The Bill Henson Case

Before knowing any subsequent information on Bill Henson, I firstly google-imaged his name. My idle search retrieved a scattered ouevre of photographs, running in an aesthetically similar vein; moody and sombre yet delicate like petals.  Amongst ominous landscapes and shots of the skies suffused with billowing clouds, several images of youthful nudes against the gloom appeared. There was nothing glowering out from the screen that seemed to be unorthodox let alone affronting. However, Australian society was up in arms about the Bill Henson case in 2008, resulting in allegations of child pornography and the seizure of certain exhibited works. This heated reaction to the photographs brought forth issues involving censorship, concerns about paedophilia and general ethical debates surrounding the depiction of children.

 

Henson’s nudes often depict very young adolescents. He seems to primarily seek out the portrayal of young females as opposed to males, adhering to the long tradition of nudes in Western Art. But these nudes are nonchalant. They are indifferent to their nudity and the gaze of the viewer. One girl hovers like an apparition, backlit by an eerie white light; a youthful spirit floating free in the infinity of space. Her limp pose offers a sense of something bittersweet; submission, like an exhalation wisped along on the wind.  Her head tilts back, chiaroscuro shadows dramatizing her waiflike physique and drowning out her eyes and genitalia. It is as if we can only see her frame as the outline of her body is highlighted sharply, pushing her forward out of the darkness in an almost abstract fashion, thus aligning this photo with a transcendental and metaphysical trajectory. She almost appears to us like an idyllic Christ character straight out of a Caravaggio painting[1].

 

Through identifying Bill Henson’s nudes alongside the likes of Caravaggio, Baroque’s primary features become central to the way we read the image. Upon deducing the main components, we are able to see the similarities held in the Henson nudes; an aura of majesty and sensuality; rich emotional content; and the two seemingly contradictory notions of realism mixed with classicism.  The trompe l’oeil of Baroque images are within a mimetic tradition, pertaining to illusionism. As is photography. We understand that these photos are staged and constructed illusions, but rather than accepting the mimesis of a nude thirteen year old, we should be more inclined to explore the phantasia involved in such evocative imagery.

 

As Baroque grappled to balance realism with classicism, much earlier in the first centuries of our era, Roman arts followed suit in the Greek tradition of ancient theatre and painting, attempting to distinguish between two different aspects of mental life[2].  Mimesis is understood as a form imitating reality whereas phantasia expands on this reality through the wonders of the mind[3]. As in ancient theatre, many scenes were described rather than shown for the audience to create their own mental representation[4]. Henson’s nude figure is an art piece as opposed to simply a mimetic photograph, and requires a quiet and introspective conversation. If you will, we must hear the piece as opposed to visually perceiving it. She will pronounce herself if one listens. Although the young girl clearly takes centre stage, the longer the viewer participates with the photo, the total experience of the photo becomes prominent. In the grand context of the theatre or gallery, what we hear is reconceived by the mind, as what we perceived as reality through our senses was transformed by the imagination[5].

 

Bill Henson’s nude girl sways like a lonely muse we can project ourselves on to, filling the void with our memories of adolescence. Herein lies a problem of interpretation; as everybody brings their own experiences into an artwork and then consequently takes away from that artwork something of profound relevance to them, whether it be described in mere terms such as bad or good. Self-concerned art uses facets of the phenomenal world to comprehend and display ideas already formed in the mind or noumenal world. Thus it is logical that such preconceived ideas or thought patterns influence someone’s reception of an art piece;  a lascivious man will only see something lascivious. A perverted man will only see something perverted.

 

Furthermore, although only thirteen, this age is still safely within the boundaries of teen-years or adolescence, not childhood. Nevertheless, disputes over the images seen in Henson’s 2008 exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery still provoked controversy. Henson himself maintains the photographs are a self-expression; like listening to a piece of music, ‘…so absorbed are we by the encounter that we no longer experience the work as being separate from ourselves’[6]. Simply recognising the image as a young naked girl is not sufficient and it is the responsibility of the viewer to converse with the work.   Though she is the object of the photo, she is not necessarily the subject. As I examine the image, I feel that it is less about youth but about the overwhelming horrors of growing older, anxieties and apprehension for the future. I can probe further until I do not even see the girl in the photo but my own life.

