose the image because I liked it and I simply substituted the black void or abyss at its centre with a powerful symmetrical Papunya Tula motif. This motif was based on Paddy Carrol Tjungurrayi’s Witchetty Grub Ceremonies (1983), which I’d come upon in a calendar! They seemed to fit perfectly together. Incidentally, I met Paddy Carrol by chance in 2002 when I had recently begun to collaborate with another Warlpiri artist, Michael Nelson Jagamara, at the Campfire Studios associated with Mike Eather’s Fireworks Gallery in Brisbane. The date of my source now seems a bit uncanny, for when de Chirico painted Dead Sun in a Metaphysical Interior in 1971 it was the exact same moment that the Papunya Tula movement began in the Western Desert. I’d selected de Chirico’s image in 1986 not because of the significance of the date but because I felt it had some weird resonance with Aboriginal art.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the work of de Chirico became one of my main points of reference. In 1986 when I represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, I brought back the seven volumes of the Catalogo Generale Giorgio de Chirico,[6] each of which consists of three catalogues. The first covers 1908–30, the second 1931–50 and the third 1951–72, so there are 21 catalogues altogether. The disconcerting thing about the catalogues is that, irrespective of the dates, each period seems to include the same diverse array of themes and subjects: in any volume we find examples of the early metaphysical paintings (some, of course, are variations of earlier paintings, such as The Disquieting Muses and the Piazza dItalia); the classical still lifes; the anthropomorphic horses on the beach; the gladiators in a room; copies after the grand masters such as Michelangelo, Rubens, Titian, Veronese; the archaeologists and the mannequins; furniture in the valley; views of Venice; the mysterious bathers … and so on. The catalogues seem interchangeable, representing a vast oeuvre in which chronology is irrelevant—any of his varied themes can be potentially present at the same moment—thus time seems to have disappeared. This is in direct contrast to the teleological progression in modernism (from figuration to abstraction) in the work of artists such as Mondrian, Kandinsky, Rothko, Pollock and even New Zealander Colin McCahon. Thus Giorgio de Chirico evokes the metaphysical realm where time does not exist, not only in certain individual works but in the totality of his oeuvre. In a letter to Apollinaire in 1916 he writes:               

It has been almost two years since I have seen you. The Ephesian teaches us that time does not exist, and that on the great curve of eternity the past is the same as the future. This might be what the Romans meant with their image of Janus, the god with two faces; and every night in dream, in the deepest hours of rest, the past and future appear to us as equal, memory blends with prophesy in a mysterious union.[7]

After decades of immersion in de Chirico’s metaphysical project and following, in parallel, the phoenix-like rebirth of Aboriginal art from its moment of reinvention at Papunya, I had, in Venice in 2014, what my daughter Isidore describes as ‘a breakfast epiphany’. It suddenly (or finally) occurred to me that perhaps all Aboriginal art is metaphysical—a term I had never seen before used in relation to Aboriginal art—and so there is a real connection with the metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico. I was then reminded of Antonin Artaud’s crucial realisation that behind the order of this world there is another.

Ian McLean, author of the recently published Rattling Spears,[8] and a highly respected authority on Indigenous art, was quick to confirm my somewhat vague intuition. ‘Australian Aboriginal art is deeply metaphysical’, he wrote. ‘Its every empirical encounter with the world opens to a much larger cosmological reality, called “Dreaming.” This is the link between it and the art of Giorgio de Chirico, the twentieth-century master of Western metaphysical painting.’[9] There was soon an opportunity in Rome to present this connection between de Chirico and Western Desert painting for the very first time.

