Art walks a tightrope

Se­bas­tian Smee on Bill Hen­son at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria

The Monthly (Australia) - - VOX -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.