 

It is perhaps due to the various fleeting ways in which we encounter images every day that has influenced the response to Bill Henson’s work[7]. Advertising and social media promote an entirely different visual language that is intended to be quick, punchy, concise and unsuitable for the prolonged meditation that art requires.  It is notable that many of these images are also highly sexualised. Photography has long been a visual instrument for eroticism, sexuality and desire[8] and many adverts, namely fashion photography, present sexuality and eroticism as essential parts of existence, also making them a driving economic factor in the world of consumption[9]. It is as if we are naturalised to these performances of sexuality and can often mistakenly place the concept of nudity within the same arena.

 

Henson’s nude girl is perplexing when presented in this mind-set. His dubious use of darkness is potentially loaded with all the sordid aspects of the night. As the sun falls, “the city begins to wear a different face than it does during the day.”[10] When the shadows take over, the world can appear more alluring and comes to life in a more transgressive way than the daytime offers. This can be both liberating and shocking[11], verging on the nuances of the sublime. Yet many could argue that under the cover of darkness, voyeurism is given reign; our curiosity increases and we are less aware of how we behave. Hence the risks of lewd and, what is deemed, inappropriate behaviour can be woven into the reading of Bill Henson’s photographs. However, all the connotations involved with night life does not always directly relate to other photos concerning the ethics of depicting children, such as the work of Sally Mann.

 

Rather, Bill Henson plays with the concept of the night, likening it to adolescence as a transient time where one is freed from the protection of rule bound childhood and seeks to discover a true form of themselves. In one sense, it is natural for teenagers to flourish at night. It is a time for amusement and pleasure, a time of intoxication, coincidence and release from inhibitions[12]. The element of freedom associated with the night also gives way to the liberation of the imagination[13]. For the curious adolescent, it is also a time to discover new or hidden possibilities, an ephemeral time in which where one’s supressed fantasies can come to life. Opening up oneself to the inner strangeness within is often uncomfortable, and being confronted with a picture that encompasses these ideas can exacerbate mere confusion or shyness, twisting it into anger or just complete dismissal altogether.

 

This may only be part of a whole cluster of issues in regards to the response to Henson’s youthful nude. Despite the different histories in painting and photography, nude images stand closely related[14].  Artists sought to move the audience with a referral to something higher, something “admirable and subtle – immune to temptation. Yet all of these images served effortlessly as surrogates…for a lack of enlightenment, an absent object, inaccessible pornography.”[15] The camera’s reputation for capturing pornography should not hold sway over the fact it is also an implement for exploring themes for identity. Bill Henson is among these artists who is rooted in the idea that “the best art always heightens our sense of mortality; [and makes us] feel more alive”[16].  Spiritual sexuality as a subject matter has always been somewhat taboo, provoking misunderstanding; but once combined with a young teenager, there is inevitable moral outrage. Granted she is a particularly young teenager, her body still underdeveloped and child-like, we must realise that Bill Henson has used a girl on the verge of sexual maturity for a reason. This reason is not to titillate or stimulate rage but is crucial to the concept of feeling more alive, or even coming to life. As Melinda Hinkson describes her, she is placed perfectly “between the stages of girlhood and womanhood, and between the possibilities of enlightenment and infinite nothingness.”[17]

 

As tropes of Baroque frescoes, enlightenment and liminality surface, they serve to promote the sacredness of Bill Henson’s work. It is impossible to escape the liminal nature of Henson’s work as it permeates every aspect discussed so far. In fact, one could be so bold to say that the photographs are about the liminal states of being. Henson’s focus on adolescence as a time of turbulent change is not unusual. The Western world has an obsession with youth and their wild yet familiar antics. I believe this is because adolescence is, in fact, a time of great transformation that happens over a range of time; a progression that is in constant movement. Therefore we should “regard [this] transition as a process, a becoming”[18]. Within indigenous societies, these liminal states of becoming are celebrated through sacred ceremonies that are collectively known as rites de passage. These rites de passage occur in all societies punctuating one’s life journey, important times being “birth, puberty, marriage, and death”[19]. Different cultures will understandably ritualise each milestone differently. Much of the symbolism attached to and surrounding the liminal persona is complex, mainly modelled on human biological processes[20].

