Situated in the Mt Disappointment State Forest in the Kinglake district just north of Melbourne, the majestic Strath Creek Falls is the subject of one of Eugene von Guérard’s most iconic works, Waterfall, Strath Creek (1862).
In the tradition of the 19th century German romantics, the colonial artist depicted the site with great precision and detail in rich layers of oil, capturing on canvas the ragged beauty of this natural landmark. Composed from the base of the falls, von Guérard’s painting invites the viewer to share the sense of awe and wonder shown in the gestures of the diminutive figures who marvel at the sight of the water cascading down the sheer, rocky cliff face which towers above them.
Over a century later, Imants Tillers revisited this composition in Untitled (Deaf) (1989) which stands as both a distinct work in its own right and as a ‘subset’ within a larger ongoing ‘canvasboard system’ in which the artist explores and elaborates his concerns. One of Tillers’ main preoccupations is the vexed issue of Australian identity and how our relationship to the land of this vast continent underpins our sense of place and belonging. Here the artist addresses these questions through the amalgamation of disparate sources, styles and media. Through the combination of painterly gestures, the dramatically increased scale, and the fragmentation of the image into a grid pattern, Tillers sharply distinguishes his work from the realistic and illusory presence of the original. These approaches highlight the notion that the landscape is a highly constructed space and our conception of nature is always already culturally mediated.
This is made even more explicit through the introduction of text. As curators Paul Fox and Jennifer Phipps suggest, the stencilling of the word ‘deaf’ in upper case at the base of the waterfall ‘speaks the silences of the frontier’, a quiet conspiracy in which the settling of the colony ‘required one not to look, not to speak, to cultivate in an attempt to mask the presence of the other, and to transplant in an attempt to fictionalise land into landscape’, all means by which they ‘silenced the indigenous presence’. Furthermore, for Tillers, the relatively short history of European settlement continues to impinge upon our sense of identity and connection to place. This is powerfully conveyed through the curious inclusion of an ornate filigree pattern stencilled directly in front of the waterfall. Appropriated from a painting entitled Now and Then (1988) by one of Tillers’ contemporaries, the American artist Philip Taaffe, this transplanted ornamental design effectively obscures our view and blocks our access to the central feature of this landscape. Perhaps the artist is suggesting that in the era of post-colonialism, the conception of the landscape as painted by earlier artists is no longer accessible, and the terrain of our relationship to the landscape has been fundamentally altered.
- Paul Fox and Jennifer Phipps, Sweet Damper and Gossip: Colonial Sightings from the Goulburn and North-East, (exh. cat.), Benalla: Benalla Art Gallery, 1994, p. 22.