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National Library of Australia Oral History Programme 1972

Ian Milliss interviewed by Hazel de Berg

Milliss comment

My name is Ian Milliss, I was born in Sydney. My parents were born in Australia, I think all my grandparents were born in Australia. My mother's grandparents were born in Australia, my grandmother's grandparents were born in Australia and I think the rest came from Scotland, somewhere around there. I'm the eldest of three children, I've got a brother who is three years younger than me and a sister who is twelve years younger than me.

When I was about four, my mother was divorced so for about ten years or so I went and lived with my grandmother in the Blue Mountains, up past Lithgow, till I was about ten - no, it must have been more, I think I was about eleven or twelve, something like that, at which stage my mother got married again about a year or two after I moved back down. When I was up in the Mountains, I did nothing. I never drew or anything like that at all, I just used to wander around, I liked the place. I still like the place, I'd like to go back there to live now. I used to run up and down mountains and run around old mines and things, the whole bit, very romantic stuff. That's about all, I did nothing else at all, just played there all the time. When you're at the bottom of those big valleys, with cliffs all around you, you just wander off into the bush, you could walk -more than walk, you could drive, for three or four hours and see nothing but bush and bush and bush. Eventually you come to the top of the cliff, that's as far as you can go. It goes on forever.

I had some friends who lived close by and we used to dig bloody great holes in the ground, build little houses out of scrap corrugated iron and the whole thing. We used to chop down an awful lot of trees, just for something to do? While I was up there, I went to school at Wallerawang public school, which is just a little country school. Once I moved down to Sydney, I had to go to Catholic schools, starting with Daceyville Marist Brothers and then Pagewood Marist Brothers and then eventually Darlinghurst, the big one up at the top of Liverpool Street. Fortunately I was saved the worst of that because by the time I got there I was well and truly out of that whole thing (religion) so I took it fairly well.

No art training at all, in fact the only thing vaguely resembling art I failed at miserably and so that was that. Before I left school I was already exhibiting at galleries but I never had anything to do with art at school, just never got involved in it there.

When I was about twelve, I decided that I was going to be a famous artist and sat down to get to work at it really hard. That ambition has since disappeared, I suspect. But I was working hard when I was twelve, anyway, and just went on from there.

What I did to become an artist, I decided I'd have to copy Picasso, so I started copying Picasso, terribly badly, just copying, playing it straight but, that obviously didn't work and it really gave me the shits after the while so I just started mucking around, just slopping things down, so when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I was painting sort of Fairweathers, just sloshy wriggly lines. These became very hard, all the lines were fairly geometrical and then I started doing them with masking tape, and by the time I was fifteen or sixteen I was doing these terribly hard, cold, straight paintings, really flat, not a thing out of place, all tape and hung at right angles, the works. From there, I just went straight into doing big shaped canvases, which was when I started exhibiting, I think, when I was about seventeen. I was in first class at school, I think, when I made one of my few real attempts at good straight figurative painting, which resulted in disaster, because I decided that for a start gum-trees didn't have brown trunks, they had white trunks, and to follow that, no hill looked brown or even green. Kids just colour in all this green, it's usually all brown with little bits of green all over it, so I tried to do all this and I botched it totally because I had absolutely no technical knowhow at all and I just ended up with a scrambled-egg-looking mess and I was immediately told that I was totally incompetent and couldn't even draw gum trees and that was the end of that, totally destroyed all my artistic ambition for years, I think.

For some reason, when I was twelve or thirteen, I just picked up Picasso immediately and went from there. I never painted paintings like anything previous to Picasso, in fact everything I did afterwards was almost a straight development of Cubism in some way, it never went off into Surrealism or Dada as other people tend to do, so that really all my artistic development has been getting away from that rather than trying to resolve it and make it work. Since then, I've become interested in everything, but the things that influenced me most then were Picasso and from there on.

