BY Adam Jasper in Frieze | 29 MAY 08

Controversy in Sydney

An exhibition by Australian artist Bill Henson was closed last week following allegations of child pornography

BY Adam Jasper in Frieze | 29 MAY 08

It’s not often that the prime minister of Australia makes a public statement evaluating art. It’s even more unusual for that assessment to be that an artist’s work is ‘revolting’ and devoid of artistic merit. It is positively striking when the artist involved is perhaps the most prominent the nation has produced, a figure who had previously represented the country at the Venice Biennale and whose work is in the collections of the Guggenheim, the National Gallery of Australia, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and, ironically, the Australian High Court. So what precisely is going on around Bill Henson?


Bill Henson, 2008

On Thursday May 22nd, shortly before the much anticipated opening of Henson’s new show at Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney, the exhibition space was visited by uniformed police, sent after a complaint from a ‘concerned member of the public’. The exhibition was subsequently closed to the public, while criminal charges have been laid against both the artist and the gallerists, Roslyn and Tony Oxley. The charge related to the ‘depicting of a child under the age of 16 years in a sexual context [sic].’

The Australian media has whipped itself into a glassy eyed frenzy. The next morning, most of tabloid newspaper The Daily Telegraph‘s front page was set aside for the headline, ‘CHILD PORN ‘ART’ RAID’. Above, in slightly smaller lettering, stood, ‘VICTORY FOR DECENCY AS POLICE CLOSE GALLERY’. The accompanying photograph showed two plods walking up the stairs of the gallery, with a small inset of one of the controversial photographs, an image of a girl with downcast eyes and a look of almost beatific reserve.

Inside the newspaper, the chorus of disgust was almost unanimous. Morris Iemma, the premier of New South Wales, declared: ‘As a father of four I find it offensive and disgusting. I don’t understand why parents would agree to allow their kids to be photographed like this.’ Barry O’Farrell, the leader of the opposition, concurred: ‘sexualisation of children under the guise of art is totally unacceptable’. Frank Sartor, the Minister for the Arts and Planning, engaged in barely perceptible hedging when he said: ‘I have been shown some of the images and I don’t like them.’ Most surprising of all, the nation’s newly elected Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd weighed in with, ‘I find them absolutely revolting. Kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected. I have a very deep view of this. For God’s sake, let’s just allow kids to be kids. Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff – frankly I don’t think there are any – just allow kids to be kids.’

What was at stake? Apparently, several pictures contained images of topless pubescent girls, and, in one image, the genitals of the girl are visible, though partially obscured by her hand. The children were photographed in solo portraits, with the careful chiaroscuro that characterises Henson’s work. They are naked and alone, but the work evokes Goya rather than Balthus, and the meditative exultation of their faces looks more akin to religious art than a skin mag. Nothing in the background, setting, or framing suggests sex. How on earth, one wonders, does mere nudity constitute ‘a sexual context’?

No such nuances troubled Hetty Johnston, the child protection campaigner, who declared of Henson: ‘he has a tendency to depict children naked and that is porn.’ By the Johnston equation, any image of a naked child is porn. It’s an astounding conclusion, because it means that from this moment of history on – mark the date well – images of naked children are more sexual than images of naked adults. After all, no one contests that it is possible to make images of an adult woman, stark naked, and call it ‘art’; the nude is probably art’s most visited theme. But the image of a naked child is so arousing, according to Johnston, that any aesthetic distance will be overwhelmed and barely dormant urges will be awakened.

Funnily enough, 65,000 people saw Bill Henson’s retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2004-05. According to curator Judy Annear they had, ‘not one single complaint’ during the exhibition. Quite the contrary: the exhibition was declared a triumph and Henson was compared to Caravaggio with predictable frequency.

The entire farcical spectacle appears to have been triggered by an opinion piece by right-wing columnist Miranda Devine, entitled ‘Moral Backlash Over Sexing Up of Our Children‘, that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on the morning that police searched Roslyn Oxley9. Devine mentioned the ‘budding breasts of puberty on full display’ in Henson’s work as a more or less irrelevant example in an article nominally concerned with the ‘sexualisation of children in the media’. The majority of the rest of the column was devoted to lambasting both girl’s magazines and department store catalogues: ‘artists, perverts, academics, libertarians, the media and advertising industries, respectable corporations and the porn industry […] define down [sic] community standards,’ eroding ‘the special protection once afforded childhood.’

Devine’s observations, smug as they are, simply don’t make sense. Community standards regarding paedophilia have not been ‘defined down’; rather, we are witnessing the emergence of a full-blown moral panic that ironically – and tragically – worsens the problem. The obvious point that Devine and Johnston seem to have missed is that imposing a taboo inevitably leads to the hyper-eroticisation of what lies beyond it. Far from protecting the ‘sanctity of childhood’, whatever that means, the crude declaration that all photos of nude children are pornographic makes it impossible to look at these images without seeing them through the lens of a hypothetical paedophile – and retrospectively transforms them into porn. Not that Johnston is going to let it rest there. As the ‘concerned member of the public’, on May 24th she told the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘I did make a complaint yesterday, absolutely, I asked them to prosecute, both the gallery and the photographer, but I’d like to see the parents as well looked into. What parent in their right mind would allow their 12- or 13-year-old to strip off naked and display themselves all over the internet? That’s not in the interests of the child.’

The parents have been duly warned, but the ironies are cruel. On the same page that The Daily Telegraph ran the headline ‘Who would call this art?’ (May 23), an insert breathlessly announced: ‘See the censored versions of the photos’ in the tabloid’s online ‘gallery’. In an astonishing display of cynicism, the girls’ nipples were covered with a black rectangle – for propriety’s sake, no doubt – but their faces were left exposed, stripping them of their privacy and declaring them victims of sexual molestation in a single eager gesture.

Depending on your distance, these displays of moral rectitude in Sydney have been either comic or tragic. Earlier this week, Henson said of his works that they represent a point, ‘half in childhood, half in the adult world,’ that ‘creates a floating world of expectation and uncertainty.’ There’s been no such subtlety shown in Sydney of late, and it may be some time before it’s possible to see Henson’s works again for the beauty they so patently contain.