Bill Henson: Oneiroi

April 8, 2016
In one image, the model drinks from an ancient gold cup. Photo: Bill Henson
In one image, the model drinks from an ancient gold cup. Photo: Bill Henson

Bill Henson has good reason to reflect on the differences between ourselves and the ancient Greeks. In a culture in which sexual relationships between men and boys were accepted as a normal rite of passage, it would have been unthinkable to vilify an artist for merely portraying the nude bodies of teenagers.

In his new installation, Oneiroi, at Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum, Henson reveals nothing more than the head and shoulders of his young female model. The title refers to the deities that personified dreams in Greek mythology. It also relates to Henson’s preoccupation with borderline states – the space between dream and reality, childhood and adulthood. As usual, most of his images seem to have been shot in twilight.

The ancient Greeks haunt our imaginations, with their heroes and mythological creatures providing the inspiration for contemporary comics and movies. There is also the small matter of their political, artistic, philosophical and scientific achievements. Their tolerant but highly structured attitude towards sexuality stands in contrast to our own approach, which veers between extremes of permissiveness and puritanism.

For an example look no further than the storm that descended on Henson on 2008 when he was accused of making child pornography. Never has an Australian artist been subjected to such sustained abuse in the print and electronic media. Yet his detractors – most of whom had never stood in front of a Henson photo – were ultimately unable to find a single instance of actual harm.

“They had three police forces working the case,” he recalls, “and they couldn’t find anyone who said they were unhappy about being photographed, let alone anything more serious.”

“I think they eventually came to the correct conclusion, which was: I mightn’t like this, but it’s not actually hurting anyone.”

Henson is relieved the scandal has blown over, but suspects it could flare up again one day “after people get tired of reading about footballers beating up their girlfriends.”

Although he is arguably Australia’s most important contemporary artist, over the past four years there have been few opportunities to view Henson’s photographs. His last exhibition in a commercial gallery was in 2012 and he has no immediate plans to show with his dealers in Sydney or Melbourne. “It’s just not worth it,” he says “especially with the grief you get if you do what I do.”

Henson’s personal dissatisfaction is mild compared with his disenchantment at the state of the Australian art market and what he sees as a national contempt for culture, but more of that later. He still makes a living from his work, even without regular exhibitions, but nowadays Henson saves his enthusiasm for institutional projects. He has two such shows in the pipeline over the next two years, although at this stage he can’t discuss details.

What he can discuss, with relish, is the installation at the Hellenic Museum, which has allowed him to make a series of photographs using the priceless artefacts on long-term loan from the Benaki Museum in Athens. The award-winning exhibition, Gods, Myths & Mortals: Greek Treasures Across the Millennia will run until 2024, and Henson’s installation, commissioned and owned by the museum, will run for at least as long.

Henson says that his interest in ancient Greece goes back to his childhood. When he was 12 years old he worked in a milk bar and spent the money he earned on a book on Greek sculpture. (I can identify. When I was that age I bought a book on Tutankhamen). Throughout his career he has photographed classical temples and ruins, alternating these images with striking photos of the human body. His detractors have always chosen to ignore the architectural and landscape images, but they are a crucial component of his carefully composed photo-sequences.

The Director of the Hellenic Museum, John Tatoulis, was aware of Henson’s classical interests when he approached him to work with the artefacts. The resulting sequence of ten photos begins and ends with dramatic landscape details sourced and reworked from earlier pictures. The images incorporating the Benaki pieces feature a young model wearing an extraordinary gold myrtle wreath from the 4th-3rd century BCE, gold earrings from 250-200 BCE, and drinking from a gold cup, (15th – early 14th century BCE). The other featured pieces date from the 18th and 19th centuries, including an elaborate choker and a Turkish sabre that belonged to a famous Greek general.

The museum had to bring a conservator from the Benaki to supervise the photo shoot, which took place in the stairwell of the Victorian building, the former Mint, that houses the collection.

“I knew they were all going to be head and shoulder shots because of the objects,” says Henson, “but I thought: this head, this face, these shoulders need to have a deep blue, Mediterranean sky behind them. The idea for this unfathomable blue popped up very early. I can trace it back to an image I made of one of the Greek temples at Agrigento in Sicily. I shot the temple in the middle of the day then blacked out all evidence of daylight. In the final print the building’s quite dark, with a kind of red colonnade. I left the interior with this faint, murky, malachite green-blue between the columns, like a distant echo of ancient skies.”