Two French collectors of Western Desert painting, Marc Sordello and Francis Missana, secured the Carlo Bilotti Museum in Rome to show their collection, the Sordello Missana Collection. While this museum had an impressive program of temporary, mainly European exhibitions, it also had an extensive collection of works by de Chirico on permanent view. But there was a question in the room—how could these works from the Antipodes have any meaning in Rome in the context of this museum? The guest curators for Dreamings: Aboriginal Australian Art Meets de Chirico, Ian McLean and Erica Izett, solved this problem by inviting me to exhibit seven works from the 1980s and the present that cited aspects of both Western Desert paintings and de Chirico’s paintings, some of which combined both sources in the one image. I had a room of paintings next to a room of de Chirico paintings, forming a kind of bridge to the Aboriginal works downstairs. Quite incredibly, in the de Chirico room there were already two works with prior links to Australia: Italian Piazza, Girl with Hoop (1948), shown in Surrealism: Revolution by Night at the National Gallery of Australia in 1993, and Self-Portrait with the Bust of Minerva (undated), included in my exhibition Diaspora in Context: Connections in a Fragmented World at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995. Both works had once belonged to the distinguished public servant Dr Peter Wilenski, who had inherited them from a close relative—de Chirico’s second wife, Isabella Far de Chirico! So, both works had spent time in the distant Antipodes—a place de Chirico never visited, but a place he may have sometimes imagined. Why else would the artist have inserted the word ‘Melbourne’ in his celebrated novel Hebdomeros? As Murray Bail puts it:

The dreamy novel Hebdomeros was published in France in 1929. Unusually, it opens with the word ‘And’, then almost immediately gives poor Melbourne a kick in the teeth:

And then began the tour of that strange building situated in a street that looked forbidding, although it was distinguished and not gloomy. As seen from the street the building was reminiscent of a German consulate in Melbourne. Its ground floor was entirely taken up with large stores. Although it was neither Sunday nor a holiday, the stores were closed, endowing this part of the street with an air of tedium and melancholy, a certain desolation, that particular atmosphere which pervades Anglo-Saxon towns on Sundays.[10]

I first alluded to the remarkable presence of Melbourne in de Chirico’s imagination in an essay titled ‘Locality Fails’ that I wrote for Art & Text in 1982.[11] Since then I’ve come across a reference to Melbourne in the work of Italo Calvino. In his Cosmicomics, a meditation on the nature of ‘signs’, he writes: ‘one scratch out of eight hundred thousand on the creosoted wall between two docks in Melbourne’.[12]  Maybe allusions to Melbourne continue to bounce around in Italian literature as a metaphor for boring remoteness and tedious irrelevance—a legacy of de Chirico, of which we here in the Antipodes are largely oblivious.

Speculation about Melbourne also occurs in the vast commentary about de Chirico’s prodigious output in painting, sculpture and writing. An article by Antonella Sbrilli titled ‘Album di Ebdòmero’[13] caught my eye, especially the first subtitle: ‘Metafisica Australe’. A friend translated the Italian for me and I was able to deduce that the remote and exotic place Melbourne entered de Chirico’s imagination when he received a postcard of the Italianate Treasury Building in Melbourne (designed by J.J. Clark to house the bounty flowing from the Victorian goldfields) from his expatriate Roman friend Gino Nibbi: Greetings from a Distant Friend!

In ‘Locality Fails’ I made reference to Bell’s Theorem, a startling discovery in quantum physics made by Belfast scientist John Bell in 1964 that ‘proved Einstein wrong’. Bell’s Theorem, more formally known as ‘On the Einstein–Podolsky paradox’, demonstrates that Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics, the behaviour of very small things such as atoms and subatomic particles, were incorrect. Einstein had been sceptical from the outset about the theories of quantum mechanics pioneered by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others:

It seems hard to look at God’s cards. But that he plays dice and uses telepathic methods (as the present quantum theory requires of him) is something I cannot believe for a moment.[14]

Nevertheless, Bell’s Theorem, which came after Einstein’s death continues to have an impact on modern physics and is said to have laid the foundation for quantum information technology, particularly indispensable today for use in the financial services and cyber-security industries. In the essay, I used Bell’s counter-intuitive principle of ‘action at a distance’ as a metaphor for cultural transmissions ‘at a distance’ to give hope to us distant Antipodean artists who longed to be noticed by the world at large. So, I was delighted to recently discover that, according to the world’s leading scientific journal, Nature, ‘Bell’s Theorem still reverberates’.[15] In 2016 it had not been disproved. Quantum entanglement still makes the impossible possible.

