The photography of Bill Henson has a demonstrated power to unsettle. This was most spectacularly proven in 2008 when a private Sydney gallery showing his work was temporarily shut down on (later unsubstantiated) accusations of child pornography.
The exact circumstance of that furore has its share of daft moments, triggered as it was by Henson’s decision to place on an advertising postcard a shot of a naked 12 year old girl, something which prompted then-PM Rudd to remark when shown the image on morning TV that he found it ‘absolutely revolting.’
The misrecognition of Henson’s work as pornographic couldn’t have been entirely unexpected. Gallery-goers had long looked at his pictures and felt uneasy. The difference in 2008 was that this unease leaped over the bounds of the art world into a larger moral panic.
As David Marr wrote in his still remarkable account The Henson Case (written at breakneck speed as the events unfolded), this one image touched on
‘…fears for children so boundless and vague that they put into doubt old ideas of what is safe and decent for the public to see.’
The often inarticulate disgust which greeted censored examples of Henson’s work during the controversy was partly fuelled by a simple misapprehension: that nudity and pornography are largely interchangeable. Even if we put aside art’s long tradition of representing the human form, any time with Henson’s work reveals that its consideration of skin is too elusive for the direct contingences of porn.
In a piece for the luxurious catalogue of Henson’s work Mnemosyne (2005) the senor curator of photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Judy Annear, contends that the medium Henson works in still holds a concrete promise which makes us resist its status as art:
‘It is tempting because Henson works with photography to a greater relationship to the actual; but the actual that this artist is interested in is the very substance and texture of the intangible aspects of existence – of feeling, memory, connection and loss.’
Henson’s trick, and the real source of the trouble in 2008, is that his work – regardless of subject – is completely resolved as imagery yet unsettled as to meaning. His use of bokeh, an aesthetically purposed blur, gives his work a painterly quality, connecting it to a long tradition of pictorial art. However, he purposefully resists the explicit narrations of much of this tradition by leaving his work untitled. His figures are anonymous and often androgynous, eyes turned away or in shadow. Fragmentary and elusive, Henson’s work depends on an inexplicit tension between tradition and the unstoried.
cloud landscapes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales displays fourteen works, only two of which contain clouds. Co-curated by Henson and Annear, the prints were selected by Annear from the gallery’s collection and Henson –notoriously fussy about the placement and lighting of his work- determined the hang.
The most striking part of the exhibition is on the longest single wall of AGNSW’s small photography gallery.
Four of the five prints displayed here are – despite varying size – hung on the same line. The fifth is flicked up the wall higher by a couple hand-spans. The oldest and smallest photos here start this procession, which ends with one of the most recent. It’s tempting to take the position of the last image as a rising inflection except that Henson’s inexplicitness never employs parody. It rather stresses, in a fluid, musical way, the continuity of his imagery and its growth in scale.
This placement points to the relevance of the exhibitions’ title. cloud landscapes doesn’t relate to the show’s direct subject matter but rather to allusion and investigation. Clouds often appear motionless but are always travelling. Look long enough at a Henson and, by fractions, details arrive before your eyes.
Indeed, movement is everywhere. A boy swigs water from a bottle on a bicycle. Rain pin-prinks the surface of a slow creek. A hypnagogic landscape looks as if a lazily stored camera was shaken into its shot by the vibrations of a car’s dash. Even a woman asleep suggests the travel of dreams.
Change and transferral have long fascinated Henson. His use of chiaroscuro, strong contrasts between dark and light, is not only a compositional tool but points to the duality implicit. His eyes is drawn to the edge of things; not just between darkness and seeing but between sleep and waking, childhood and adolescence, solitude and loneliness. Before the meaning of This settles and is no longer That.
Given his use of classical and renaissance painting as inflection points, a great temptation with Henson is to consider him borne of a fundamentally European sensibility. But what can’t be ignored is the antipodean longing for otherness. It’s a connection that Judy Annear draws by quoting (in Mnemosyne) that other great Australian dreamer about Europe, Gerard Murnane:
‘There is another world, and I have seen parts of that world on most days of my life. But parts of that world are drifting past and cannot be lived in. For as long as I used to see drifting past me those parts of the other world, I used to wonder about the place where all the drifting parts drifted together.’ (Inland, 1988)
The location of Henson’s work – its Australianness – is integral to its creation, however much of its inspiration lies over the horizon.