 

“They give an outward and visible form to an inward and conceptual process. The structural ‘invisibility’ of liminal personae has a twofold character. They are at once no longer classified and not yet classified. In so far as they are no longer classified, the symbols that represent them are, in many societies, drawn from the biology of death, decomposition, catabolism and other physical processes that have a negative tinge…the other aspect, that they are not yet classified is often expressed in symbols of gestation and parturition. The neophytes are likened to or treated as embryos, newborn infants, or sucklings by symbolic means which vary from culture to culture.”[21]

 

This paradox of life and death seems to come into play when viewing Henson’s nude girl. Simultaneously, she hangs lifeless in the frame yet more alive than ever as if in a euphoric state, in deep ecstasy like Bernini’s Saint Teresa. In liminal states, one is outside of structured society and within indigenous cultures, this is often perceived in terms of exposing the liminal persona to a deity or superhuman power[22]. Henson has ritualised the liminal state of adolescence using the available tools and conventions of his culture. His youthful nude floats in the void of liminality, facing the unknown in order to know. Although rites de passage seemingly conserve lore, they also seek to inspire new thoughts and customs by confronting you with memory and cultural history.

 

On considering the photograph’s negative reception, Dr. Mary Douglas proposed an insightful theory on the concept of pollution[23]. The manner in which the general public received the photo is merely a “reaction to protect cherished principles and categories from contradiction”[24]. She developed this statement, concluding that what is seemingly unclear or contradictory is deemed (ritually) unclean[25]. Upon viewing the photographs from Henson’s 2008 exhibition, rather than approaching the image with this knowledge, many simply saw a naked adolescence and classified it in a fleeting instant as pornography; something they are probably much more familiar with or exposed to through mass media. Other than the fact she is naked, there is nothing that could indicate a sexualised image. She is not splayed out on a bed or staring down the camera in a way that is seductive.

 

Her nakedness is essential to deliver the message that Henson set out to create. If she were to be fully clothed in an angelic white flowing gown there would be no point. She is not a Christian image of an angel though she is sacred. She is undergoing the long and treacherous path of adolescence. She is liminal, and unloved by society until she is able to function within it. She is outside of society; her nakedness alluding to both a corpse and a new-born infant that characterises the liminal[26]. She is neither this nor that but is both – on the path to becoming. She is enveloped in darkness or silence to better understand herself and the world surrounding her. Although it may appear as if she is breaking taboos, her nudity is key to us comprehending the vulnerability felt by young in-betweeners during this crucial time of growth, and will eventually come to stand for truth.

 

Whether people choose to see a work of art or pornography is not the discretion of the artist. Here, self expression takes priority over communication. Henson has portrayed an entire sentiment, encapsulated in the single image of a beautiful, young naked girl that cares not for critique but only liberation. She shakes off the shackles of childhood, not yet imprisoned by the burden of adulthood. Through art, he testifies

 

“we sense that simultaneously proximate and intimate yet utterly abstract presence…and at the same time sense the unbridgeable gulf that now exists between ourselves and that distant past, we know that we are in the presence of something magical.”[27]

 

This work is not only self expression but expands to all human experience. Perhaps if people accepted nudity as something natural and understood the liminality of adolescence as a sacred time, the confusion surrounding images of youthful nudes would be less prevalent.  She speaks to the ever-growing child within all us, out from the darkness with a raw and otherworldly energy, unabashed about her nakedness as if to say “Hell-on-Earth is probably growing old with regrets.”[28]

 

 

bibliography

  • Turner, Victor, ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’ (1964), in American Ethnological Society (eds), Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society: Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, UK: Blackwell, 1964, pp.46-55.

