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.

Cover: May 2005

May 2005

From the front page

Image of Buzz Aldrin next to flag on the Moon

Shooting beyond the Moon

Reflecting on the Apollo 11 mission as Mars beckons

Six years and counting

There is no hope in sight for hundreds of people on Manus Island and Nauru

The Djab Wurrung Birthing Tree

The highway construction causing irredeemable cultural and environmental damage

Detail of 'Man, Eagle and Eye in the Sky: Two Eagles', by Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang’s ‘The Transient Landscape’ and the Terracotta Warriors at the National Gallery of Victoria

The incendiary Chinese artist connects contemporary concerns with cultural history


In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Zero Millimetres in Tooleybuc

Mission Unthinkable

'Paradise Now'

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Comment

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Uncle Malcolm


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