A new exhibition by Bill Henson is always an event – an eruption of the extraordinary into the fabric of everyday life. That hyper-productive philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, suggests that for most people the fundamental earth-shattering event is falling in love. Why would we describe this process as a “fall” if it wasn’t in some way a catastrophe? Whatever we gain from falling in love we also lose our sense of equilibrium, as our priorities in life are suddenly, drastically, rearranged.
Some of us never take that fall, others fall again and again. There are certain similarities in the way we relate to works of art. While there may be people such as the Prime Minister who give the impression they’ve never actually looked at a work of art, there are others for whom the experience of art is the very thing that makes life meaningful.
Henson has shown that his photographs have the capacity to stop viewers in their tracks, drawing them into a twilight world – a liminal state in which human subjectivity is suspended between childhood and adulthood; where landscapes reveal themselves in the shifting play of light and darkness.
For years his exhibitions have staged an imaginary dialogue between figure and landscape, as we move from a picture of two youthful bodies entwined in velvety darkness, to a vista of morning (or evening) light flickering through trees in a deserted park. There is no logical connection, no obvious narrative, but as we walk around Henson’s new exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery we feel there is a deep-seated relationship between these very different motifs.
If we fail to sense this connection we are missing a big part of Henson’s work, which is exactly what happened back in 2008, when his photographs became the subject of a colossal moral panic. Those who were most willing to denounce Henson as a sinister pornographer had never seen one of his shows. When the crisis blew over, because the allegations proved baseless and nobody who had worked with the artist had reason to complain about him, we had learned how easy it is to push the panic button and inflame popular prejudice.
A decade on, Henson has weathered the storm and has a bigger following than ever before. This is not because people are eager to see anything ‘controversial’, it’s because he is doing something that stimulates our imagination.
Although he is always producing new work, during the pandemic year Henson has gone back over his archive, choosing images he has been thinking about for a long time. He’s taken the negatives (yes, he still uses film), scanned them into the computer and tweaked the pictures to bring out the desired qualities. Some of these images, which date back as far as 1998, have not been prevously seen. On the other hand, the manipulated photo of a girl floating in space against the lights of a distant city, (Untitled, LMO SH169 N11), is virtually iconic.
We imagine the floating girl as a sleeper who dreams she is flying over the city. It’s an image of ecstatic self-abandon, as if her astral form has left her body and risen into the night, attracted by the rays of the moon. But as Henson always leaves room for ambiguity it might also be seen as an image of death – for actual death, for the death of childhood or of innocence.
Eros and death lurk in the shadows of most of the pictures in this show but nothing is made explicit – which brings us to the simplest argument against those who think Henson’s photographs are pornographic. Where pornography aims to be as explicit as possible, Henson conceals more than he reveals. As we peer into the shadows we become conscious of tiny details – freckles, bruises, beads of sweat, creased and rumpled clothing. We trace an exchange of gazes, a blank or anxious expression.
Henson doesn’t want us to see everything right away. He makes viewers work, slowing down our perceptions. We’re not supposed to ‘get it’ at first glance. Indeed, the longer we look, the more mysterious these images become. What begins as a picture of two teenagers clasped together in the gloom may take on mythical proportions, conjuring up tales of young people lost in the woods or alone in the wilderness – from Hansel and Gretel to Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
We see the landscapes as if through the eyes of the figures in the other photos. As we move from one photograph to the next we leave the interiorised space of the figure studies and find ourselves alone in the landscape, studying a glint of light in the sky.
In other words, we move from an intensely self-conscious sense of the body, to a sudden revelation of what it is to be merely one small atom, one pinprick of awareness in an otherwise empty space. There is no message in this work, no specific point that Henson wants to make. In many ways his work serves as a warning against fixed ideas and generalisations.
In his long essay, Variations on a philosopher (1950), Aldous Huxley examined the life and thought of the French savant, Maine de Biran (1766-1824), a thinker whose intellectual rigour was forever being undone by weaknesses of will and digestion. To explain these contradictions Biran came up with a principle he called “the sentiment of existence”.
This principle held that our feelings and actions are determined by some invisible power within our own organism. None of us are really master of ourselves, and neither should we ever imagine we can fully know another human being. I thought of Biran when looking at Henson’s work, which emphasises the essential unknowability of another person, another mind, another body.
What this adds up to is a denial of all the usual simplifications by which we assert our identity. Regardless of our religious and political beliefs; the increasingly long string of letters used to designate gender; or our pride at being a member of some ethnic or cultural group, can we really claim a comprehensive understanding of ourselves or of anyone else? In an age overrun with strident assertions of identity it registers as an event to encounter a body of work that asks us to embrace complexity and contradiction. When we surrender to the feeling of being a body in the world those things that divide us become far less important.
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, 5 March – 1 April, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 10 March, 2021