Art walks a tightrope
Sebastian Smee on Bill Henson at the National Gallery of Victoria
Iremember the day that I first fell in love with Bill Henson’s work almost 30 years ago. Of course, I have no diary entry to prove it. Such experiences are like the shadows cast by passing clouds – they can’t be substantiated or verified. But I know I stood in a small, darkened room at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, surrounded on four sides by blurred black-and-white photographs of pedestrians in crowded city streets. I say “crowded” and “city” and “streets”, but the location and nature of these ghostly human congregations were unclear, as was everything else about them. The people, all of different ages, were shown in various aspects of isolation and tender attachment. They were enveloped in shifting accretions of darkness, their hands and faces picked out by pooling, smoky light.
I was suddenly in a new reality, which was also (and this was the breathtaking thing) my own, but made deeper, more enduring. It was as if the skin-tight pocket of time I occupied had suddenly become immensely elastic, and I was intimately connected not just to these anonymous, faraway faces but to something much, much older. I honestly ascribe the beginning of my love of art to this moment, above all others.
Much, of course, has happened since. In 1995, Henson represented Australia at the Venice Biennale, where he exhibited a series of large spliced-up photo-collages showing naked youths in a penumbral landscape littered with abandoned cars. Ten years later, a critically acclaimed retrospective of his work opened in Sydney before travelling to his hometown of Melbourne. It attracted record numbers for an exhibition of contemporary art.
Three years after that, in 2008, a scandal erupted over the image used on an invitation for Henson’s upcoming show at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. It was a photograph of a pubescent girl with budding breasts, simply standing there, her torso and face carved out of darkness.
The whole country knows what happened next. A newspaper columnist went feral. Police removed Henson’s photographs from the gallery’s walls, and the opening was cancelled. A typhoon of overreaction ensued (on both sides). The offending image was published widely, but with vile black redaction marks covering the model’s face and chest. Politicians frothed and fulminated like the bad actors they are.
Many other, more reasonable, people had honest, and complex, responses. Some were alarmed by the image, made anxious by what little they could glean of Henson’s approach to youth, and baffled by yet more evidence of the peculiar tunnel vision of powerful artists – their strange sense of private immunity to the moral riptides sweeping over society at any given time.