 

  • Hinkson, Melinda, ‘Australia’s Bill Henson scandal: notes on the new cultural attitude to images’, Visual Studies, 24(3), 2009: 202-213.

 

  • Koortbojian, Michael, ‘Mimesis or Phantasia? Two Representational Modes in Roman Commemorative Art’, Classical Antiquity, 24 (2), 2005, p. 285 – 306.

 

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, ‘Bill Henson: artist’s perspective’, Bill Henson, Sydney, 2005, pp.8-9.

 

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, ‘Bill Henson the art of darkness: a critical perspective’, George Alexander, Sydney, 2005 pp.4-5.

 

  • Bronfen, Elisabeth, ‘Sexuality and the City at Night’ (2008), in Stahel, Urs (ed), Darkside 1: Photographic Desire and Sexuality Photographed, Germany: Steidl, p.109

 

  • Erdmann Ziegler, Ulf, ‘Satyrical Horn: Presuming Innocence’ (2008), in Stahel, Urs (ed), Darkside 1: Photographic Desire and Sexuality Photographed, Germany: Steidl, pp.326-330.

 

  • Stahel, Urs, Darkside 1: Photographic Desire and Sexuality Photographed, Germany: Steidl, 2008, pp.10-11.

 

  • Thomas, Nicholas, Oceanic Art, London: Thames & Hudson, 1995.

 

footnotes

[1] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, ‘Bill Henson the art of darkness: a critical perspective’, George Alexander, Sydney, 2005, p.5.

[2] Koortbojian, Michael, ‘Mimesis or Phantasia? Two Representational Modes in Roman Commemorative Art’, Classical Antiquity, 24 (2), 2005, p. 286.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Koortbojian, Michael, ‘Mimesis or Phantasia? Two Representational Modes in Roman Commemorative Art’, Classical Antiquity, 24 (2), 2005, p. 287.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, ‘Bill Henson: artist’s perspective’, Bill Henson, Sydney, 2005, p.9.

[7] Hinkson, Melinda, ‘Australia’s Bill Henson scandal: notes on the new cultural attitude to images’, Visual Studies, 24(3), 2009: 206.

[8] Stahel, Urs, Darkside 1: Photographic Desire and Sexuality Photographed, Germany: Steidl, 2008, p.10.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bronfen, Elisabeth, ‘Sexuality and the City at Night’ (2008), in Stahel, Urs (ed), Darkside 1: Photographic Desire and Sexuality Photographed, Germany: Steidl, p.107.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Bronfen, Elisabeth, ‘Sexuality and the City at Night’ (2008), in Stahel, Urs (ed), Darkside 1: Photographic Desire and Sexuality Photographed, Germany: Steidl, p.109.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Erdmann Ziegler, Ulf, ‘Satyrical Horn: Presuming Innocence’ (2008), in Stahel, Urs (ed), Darkside 1: Photographic Desire and Sexuality Photographed, Germany: Steidl, p.326.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, ‘Bill Henson: artist’s perspective’, Bill Henson, Sydney, 2005, p.8.

[17] Hinkson, Melinda, ‘Australia’s Bill Henson scandal: notes on the new cultural attitude to images’, Visual Studies, 24(3), 2009: 204.

[18] Turner, Victor, ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’ (1964), in American Ethnological Society (eds), Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society: Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, UK: Blackwell, 1964, p.46.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Turner, Victor, ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’ (1964), in American Ethnological Society (eds), Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society: Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, UK: Blackwell, 1964, p.48.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Turner, Victor, ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’ (1964), in American Ethnological Society (eds), Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society: Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, UK: Blackwell, 1964, p.49.

[23] Turner, Victor, ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’ (1964), in American Ethnological Society (eds), Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society: Symposium on New Approaches to the Study of Religion, UK: Blackwell, 1964, p.48.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, ‘Bill Henson: artist’s perspective’, Bill Henson, Sydney, 2005, p.9.

[28] Ibid.

 

 

Ꙩ You are able to view the original essay, and are welcome to download it here

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