Unexpectedly, Bell’s Theorem also continues to reverberate in my work—in the Book of Power, most recently with the unwitting assistance of artist Richard Bell. In 2001, at the invitation of Michael Eather, I began a collaborative relationship with Michael Nelson Jagamara at Fireworks Gallery, and it was here that I met a number of other artists from the gallery’s stable, including Richard Bell. At this time Eather, demonstrating a generous spirit of comradeship, gave Richard a copy of Graham Coulter-Smith’s freshly published book on my work, The Postmodern Art of Imants Tillers: Appropriation en abyme, 1971–2001,[16] and Bell, being an inquisitive and intelligent man, read it. It was here that he happily came upon the expression ‘Bell’s Theorem’ and saw that he could adapt this reference to his own work and political agenda. Soon after he produced a painting on 25 canvasboards in the manner of ‘Imants Tillers’, which he titled Bell’s Theorem (2002), citing ‘Locality Fails’, ‘chance’, ‘Gödel’, etc., quoting ‘possum tracks’ from Michael Nelson Jagamara, indeed referencing my first collaborations with Jagamara, which he witnessed in their infancy. The work is dominated by the text:


That’s a catchcry Bell has frequently repeated. Was this a personal message for me? Bells Theorem was included in the exhibition held at Fireworks Gallery in 2002 called Discomfort, Relationships within Aboriginal Art: Richard Bell, Emily Kngwarreye, Imants Tillers, and Michael Nelson Jagamara.

After this, Bell’s Theorem disappeared completely from my view until I began writing this text. A Google search on John Bell uncovered a 2014 BBC news report titled ‘John Bell: The Belfast Scientist Who Proved Einstein Wrong’.[17] The report revealed a commemorative exhibition for the 50th anniversary of Bell’s momentous discovery, at the Naughton Gallery at Queen’s University in Belfast, the university Bell had attended. The exhibition, Action at a Distance: The Life and Legacy of John Stewart Bell, included photographs, objects and papers relating to Bell’s work and videos exploring his science and legacy. It also included artistic responses to Bell’s Theorem, ‘including a contemporary piece by Aboriginal artist Richard Bell that is on show in Europe for the first time’.[18] I was quite taken aback. But then it dawned on me that I, too, was in this exhibition and my inclusion had happened without my knowledge. It was not just the direct references to me in Bell’s painting. This was a painting by Imants Tillers executed by Richard Bell. It’s now part of my Book of Power and has been allocated numbers 99,826 to 99,850.

There is a beautiful text by German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his The History of Beyng. It is on ‘pure finding’:

Creative finding is not thinking up, is not calculative figuring out, is not forcing, but rather finding one’s way into the owned—coming to be that which is appropriated.

            Being determined through that which attunes.

Without preemptive taking away in advance; without the going ahead of procedure.

            Seeking on the basis of pure finding.

            Coming upon it.[19]

This is also the secret behind Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades. His ready-mades have nothing to do with a conscious act of nomination. Nothing to do with conscious intention. The contemporary art world is awash with so-called ready-mades and pseudo ready-mades: COMPOUNDED OF RAW STUPIDITY. They are everywhere—in biennales all over the world. Artists of all persuasions are busy nominating this or that as art in the most banal misapprehension and misinterpretation of Duchamp’s legacy.

In the Green Box, the notes and projects for The Large Glass, Duchamp writes:

            Specifications for Readymades’.

by planning for a moment to come (on such a day, such a date such a minute), ‘to inscribe a readymade’—The readymade can later be looked for. —(with all kinds of delays)

The important thing then is just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour. It is a kind of rendezvous.[20]

It is true that each of us goes towards and reaches the place he or she can; but to not appreciate the layers of meaning, to not go beyond a superficial reading of Duchamp’s  ready-mades or de Chirico’s stylistic non sequiturs, is to miss the point. And yet with Duchamp, de Chirico and Arakawa, I nevertheless still had doubts again. Maybe uncertainty is the only certainty. For what shall I love if not the enigma?



[1] Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Mechanismus der Bedeutung, Verlag F. Bruckmann, Munich, 1971.

[2] Michael Govan, in Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, Reversible Destiny, exhibition catalogue Guggenheim Museum, SoHo, New York, 1997, p. 9.

[3] Arthur C. Danto, ‘Arakawa: (1936–2010)’, Artforum International, New York, September 2010.

[4] Illustrated in the exhibition catalogue Constructing the Perceiver—Arakawa: Experimental Works, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1991, p. 19.

[5] Unpublished text sent to Murray Bail in Sydney.

[6] Claudio Bruni Sakraischik (ed.), Catalogo Generale Giorgio de Chirico, Electa Editrice, Venice, undated.

