Nov. 2008: left, sign in Paddington (from Bim Bam Boom).
May 2010: By this Sunday Bill Henson’s current show will be done and dusted and packed away. Barely a squeak except for M. Devine’s sneery nyah nyah nyah. The pictures went through the censors so they’re all above (the classification) board anyway, no complaints entertained. The PM resisted advising if he thought Henson’s work was still “revolting.”
Of the 31 photos fifteen are landscapes, ten are of an unobjectionably cropped nude teen and six are of Greco-Roman ruins. Each looming from its blue-black chiaroscuro with that Hensonesque, consumptive hypersensitivity to light and Beauty. The signature figure studies, with added hints of edgy coercion, show a girl whose skin is a remarkable sheen of translucent colours – somewhere between opal and a bruise.
I haven’t been to the show but photography is one medium you can feel confident inspecting online, here – you just have to keep a sense of scale. My pick for the most disturbing work on show, Untitled #11, 2009/2010. It’s a bit Lord of the Flies, but with girls:
The hit of the show, below: Untitled #8, 2008/2009 all four (of five, one held back) editioned prints have sold at $30,000 a pop.
Henson aestheticizes all that he sees, that is his glory and his cage. In his darkroom everything comes up gothic modern – transient and mortal. The landscapes look lush and mysterious, but without the nude the show, his shows, would be fatally weakened. And that is why the trauma of the furor over his 2008 show is so lastingly problematic and artistically injurious.
There is something about the nude minor that jangles a major chord in us (and the photographer, of course). Greer has written about this in The Boy, where the youth is “old enough to be capable of a sexual response, but not yet old enough to shave.” She adds that, “this window of opportunity is not only narrow, it is mostly illegal,” but doesn’t quite say what the “it” is. We can guess.
We can – those of us who do shave, faces or legs – probably recall, or imagine, certain days when the depthless blue of the sky matched the singing in our hearts, when we were bulletproof and nothing would end – at the same moment when our skin was at its most tender and glossy and our hair flowed in the wind. And perhaps never again as vulnerable to the newly encountered, or as open to the world. That is to say, the old magic moment of the peak of our bloom, the day, the second, before the wilt – which is the special poignancy of viewing photographs of the young in the nude. They are blessed with an obliviousness of their instant and only the photograph can preserve it – past, but present, more fugitive than a pressed flower in a book. It is why we want to look at them – not just prurience, or the magnetically erotic beauty of youth, but also because we are trying to remember something we have lost, because it reminds us with small shuddering shocks of regret.
More provocative than Henson
Sally Mann, “America’s best photographer,” as Time liked to call her, is having a new show at the Photographer’s Gallery in London: The Family and the Land. But why I bring her name up are her books and shows from 1992, Immediate Family, and from 2004, What Remains.
The first featured pictures taken over seven years of her three children playing, mostly unclothed, in rural Virginia. Immediate Family excited immeidate controversy. “One image of her 4 year old daughter (Virginia at 4) was censored by the Wall Street Journal with black bars over her eyes, nipples and vagina,” recalling what the ABC had to do to the infamous Henson invitation of 2008 (left). Her work was called “immoral” and “criminal garbage” and child pornography.
But see for yourself:
Her next show, What Remains, was more viscerally disturbing. The pictures were taken at an anthropological facility in Tennessee where human decomposition is studied. The bodies are left out in the open for months or years. Mann photographed the cadavers. “Death makes us sad, but it can also make us feel more alive,” Mann says. “I couldn’t wait to get there. The smell didn’t bother me. And you should see the colours – they’re really beautiful. As Wallace Stevens says, death is the mother of beauty.”
These pictures are what jargonists like to call “challenging”: it’s knowing what they are that creeps at you.
Last year she had a show called Proud Flesh which was a long way from child pornography. They were pictures of her 61-y-o husband in the nude. He has muscular dystrophy. The pictures are very fine. Mann has said, “I like pushing buttons.”
More provocative than Mann
Finally, let’s turn our gaze towards some older art. The first is by Balthus, Nu au chat – you can see this in the National Gallery of Victoria – it has been institutionally sanctified. The second is by the Rev. Charles Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll. He was a Victorian era pioneer of photography and this photo is of Alice Liddell, at age 8, who went through the Looking Glass. The next one is of Ethel Hatch, aged 9.