At the Catholic schools, I liked maths and so on, so I did pretty well in both of them up to about fourth year when I started to lose interest and got completely involved in English literature after that; I'd already read most of the books years before that I had to study in fifth and sixth year but it was much more reasonable by that stage, it was a much better course, it allowed you to think, left you a lot of freedom, they didn't push any one line, as long as you could argue about any line at all, you were all right, which was pretty good.

When I matriculated, I didn't want to go to Tech. I was already exhibiting in galleries at Central Street, so that was a waste of time, and I didn't want to go to Uni because I didn't feel like getting involved in all that, I didn't like Uni students and things like that, so I eventually got a job in the Mitchell Library, where I was in the picture department and did everything from just putting the pictures away to actually researching things, I mainly handled photographs by the million, so many photographs, it must have been every photograph taken in Australia. I was there for about 18 months.

After I left the library, I can't remember the date, I didn't do anything for about six months, which was a very helpful six months. My mother supported me and I got a hell of a lot of things resolved. I went through a whole lot of work and cleaned it all up in one go, and after that I started living on my own, and had to work at a lot of things from being a builder's labourer to a housepainter to - oh, various things, the same sort of things that I'm still doing now, just odds and ends of stuff. That's gone on up till now, two years later.

The first thing I ever exhibited I think was a big hard-edge canvas, it must have been ,about 7 ft long and about 8 or 9 ft wide, with three big modular pieces, each one a different colour, and that was shown at Farmer's. It must have been in the middle of '68, I think, it was while I was still at school, in sixth year at school. I'd really been pretty closely involved with Central Street people for about 18 months before that, from just about when they started, so I think about the end of 1968, I showed a painting which was all textured and funny, I couldn't quite figure out what I wanted to do so it was all sort of big messy blotchy lumpy, a consciously ugly sort of painting, and it was shown at Central Street at the end of '68 at a big end-of-year group show. I showed another painting like that in '69 in "The Young Contemporaries" which was funnily enough won by a very bad hard edge painting by someone that no one had ever heard of. It was a bit of a smack in the eye. I suppose I'd have had a pretty good chance of winning if I'd still been painting hard edge paintings at that stage.

After that, I started — that still didn't make sense, the paintings, you know, were shaped and I really coarsened textures, really physical, they were like — they're very hard to describe, none of them were very good, but they were really tormented, because I couldn't get them to work, whereas hard edge things were really easy. They just worked pretty obviously. I was really stuck at this stage, so I started just mucking around with really physical things, just straight strips of canvas nailed to a wall, bits of wood with rope twisted through, in very formal, hard sort of patterns. And then Christo came along at the end of '69. I'd been doing all this stuff and I couldn't — you know, I just didn't have the courage to show it, it seemed like a very Dada sort of gesture to have shown it at that stage in Sydney. And here he made this huge thing which was completely non-illusionistic, completely physical and really enormous size and good feeling about it, and he was such a really beaut sort of person that it was while he was here, actually, that I finally showed the first of them, he finally gave me the courage to show them, and from then on they, just developed from that, just investigating more and more straight physical aspects of things.

I think anything you do, if you're really getting anywhere, is an attempt to relate to life in some way or other, working out parts of it to just resolve things and my work from there was a way of coming to terms with life, the fact that it's there and it's not idealistic or anything, it's just straight and hard, not soft, it's there and there's just nothing you can do. You've got to make it work. And so all the work that I did had to do with life in some way or other, and yet I couldn't go back to doing something like figurative painting so I just had to work something out for myself right from the ground up. I had pointers from other people's art overseas but a lot of the problems and the solutions were things that only I could work out because it was only my life.

There's no reason at all why the things should be in any way permanent. For me they're past, they resolved something at a certain stage in my life and that's over. They might help other people, they might present a problem to somebody else to resolve in some way or other, they can use it and than that's that. It should be just thrown away, there's no reason at all for it to be kept, you don't carry a boat round on your head after you've crossed the river, it's just like that, you just get from point A to point B.

