May 2005

Arts & Letters

‘3 Decades of Photography by Bill Henson’, National Gallery of Victoria

By Justin Clemens

A young man masturbates, his face and torso scattered across a sequence of photos. Blurry and disjointed, you never see the act itself. Passers-by are captured without knowing it, oblivious to their neighbours, strangers to themselves. Each mono-chrome expression is so singular there seems no right name for it: it is no accident that Henson’s works go untitled. Two faces, an older man and a glowing pre-pubescent, both dressed to the nines, are juxtaposed in an overwhelming darkness. Much of Henson’s power derives from these high-relief antitheses, and “dramatic” is a word often used by critics.

It is misleading because drama implies a stage, characters, stories. Henson gives us disintegrating ruins, vanishing bodies, obscure events. And he is not above lightening things up with the odd vernacular gag; witness the OPSM logo, decaying beneath blood-orange clouds. Perhaps you need your eyes tested to see these photos properly?

3 Decades of Photography, which finished in Sydney last month and runs in Melbourne until July 10, comprises works so bewildering that you are left wondering if you imagined what your eyes have just seen. In interviews, Henson invokes Robert Musil and Thomas Mann rather than Harold Cazneaux or Athol Shmith: Europeans not locals, writers not photographers, collapsing empires not energetic democracies. The infested remains of a vanished imperium are reinvented in a gothic Aussie outback. Sexy teenagers writhe amid eucalypts. There’s another issue here too – the relationship between contemporary Australian photography and German-language art novels from the age of Musil, which are often considered to have transformed mainstream European literature. Henson’s obsession with these writings is tantamount to a quiet manifesto.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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