30.5.08

Henson Street


There's a Henson Street in Summer Hill. Four streets over from where I live, in the direction of Ashfield. Just an ordinary suburban street - if ordinary is ever the word for such places. One of the houses has a topiary garden out front where the bushes are cut into animal shapes, a kind of diminutive fantasia of strangeness. Another house in Henson Street always puts on one of those outre, extravagant displays of Christmas lights, that people from miles around come in their cars to look at. Who lives there? I have no idea. Ditto for the topiary house. Never seen anyone outside clipping or, more likely, shaving with one of those annoying little hand-held machine tools. The guy who owns the next door building here spends hours shaving his cypresses with one, but not into any identifiable shape that I can see. Every time I cross or, more rarely, walk down Henson Street, I think of the Melbourne artist, Bill Henson. Not for any particular reason, it's just the coincidence of names that brings him to mind. I went to the 2005 retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW. I already knew his work, where from, I cannot say. I don't remember the show very well. Some of them were large nocturnal landscapes, with burnt areas that had, I think, the charred margins edged with gold paint. Some of them had a Dantesque feel, as if we were in one of the circles of hell. Cars. Dark trees. Country roads. That white flooding light that has a forensic feel, as if a crime scene were being exposed. I think there might have been some portraits of faces in the street as well, that were revelatory of the grotesque among the ordinary. The grim aspect of daily lives in antipodean cities. Then there were the portraits of boys and girls, about which there is now so much controversy. I admit to feeling troubled by them. No amount of sophisticated rationalisation can obscure the fact that you are looking at highly sexualised images of young adolescents. That's what they are, although it's not all that they are. Many of them share the sense that the nocturnes have, that you are happening upon a moment of crisis in an ongoing drama, from which the prior and subsequent scenes, with their potential to uncover some kind of narrative, have been erased. The way these images are lit is stunning. You think of Caravaggio, those deep blacks out of which an episode from a vivid, ultimately inscrutable, drama emerges. The gold rimmed skin of boy or girl, the glistening promise of their flesh, the equivocal zone between childhood and maturity that, as the artist has said, they inhabit at once so easily and uneasily. How do you look at them? That frisson of a glimpse of the forbidden - how is that to be seen? He has also said he cannot be held responsible for the uses to which people might put his images. Cannot police them perhaps. The ABC re-played a documentary, made a few years ago, the other night. I wasn't able to watch it but I did look at the promos. Two things struck me: one was the artist, in interview, saying why he was so drawn towards these young models. He made the remark paraphrased above, about that equivocal zone, and then said he found it ... interesting. This was the word he used, but the slight hesitation before he said it made me wonder if he might have more truthfully said fascinating, compelling, even addictive. The other thing was a glimpse of him at work in his Melbourne studio. Someone told me that it is a vast space on the verge of an industrial wasteland, with a vista perhaps over a part of the ruined shore of Port Phillip Bay. He was climbing a ladder to adjust an arc light, a great silver bowl with an incandescent lamp burning at its heart. We did not see what was being illuminated by what seemed a suddenly pitiless beam: forensic, yes, and excoriating, perhaps even with the power to light up the insides of bodies, to go right down to the bone. That's about as far as I can get down Henson Street at the moment. Beyond this: it's lamentable how public debate of these matters so quickly turns into mindless stoush, the kind of conflict that may have been best summed up in that Frankie Goes To Hollywood video for their hit song Two Tribes. A slugfest where nuance is the first casualty. There's something deeply disturbing about police going into art galleries and confiscating exhibits. There's something just as disturbing about the way many of those who are defending the artist against this outrageous censorship feel they must at the same time secure his work against all accusations of disturbing content. For there is, undoubtedly, something troubling, and perhaps also troubled, about Bill Henson's work. I think that might be the point.

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