Things like “Walk along this Line”, which was shown in the Transfield in 197O, which was a sort of kinesthetic work relating to balance and things like that, works like the one that Daniel Thomas commissioned from me which mucked around part of his room space, created a sort of step at one end of the room, although there's nothing there, you just find a little line around the wall, things like this just manipulate parts of people's lives, the way they feel, this is the way everything, I've been doing has developed, it's had to try and relate to more and more complex parts of the way people live their lives, rather than just straight perception. I want to come to terms with a lot more than that.

After 197O, I had a very difficult problem. Things like "Walk along this Line", publicity-wise was an enormous success, it's horrifying, you think where do you go next, after something like that. I did it amongst a dozen other works that I did in five minutes one day. What I started to do were things which needed two or three people relating to each other to make them work. You know, what happens if you got two people walking along the line at the same time, sort of thing, which is how I did a thing which eventually turned up in Harald Szeeman's show when he was here in 1971, I think, early in 1971, which was a circular tug-of-war, nobody could win because it just was a big round loop of material and, if you had three or four or five people they all pulled in different directions and they'd push— pull, push-pull in different directions, around backwards and forwards and nobody got anywhere. It was a way into something, it got a lot of people involved and apparently in Melbourne, when it was shown there, it was a very big success to the extent that people started to get out of hand and tear the paintings off the wall, apparently they decided that if they could muck around with one thing they could muck around with everything, which is good, I like that, but I'm suffering for everybody's paintings, that's a bit much.

That was too symbolic, it wasn't a real push and pull between people, it was just a surrogate sort of one, so I devised these sort of hopskotch games which have really complicated bluff situations, you can only win by bluffing a person, like a card game, but that, too, was too formal and set up, so I just went through almost a year just blundering around, just working at solutions and jamming up and there was nothing I could do, I kept withdrawing from shows and having fights with people, a really chaotic year, all because I was trying to resolve something that I couldn't get to work properly, until eventually about - towards the end of 1971 » last year, I finally - I knew what I wanted to do and I couldn't think of ways to make it happen, just to make real straight real-life situations of some sort, how to make them art, how to make them just not an ego thing for me, you know, to belt someone around or force them to do this or that, just to in some way or other get people to act in something straight as they would normally react. This is how I got involved in the CAS, I decided that obviously you had to be in a political situation, because that's what politics is all about. Art politics is a nice little subsection of politics on its own, it's safe - nobody gets killed, nobody gets mowed down in the street or anything, it's just a lot of people belting their own egos around in one way or another, it seemed a perfect place to move in and start operating, make them rub against each other in some way or another, make them act things out and set up situations that they had to resolve and that I had to resolve, because obviously everything would go wrong no matter what you started up, nice big push-pull, so I just walked in there, I don't make any objects, photograph anything, I don't record anything, I just act as a person and hope to make things work so I can resolve situations, hope that I can get something done in general, over a whole range of things which are not important in themselves but really just examples of things to do, like the things we've been doing with the Art Gallery of N.S.W. I'm also getting stuck into art education as a whole system, just collecting a lot of information on the present set-up and how it could be and how can we clean up the mess that there is now. The problem is how you actually deal with people in life and retain some sort of honesty and integrity and don't bugger them up either, just how do you make your life work, as simple as that.

CAS is the Contemporary Art Society of Australia, I think it's probably the biggest operative art society in Australia, specially the Sydney branch which has about 600 members, which include just about everybody, all the artists, all the dealers, critics, a lot of collectors, lots of little Sunday painters, the whole works, it covers the whole range of people. They had a gallery, which was a very big mistake, I think, and it's now folded, and they put out a broadsheet every month which I'm going to try to expand into a full magazine of some sort, we just started last month, this month's going to be bigger still. It's very simple and straight, we do it in the cheapest possible way, we put in what we can, we just try and keep it straight, all information, no bullshit or great layout or anything. We just want everything to work straight, with no mucking around.