[7] Giorgio de Chirico, cited in the press release for the exhibition Revolt of the Sage, Blain/Southern Gallery, London 2016.

[8] Ian McLean, Rattling Spears, Reaktion Books, London, 2016.

[9] Ian McLean, ‘House of Dreams: A Conversation Between Western Desert Painting and Giorgio de Chirico’, preliminary draft for essay published in Dreamings: Aboriginal Australian Art Meets de Chirico, Carlo Bilotti Museum, Rome, 2014.

[10] Murray Bail, ‘De Chirico’s Future’, Surrealism: Revolution by Night, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p. 74.

[11] Imants Tillers, ‘Locality Fails’, Art & Text, no. 6, winter 1982.

[12] Italo Calvino, cited in Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Penguin Books, London 1997, p. 80.

[13] Antonella Sbrilli, ‘Album di Ebdòmero’, De Chirico e il museo, National Gallery of Modern Art, Rome, 2008, p. 47.

[14] H. Dukas and B. Hoffman (eds), Albert Einstein: The Human Side, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1979.

[15] Howard Wiseman, ‘Bell’s Theorem Still Reverberates’, Nature, vol. 510, 24 June 2014, p. 467.

[16] Graham Coulter-Smith, The Postmodern Art of Imants Tillers: Appropriation en abyme, 1971–2001, Fine Art Research Centre, Southampton Institute with Paul Holberton Publishing, London, 2002.

[17] Greg McKevitt, ‘John Bell: The Belfast Scientist Who Proved Einstein Wrong’,, 4 November 2014,; accessed 15 February 2017.

[18] McKevitt.

[19] Martin Heidegger, The History of Beyng, trans. by William McNeill and Jeffrey Powell, Indiana Press, Bloomington, 2015, p. 146.

[20] Marcel Duchamp, The Essential Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson (eds), Thames and Hudson, London, 1975, p. 32.

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Imants Tillers, Return of the Pintupi, 2015, acrylic, gouache on 54 canvasboards No. 95117 – 95170 228.6 x 213.3cm, Image courtesy of the artist.

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Imants Tillers (painted by Richard Bell) Bell’s Theorem, 2002 – 2016 acrylic, mixed media on 25 canvasboards No. 99826 – 99850 177.8 x 127cm, Image courtesy of the artist.

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Imants Tillers, Blue Tongue Ancestor, 2014 acrylic, gouache on 24 canvasboards No. 95285 – 95308 152.4 x 142.2cm Private collection, Sydney, Image courtesy of the artist.

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Giorgio de Chirico, Self-Portrait with bust of Minerva, undated, oil on canvas 80 x 60cm Collection: Carlo Bilotti Museum, Rome, Image courtesy of the artist.


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Giorgio de Chirico, Italian Piazza, Girl with Hoop, 1948, oil on canvas 75.2 x 58.1cm Collection: Carlo Bilotti Museum, Rome, Image courtesy of the artist.

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Imants Tillers, Antipodean Manifesto, 1986, oilstick, oil, acrylic on 116 canvasboards No. 9611 – 9726 254 x 190.5cm Private collection, Sydney, Image courtesy of the artist.

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Imants Tillers (with 9 panels by Michael Nelson Jagamara), Breakfast Epiphany, 2014 acrylic, gouache on 54 canvasboards No. 91781 – 91834 229 x 213cm, Image courtesy of the artist.

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Imants Tillers, Metaphysical Interior with old Treasury Building, 2016, acrylic, gouache on 54 canvasboards No. 98698 – 98751 229 x 213cm Private collection, Melbourne, Image courtesy of the artist.

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Imants Tillers, Metaphysics is Men’s Business, 2016, acrylic, gouache on 147 canvasboards; 363 blank canvasboards; 2 canvasboards with red sand from Papunya; 2 bronze objects No. 97648 – 98153 229 x 343 x 53cm, Image courtesy of the artist.


Imants Tillers is an artist, writer and curator. He has exhibited extensively since the late 1960s, and has represented Australia at significant international exhibitions including the Sao Paulo Biennial (1975), Documenta 7 (1982), and the Venice Biennale (1986). He is known for large-scale canvasboard paintings that intuitively combine existing artworks, literature and 'ready-made' poetry. Tillers is currently working towards a major retrospective at the Latvian National Museum of Art in 2018.