This post has been building up for almost a week now. I was avoiding it altogether – this is not one of those blogs that pitches for controversy. The second you weigh into this kind of debate publicly, not knowing your audience, the second you open yourself up to the flaming. But oh well. I think it’s an important debate to have.
I have been familiar with the art of Bill Henson for a little while now. I remember seeing one of this photographs at a gallery in Surry Hills when I first moved to Sydney (a crowd scene), and the image stayed with me for some time. When the Art Gallery of NSW did a (large) retrospective of his work in 2005 I went not only to the exhibition, but to a viewing of a film about his work and his creative process.
If only the greater public could have seen this film.
I was captivated by the exhibition. I was also a little disturbed by it but here’s the thing – not at ALL in a sexual way. Not in the way the world is spinning themselves crazy about this right now. The unease I felt came from the tension in the photographs – from the lighting and the landscape and the sense of doom about the images. ALL the images – the ones containing portraits of people and adolescents, and the ones that didn’t. His Paris Opera series left me breathless and his landscape photographs left you feeling a little off-centre, like the wind could whip you off your feet at any moment.
I’ve listened to and read nearly every face of this argument from the time the lid blew open on Thursday last week. While I have strong opinions on the issue, my head is also in a massive state of confusion.
First, Henson has been taking photographs of adolescents in various states (clothed or otherwise) for several years now. I have a hardcover copy of his (beautiful) book Mnemosyne – we were looking at it on the weekend and some of those images are decades old. The issue here is the sexualisation of children – but who is seeing and crying out about the sexuality in these images? Not the art world of Sydney, Australia or the rest of the world. Not the thousands of people who have seen every one of his works hanging in numerous galleries all over the world prior to last week. Not the models or the parents of the models that gave their children permission to pose. Heck, not even Cate Blanchett, a mother herself, who has come out in support of Henson this week. It is the people making the complaints that are sexualising these children. It’s a tragedy I think that we can’t look at a naked body, of any age, without automatically jumping to that conclusion. By crowing about the innocence of this girl being lost, you’re effectively stripping this model and this art of any innocence it had.
Second, the International art world is looking at us now, whether we like it or not. They are closely monitoring our reaction to this, and to the way we’re dealing with it. They’re watching our debate about censoring art and they’re scratching their heads no doubt, thinking that perhaps they were mistaken about us being more culturally mature then this.
Third, the black and white nature of this argument seems clumsy and ill informed to me. That the sexualisation of children is a heinous and inexcusable crime? Absolutely. That the naked body of a person under the age of 18 MUST be sexual? Absolutely not. Why so black and white? You could go on forever with this stuff, like the tube tops and hot pants being sold for 8 year olds in department stores. Or make up for little girls, with cherry flavoured lipstick and glitter purple eye shadow. Emanating their mothers, or the sexualisation of children? More socially acceptable but I’m confused as to why.
This article by John McDonald for the Sydney Morning Herald is well-written and articulates much more eloquently (and succinctly) what I’m trying for here.
I think there were some mistakes made though. The gallery should really look at their marketing of this exhibition – to put THAT photograph on the front of the invitation to the opening, cropped in that context, was asking for this sort of attention. I’m sure they were initially courting the hoohar, but I wonder if they realised the impact that particular image would have.
Also, for whatever reason, these photographs (at least, the ones I’ve seen), ARE a little different. Each Henson shot of a waif-like adolescent I’ve seen previous to this exhibition has been in some sort of context – either situated in an apocalyptic landscape or in amongst smashed car bodies or on the edge of a cliff in front of a glimmering horizon. For these photographs, for reasons only known to the artist, he’s stripped all the background and landscape away. The figures stand alone, beautifully lit, maintaining all the tension of the previous images, but without any sort of context at all. It makes it harder to explain. And right now the poor bastard is in the position of having to explain himself.
The media in all this has a lot to answer for. You slap the words ‘child’ and ‘pornography’ in the same headline and you’re bound to get hits and sell newspapers. And the general public seems to have been whipped up in the hysteria. The shame of it all is that if the girl in the images in question didn’t feel violated beforehand, I’m certain she does now. And I think the irony of that will be lost on most people.