When I first started to get into this, I was thinking about the way political situations work. One very well-known trick is just, if someone criticises you, to get them into your camp in some way or other, implicate them, and I was - along with Tim Johnson and Neil Evans, we were carrying on about the way that the annual CAS show had been run in 1971  so they immediately, about two or three weeks later, co-opted me on to the committee. I think it's one of the best works I've ever done but nobody seems to have picked it up, I just provoked them and they gave a perfect political response to it.

As a committee member, I've now become editor of the broadsheet and through a lot of pretty devious staff, eventually, along with Tim Johnson and Alan Oldfield, we've more or less got the whole place under control — it was getting into a really bad financial mess, things like that, and we're just cleaning that up and getting it working again. It was getting worse and worse, it was really going downhill.

I had to paint houses and .things for money, I still do although not right now, I've spent the last six weeks just doing stuff for the CAS, because it's been a full-time job, I've been going round collecting articles, talking to politicians, talking to newspapers, researching things. I don't know whether the CAS will have enough money to start paying me to do it, that would be the ideal situation. Nobody else has got the time. I'm getting a lot of people to give articles or to write articles that they never would have otherwise, so we're getting a lot of different things in the Broadsheet and building it up, where everybody's interested, there's something for everybody, so no matter what you're doing or who you are, we're all artists, we're all doing something that means something to us, so we ought to come to terms with each other. We've really realised that we shouldn't be fighting with each other considering there are a lot of bigger things that are fighting against us anyway. What we decide amongst ourselves isn't going to get any of us anywhere, because the real person who is going to decide what happens to the lot of us is out somewhere else.

To make a living while this goes on, I have to do housepainting, sometimes, also my girl friend works a bit.

The whole formal thing in painting has become a real obsession in Australia and it's just taken so long, it's still taking so long - I mean, I've been working at things that aren't paintings for well over three years now which in the past would have been more or less long enough to get you some sort of support for what you're doing. For three and a half years I've had it pretty resolved, knowing where to go, and still people haven't come to terms with it. I get a lot of critical support and no other support. I think that a lot of what I do is still resented. People just don't think of art in terms of you acting in such-and-such a way and living your life in such a way or resolving life situations, they think of it in terms of what you can do with a bit of paint or a bit of steel - which is a life situation, but it's a very artificial one, it doesn't depend on what you're going to eat for breakfast next morning or something like that, which I think is a much more realistic one. Even some of the people that are doing whatever you call it, post-object art or something, still tend to think rather formally themselves and one thing that Tim Johnson, for instance, is just getting out of, is a tendency to view his things as exercises, even though they obviously present life problems and he knows this, he still tends to view them as purely formal exercises in some way or other, which I think is rather sad. It's a very important problem that has to be resolved. You have to decide that if you're going to do works of art that are about life, and that have real-life results, you can't present just plain formal results. If you're going to muck around with life, that's just too trivial; you might do something to people which in real-life terms is excusable, but if you just want to come up with a nice set of photos, that's really bad news and you should be shot for it.

What has helped me a hell of a lot in terms of development is the fact that when I was only fifteen or sixteen, I was with real artists, and so the people I knew of my own age weren't really very good friends of any sort. My real friends in any close sort of way were 35 or 40 or 25, I think the closest was Johnny Peart, who was about 23 when I was about seventeen and he was already quite well-known as an artist. I think I probably have missed out on being a teenager because of that. It's only now, it's only very recently that I've actually started to have friends of my own age, people like Tim Johnson, for instance, and David Ahern, though I think they'd both be older, too, but there's not much difference, we're pretty close together, we all fit together and work together. It's only very recently that anyone even younger than me has started to get anything done, I felt like I'd been around here forever. I was around when the hard edge thing started, whereas everybody seems to have come in at the end of it all when the post-object thing started.

