Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Police remove Bill Henson's nude photographs

The roslyn oxley9 gallery sent out a media release on the 23 May, 2008 saying the following:

Statement on behalf of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Bill Henson

After much consideration we have decided to withdraw a number of works from the current Bill Henson exhibition that have attracted controversy. The current show, without the said works, will be re-opened for viewing in coming days.

Bill Henson is one of Australia's leading contemporary artists and is internationally respected. His works are held in every leading art institution in Australia and are included in the collections of a number of the world's most prestigious art museums. The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria have both recently held a retrospective of 30 years of the artist's work.

Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery will remain closed while the current exhibition is re-hung.

Someone had complained to the police and the Vice Squad removed the photographs on the grounds that the photos were pornographic.

Since then, controversy has raged on TV, in newspapers and on radio in Australia.

What are the photos? They are nude photos of 12 to 13 girls and boys. The photography is, in my opinion, very artistic. Shadows are used to show what the artist says he intends. To evoke the vulnerability and fragility of that stage of adolescence. Coming from the light to the dark or vice versa. The shadows also act to cover most of the sexual parts of the bodies, although not all. I don't know if that was the photographer's intention. But he has been showing such photos around the world and in Australia for many years. He says this stage of life fascinates him. He also takes many other photos of subjects not so controversial.

Recently, the Australian Government held a Twenty 20 summit including the experts in all fields of life's endeavours. Many ideas were floated and presented. It was seen to be a success. But the Creative stream of the conference, headed by Cate Blanchette, released their statement saying that this was censorship of art.

Now, I don't think it is censorship of art until the matter has been through the courts. If the works are said to be pornographic (which I don't think) then the gallery and the artist has committed a crime and the works should not be shown. It has not been the Censorship Board which has made these decisions.

What bothers me most is that a girl or boy of that age is not in a psychological or emotional condition to be able to give informed consent to being models for the photographer. Of course their parents gave consent. But is that right? I don't think I would.

The photographer is 45 and therefore in a position of power during shootings. I'm not at all suggesting that the young people were not safe in this environment. The photos portray the youths as almost asexual really. Now I don't know what control the parents or youths have after giving consent to the photo shoot. Do they have control of the finished shot? Presumably this would have to be the photographer's decision.

I know nudes of all ages have been portrayed in art. But in photos? And in these times of hypersensitivity to pedophiles and child sexual abuse and exploitation? Of course there are the really sexualized images of young girls in advertisements but these girls are clothed. I hate it, but I wouldn't censor it.

I don't think these Henson photos are sexualized. But it still disturbs me.

Well, the matter is in the courts now, so I guess not much more can be said.

But I'm interested in your view. I cannot show any images here. They are copyrighted. Many galleries do not allow viewing of larger images however

Written by contributer, Jenny Campbell from multifarious mushrooms


Anonymous said...

I do like some of Bill Henson's landscape-type images, where he sets up
interesting twilight shots. On the "scandal" he (and the Roslyn gallery)
knew exactly what the current climate is on pedophilia. I suspect he was
banking on a bit of hysteria to elevate his artistic profile but perhaps he
didn't foresee the media beat-up and police intervention would be so harsh.
Henson has been shooting pre-pubescents for years, and I reckon he'll a bit
shady, but censorship periodically does get out of hand. Jeez, pre-teens
have been artistic subjects for millennia but perhaps Henson has pushed his
luck once too often. He can blame the Catholic/Protestant clergy for making
pedophilia such a huge issue of the moment...

Linda said...

This is a problematic issue. Before I was a parent I would very likely have sided with the 'art community' (who ever they are); reported by the media as having come out in favour of Henson. Maybe not; I can't really know how I would have thought then, I am who I am now. John McDonald (whose art reviews I usually enjoy a great deal) called the raid on Ros Oxley's "a victory for the Philistines". Maybe he's right up to a point.

I actually question whether Henson's art is good art. Sure, he has a high profile and an international reputation, but I've never formed opinions just because a lot of other people think a certain way. There is plenty of contemporary art which has a lot of admirers and command high prices which I consider to be complete rubbish. In fact, I see very little new art which I think has much value. In fact, this has always been the way; 90% is either banal or just plain bad. I find Henson's work rather vacuous; we are expected to see 'the beauty' of these forms however confronting. I don't find that to be a very interesting pretext for an art work; I want something more than just beauty.

Yes, there is something more there. His subjects are anything but run of the mill. You could call them sensationalist; certainly bound to get attention. I think his reputation is largely built on this. I would never want my daughter involved in such things while she's under my care. When she's an adult, she can decide for herself but I'm hoping her intelligence will be at least as important as her sexuality.

In short; I don't think underage models are a suitable subject for art or anything else. I have no wish to see them. However, I think that Henson will ultimately profit from this scandal. As was pointed out in the media; had the raid not happened, the exhibition would have been seen by only a few hundred people. Now thousands will seek out Henson's work. While I don't approve of his work I doubt that the charges will stick, or that raiding the exhibition was the best way to deal with it. I remember seeing an exhibition of Henson's work while I was at school, junkies and prostitutes, girls covered in menstrual blood etc. I didn't understand it and said so; most people don't say anything for fear of sounding artistically ignorant.

James said...

I agree with what has been said on Henson. I think he will ultimately profit from the scandal and that it will be impossible to make any charges stick. While I can see some merit in his work, I don’t think it justifies his reputation. A lot of people use light and shade very well. I think his notoriety is largely built on the sensationalist nature of his subject matter; I find it distasteful and empty. Of course, he’s not the only distasteful and empty artist to achieve fame, and I don’t think the mere fact that his subjects are sometimes nude makes the context sexual. Trying to ban it will ultimately be counter productive. The controversy says a lot about our society.

Here are two good articles on the Bill Henson scandal:

(an amusing one by Mike Carlton)

(a more serious one by John McDonald)