Yesterday I wrote about looking forward to seeing a gallery show of new photographic works by Bill Henson with my friend James. Last night we rang the gallery for directions, as we were close by but couldn't find the exact location, and the woman James spoke to at the gallery informed us that they had 'taken advice' not to open the show, so the opening night was cancelled.
I'm familiar with Henson's previous works, but didn't really know what to expect from this new show, and I was really surprised that the gallery had taken this step of a last minute cancellation of a well respected artist's show. Since watching the late news last night, and then seeing the morning news and the papers, the issue was that Henson had a series of nudes in the exhibition of pre-pubescent children and teenagers. (Interestingly, 90% of the coverage I have seen has focussed on the young girls in the exhibition, of the footage I've seen only a psychologist being interviewed on the Channel 7 morning news show mentioned that there were pictures of boys in the exhibition as well.)
They showed a couple of the images on the tv this morning, with blurring or opaque bars across the children's breasts, and I really had mixed emotions about them. They were certainly disturbingly frank, but they were also incredibly beautiful and vulnerable, with the children looking somewhat introspective and thoughtful and not in the least lascivious to my eye. My own concerns come from the vulnerability aspect, tasteful or not depending on your point of view.
What has been shocking to me is the media handling of it. One of the morning papers had a full page CHILD PORN 'ART' RAID headline splashed across the front page. Editorialising with two carefuly placed inverted commas and the inflammatory word "porn". A journalist being interviewed on the Today Show this morning on Channel 9 muddied the ethical waters with suggestion and innuendo, under the journalistic guise of 'these questions need to be asked', by suggesting that we don't even know if the children were left alone with the photographer etc. The children and their parents are to be interviewed by police, but there has been no allegations that Henson was ever inappropriate.
Oh, and the hypocrisy of the tv shows! While stating that because the images in the exhibition had been made available on the internet (a dubious decision in hindsight) it was exposing the children to the attention of pedophiles, they broadcast the exact same images. Yes they covered the genitalia, but the identities of the children were not obscured, and they publicised the fact that the images were available on the net.
Henson reportedly wanted to create images that spoke about vulnerability, about that difficult time between childhood and adolescence. I haven't really seen enough of the images to draw any conclusions about how successful he was with that aim. It certainly seems that his methods have been inflammatory to many people and have kicked off a feeding frenzy of accusation and moralisation. I didn't find the images that I (admittedly) only saw doctored versions of at all sexual, and it's kind of sad that there is no room left for innocent admiration of youthful beauty. Nudity = Sex. Nudity = Porn. I feel like I've suddenly been dragged down to the lowest common denominator.