When I first met David Ahern, I only knew a bit about music through various people — David was a friend of Johnny Peart's. David, without knowing it, because in a way his music is brilliant and it sets up a lot of things - I'm always a bit concerned with in as much as it still mucks around with music, with sound, but the way he does, the idea of improvisation which comes from various people, from Stockhausen and from Cardew, and David gives it a whole edge of his own as well, that's obviously how you have to deal with life. For years most of my work I hadn't planned out before, I tended to do them the day before they were supposed to be shown or just walk into the place and look around and work it out there on the spot, like "I'll do this with this space", that's improvisation. This for me has become a very dominating thing, just to deal with things exactly as they happen rather than plan things out beforehand. You obviously have to have some sort of plan and obviously everything that happens to you sets up an attitude of some sort but still, this work of resolving things as they happen, the minute they happen or fairly closely as things are still going, this is obviously the way you have to work at any sort of political situation, you have to be really fast- thinking, you have to improvise solutions out of the people that are there in the room and their attitudes and what can be done and that all comes from music, there is a sort of tradition for it in art starting with Pollock, but not much because it disappeared in other aspects of Pollock's work, a sort of physicality, and it's only started to reappear in people like Serra in the late '60s. But they make works of art out of it which I'm not very interested in doing, I just want to deal with things straight, bang! make them work, whatever is there.

I think people have to face up to the fact that the world is in a mess and that therefore all creative activity should be centred on resolving real problems, we can't afford people that spend their lives mucking around with things that have no result, that just sit there and look nice, I don't think that's good enough. Art has to deal with real problems, I don't see there's any excuse for wasting your life like that otherwise, and therefore we have to go straight out and deal with life in art, say as an example perhaps of ways to deal with the whole lot of the problems in general; to present a set of attitudes and to work out a set of attitudes in ourselves, as artists, which can say "If you can come to terms with things like this, we can get a lot of things done and the world's away". There's nothing mystical about it, that's really terrible, it's more what Fuller keeps saying all the tine "I am an ordinary average common man of average height etc etc, average intelligence, and if every average common man sat down to really think hard and resolve a lot of problems, he'd come up with solutions." I think Fuller is the brain of the twentieth century, and that's a point he stresses all the time and it's true. He totally lacks presence which is really amazing because the most ridiculous people manage to come in with some sort of presence, hit the room as they come through the door, and Fuller just comes in, he's just there, he just wants to deal with problems, get things worked out, and I think that's what artists should do. I think Fuller is the best artist of the twentieth century, so far ahead of everyone that nobody has come to terms with that fact yet.

Last year when I was really stuck about what I was going to do, I did a lot of works which were just - I suppose you could call them works - I just explored how to live in a house. You know what I mean, living with as little furniture as possible, with as little nailed down as possible, just empty and easy to operate around. Our flat at this stage was in a terrible mess, it was really bad when we got it. What happened is that I was doing things to fix it up and I noticed all this worked itself out, I stopped, I just left it where it finished, you could see the floor where I'd varnished halfway across the floor, I just decided that, well, it's a roof, it's a floor, it's four walls, as for the furniture, we decided why buy anything new, everything new you buy means a few more trees get chopped down or something so that you just buy something that exists already and get it to work, a whole range of things like this. It is fairly necessary to have furniture for various reasons, for me to operate anyway, because I need to see people all the time and I need to have them here and things have to be made reasonably comfortable, though I could probably live without it but -I'm probably being terribly patronising expecting that other people couldn't but it is fairly necessary and therefore we've got a certain amount of furniture. I sleep on the floor. All things like this, it was just a case of coming to terms with a whole range of things, with resources, with the world as a closed environment, as a closed system, a whole environment. Another thing you mentioned, having children, for instance, things like that, it hasn't happened yet so I don't know but I think that two is the maximum — I don't even think that, I think probably one but it's all these sort of things, I've actually had to sit down and do a lot of things for myself, actually resolve problems, straight.