“As I started to put the faces and heads together I realised that it needed more space if I wanted to open it out a bit. It was too hermetic, too closed, so I started thinking about the landscape elements. There’s a mountain here, and the sea, which was another detail in which I changed the tonality and colouring in the studio. It was an image I’d made many years ago in Capri.”

The model was found in a local restaurant, having dinner with her family. “It had been about a year since John had approached me about the project, so it wasn’t done in a hurry. I could see that the jewellery needed a certain face, a certain look – and there she was, eating a pizza!

“It turned out that her father runs an arts festival in rural Victoria, so they knew all about me. They all came down from the country one afternoon when the conservator had arrived from Athens, and we did the shoot. There is a Greek connection in the family, which made the museum people happy.”

The intention behind these photos is no different from the spirit that animates all Henson’s work. “When you’re photographing a model,” he says, “you want that proximity, that intimacy, that tenderness – all that you get with a person, although not necessarily in front of the camera. But you’re also seeking this millennial, unbridgeable gap, this thing that’s unknowable. You want both of those things happening at once. You’re trying to create this vast space in which your imagination can go on a journey.”

So while it is important to Henson that we have a sense of flesh and blood, he also wants to imbue his images with a universal dimension. He wants us to feel there are shared traits that are as real for us as they were for the ancient Greeks.

The power of the works lies in the way the images are cropped – the extreme close-up of the girl’s lips brushing the golden cup; the model’s eye framed by one corner of a photo, balanced by the end of a sabre’s hilt in the opposite corner.

For Henson the project at the Hellenic Museum is an escape into the past that takes him away from his increasingly unhappy thoughts about the present state of Australian culture. It is his contention that the Cultural Cringe has returned, and it’s worse than ever. It’s a view he has put to various federal government ministers, but to no avail.

His Number One sign of a complete lack of concern for culture is the destruction wrought on the Australian art market by the former Labor government’s decision to discourage self-managed super funds from collecting works of art. This was a direct result of the recommendations of the Cooper Review of 2010, which classes works of art as “collectables”, along with “jewellery, exotic cars, yachts, antiques, race horses and wine.”

“The problem,” as Henson points out, “is that there are not many people in this country currently employed in making Roman coins or vintage cars, but there’s a huge number, particularly young people, who who depend on art for their incomes.”

“You can pick any of your social economists – left-wing, right-wing, David Throsby, whoever – you’ll find it’s a well-documented fact that the arts represents the lowest paid professional demographic in the country by a mile. By stopping the self-managed funds collecting art, and forcing collectors to dump their works or be taxed, they’ve knocked that income down even further.”

He feels it is simply bizarre that politicians who care so much about economic growth and actively support a range of local industries, can be complicit in the destruction of the so-called arts industry. And for what reason?

Henson argues that it doesn’t even make economic sense. He quotes a conversation with a minister in the Abbott government who privately admitted that the policy was counterproductive. When people stop buying art the incomes of many artists and dealers fall so steeply that they no longer pay tax. When works remain unsold the government no longer collects GST. Not only has the policy crippled the art industry, it has cost the government revenue.

When Henson asked what was going to be done about this, the answer was: “Care factor: zero”.

This is the reason the artist can assert that the Cultural Cringe is back with a vengeance. He feels we live in a country with so little interest in the arts that governments will persist with destructive policies solely because of a lack of interest – or a lack of influence as an election issue. It makes for a vivid contrast with our Asian neighbours such as Hong Kong and Singapore, who are investing heavily in the arts because they have discovered good economic arguments for doing so.

In Australia those arguments fall on deaf ears. Local councils act to undermine well-established and successful regional galleries, while the NSW government persists with an utterly impractical scheme to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, with the apparent complicity of the Opposition. Those who have criticised the plan, for the best of reasons, are dismissed as “elitists”.

Henson points out that it’s increasingly common for today’s crop of wealthy Australian collectors to buy globally, rather than locally. It’s also true that promising artists have begun leaving for countries where they are more likely to find buyers and supporters. It’s not only the Cringe that’s back, it’s the Brain Drain.

It would make economic sense for Henson to join the exodus, but in his cranky way he is a proud Australian. A social and political pariah in 2008, he has now become an forthright advocate for the arts, willing to speak out on issues for which he feels a passionate conviction. He says it is all about cultivating the fine art of being “curmudgeonly but not stupid.” To put the artist’s transformation in purely Greek terms, Henson has come to sound less like an aesthete such as Epicurus, and more like Diogenes, who believed in action rather than theory.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum, Saturday 9th April, 2016