Friday, May 23, 2008

Bill Henson

This morning, as I write, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery's web site is down and the NSW State Premier is sounding alarmingly and tub-thumpingly like Daily Telegraph leader: what parent would allow their child to be photographed like this? And Australia looks like having a shit fight to rival the so-called culture wars that swept up artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley.

But while the American battle was all about NEA funding of the arts (a pittance, relatively speaking) -- of performance and visual artists -- the events of the last 24 hours in Sydney are far more chilling for artists. They're reminiscent of the raids of the late 1960s, when actors were arrested, charged and convicted in various cities, for saying 'fuck'. Let we forget, the Norm and Ahmed convictions were not overturned, except (from memory) in Queensland where the appeal courts were more forgiving than those in the 'free-thinking' southern states.

And yet, a charge of offensive language or obscenity or lewd behaviour -- whatever -- is nothing compared to the accusations being levelled against Melbourne photographer Bill Henson, whose latest exhibition was supposed to open last night at RosOx9. Pre-publicity, in the Sydney Morning Herald, attracted the attention of lobby groups and ultimately the police who intervened to prevent the exhibition from opening. Reportedly, the 41 photographs show young teens -- a boy and a girl -- naked and in sexually suggestive poses.

First up, I haven't seen these images. However, I have been writing about Bill Henson's work for a dozen years, and first saw his work more than thirty years ago when the models he was photographing weren't that much younger than me. Or, indeed, much younger than Bill was.

An example of Bill Henson's work, c 2006

While I gather my thoughts on this, let me make two points. Firstly, and disregarding for a moment if any offence was wittingly or unwittingly committed in the taking of the photographs, the bastille has been stormed by those who vociferously deny that context counts here. That an image in an art gallery -- or in your family photo album -- is identical to that same image if it were printed in a magazine to advertise clothes or posted on a porn site.

And secondly, Henson has resolutely declined to comment on or defend his art over the years... rather like Andres Serrano of 'Piss Christ' fame though, artistically speaking, that's a very clumsy and inappropriate comparison. Serrano reckons porn can be art and vice versa. Henson's work is rarely graphic or explicit or especially detailed. Indeed, like Mapplethorpe, he's at his coolest when photographing what the press and the pollies are so eagerly calling "kiddie porn" and even, moments ago on the Fairfax radio news network, 'pedophilia'.

Robert Mapplethorpe's most erotic photographs were of flowers. His shots of erect black cocks curving out of polyester suits were stylish, but cool. Almost clinical. Likewise, Henson's most passionate photographs are of empty roads. His naked teens have the cyan of death...

Britain's foremost painter of swimming pools David Hockney reckons that we should "believe only what an artist does, rather than what he says about his work." That used to seem like good advice in the age of post-postmodernism, when artists and curators and critics seem incapable of saying anything simply or coherently, but when your work causes as much disquiet as Melbourne photographer Bill Henson's does, can he afford not to defend it?

More soon. Doubtless, too much more.

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Blogger Alison Croggon said...

Seems we were being simultaneously shocked over our morning coffee, Chris. I fear you are all too correct on this.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

I caught the late news, last night, and caught the tail end of a disturbing report which pictured Bill looking out an upstairs gallery window, looking hunted. In retrospect, after reading what's coming out of the Sydney press this morning, it was a remarkably measured piece of journalism...

7:49 AM  
Anonymous frances said...

When I heard Next Wave have stuff on at the Men's Gallery, I thought there isn't enough feminism in most of Melbourne's dance scene to be able to counter putting something on in a space like that, but then everything is so cool, ironic, we-get-it-so-we-can-be-sexist so perhaps it's appropriate. Henson's work though, only a parochial fundamentalist with questionable obsessions could wring kiddie-porn out of that. (Lucky I'm leaving for somewhere where nudity is nothing special)

1:55 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Where to, this time, Frances?

Funny about the Men's Gallery show. As much as I admire the artists involved, and wanted to see it, I chose not to go. Irony doesn't count for much in a strip club.

And yet...

Who were those retired porn makers who turned to film making? Well, the other kind of (relatively more respectable, involving relatively less prostitution) film making?

I was gonna say Chuck Billy. Been listening to too much death metal of late. Chuck Vincent? (Someone help me out here!) He and his mob made a film for cable, I'm guessing. One of the early HBO style outlets that allowed racier material than most to hit the air.

They made a wonderful thing called Cleo Leo. It was a girly film, total sexploitation T&A film, with a brilliant twist. It actually got the guys thinking -- how fucked it must be to be a woman and drooled over all the time -- while giving the boys plenty to drool over. I don't think I've seen a more wonderfully subversive piece of soft porn (if that's what it was) in my life.

You needed to know that. :-)

2:42 AM  
Anonymous weez said...

False kiddie porn complaints closed Henson's exibition- and my blog was suspended by my webhost after another false kiddie porn complaint regarding my criticism of the Henson affair.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

If that image you've posted is 'porn', then Australia -- shock horror -- is a purveyor of porn. We filled an entire pavilion with this stuff in Venice in 1995. Okay, not specifically that image, but Henson's cut and paste of images in that series.

9:56 PM  

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