The cats are a bit of a disaster but I like them, they're sort of sensuous and they're nice, all ten of them, and they eat a small fortune in food every week and therefore undoubtedly themselves are gobbling up an enormous amount of- kangaroos or something but they happened and by that stage there was nothing I could do short of wringing all their necks and I didn't have the heart to do it. I like them, you know, they're really lovely things. Ten. We have ten cats. The whole lot of them are black and white plus one ginger one and one grey one. It .... up very much to the new idea of the fortress house, I think, actually. When I was living with my parents, one day I broke a window and I left it there, it stayed broken for three years. It was at the foot of my bed, so when it rained my feet got wet, but I never got round to doing anything. I don't know, I didn't care about it. I figured that if I didn't care, they weren't going to do anything. In fact, I used to complain every time they made noises about it because it was nice, there were trees outside and things like that.

The cats, you know, there's a broken window here and the cats used to just walk in and out of it all the, time and it eventually it got so bad that we decided we'd better do something about it and I took it out, and to put a new piece of glass there, and I've never done it, it's been like that for about two months now. It's nice, the ivy's growing into the house now through the window and there's trees and things outside and there's always a breeze roaring through, which upsets a lot of people but I think that's lovely. It's just nice now, if you want to get warm you turn the heater on and sit next to the heater, there's always a lot of air coming through the house and you feel open and sunny and the cats wander in and out, and everybody fits together. It's nice.

I think the whole world is like this, or at least it would be like this if it was allowed to operate properly, it must have been like this once, all systems working exactly and fitting together and everything relating in natural sequence, but industrialism and technology has buggered it all up in various ways, by setting things up. People want to kill off bugs, because bugs eat their crops, as if bugs didn't have as much right to live and eat them as they did, you’re not really losing much if you let a bug eat some of your food, you know, it has as much right to it as you do. All this closing things off and protecting yourself is ruining everything, it will just destroy the whole lot if it keeps on going.

You've just got to start to come to terms with the whole world again. I don't know whether living in the city is good, I'm only living in the city because I've got a lot of things to do and I can only do them in the city, I've got a lot of people to see who also all live here, and hopefully what I'm doing will eventually help in some tiny little way to resolve all this. I don't want to be a great leading figure any more, I'd really like to be one of millions of people who are all equals but are all doing the same thing. Unfortunately, I think that to bring that about I've got to sort of assert myself in a way that I don't really like — I'd just like to retire to the country and grow a garden, a really big huge garden with everything growing in it and lots of cats and dogs and the whole works and just let it fit in, make it work.

I think there is a way to do this, to live and get things done like this. In the past artists could fairly safely sell what they did, now in a way I can sell what I'm doing, like organising the CAS, for instance. I think it's going to happen because the CAS is a very big organisation now, it's got a very large number of members who all want things and it needs someone to do them fulltime and therefore it's quite possible that within the next year or so, I'll start being paid to do this.

There is another way too which is a bit compromising but it would probably work, because I've already had someone offer it to me, and that's just the old patron thing, people who just support you, who just give you money. A very close friend of mine, a solicitor, said "I'll get some people together and we'll send you $5O a week, because you're better than a racehorse!" They thought for $5O a week they'd get to see my name in the paper every so often, something like that,- "That’s our boy” sort of thing. I think that's what is going to happen; obviously collectors won't like it because they like to have something to hang on their walls but the pride thing, it can go with that, too, with supporting somebody who is doing something.

I think art should disappear because I think my work is about me coming to terms with my life and, through certain accidents, that gets to be publicised in various ways, but a lot of other people do the same things that I'm doing and get no publicity of any sort. I don't think I should, really. One of the next things I'd like to do is to move to the country and ditch all of this, so that I can just live there and just live out my life. If it's just a case of everybody coming to terms with things in their own way, art will just go away, there'll be no more galleries, no more institutions, no more anything. We'll just all live. It's as simple as that - live properly and well, and make it all work and probably be happy, in some way or other anyway.

Everybody is an artist in some way or other, everybody has their own thing. I think Daniel Thomas knows this very well, Daniel was talking about a woman who made really lovely pumpkin soup and he said she was one of the best artists he ever met, and this is right - and not in the facetious way that you quite often hear it, it's true, it's just a case of dealing with your life. Everybody is an artist.

9th May, 1972