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  • Jul 01, 2010

Bill Hensen and the Saga of Australian Pornography Laws

BILL HENSON, Untitled #30, 2009

The May 5 opening of Australian photographer Bill Henson’s latest exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney’s chic Paddington suburb proved to be a gently congratulatory affair. A crowd of about 500 of Sydney’s cultural glitterati packed the space to hear Edmund Capon, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, describe the new photographs as “immensely satisfying in their beauty and mystery.”

It was a far cry from the artist’s previous opening night at the gallery, less than two years ago, which was cancelled after police seized and removed 20 works amid public and media accusations that several of the photographs, featuring a pubescent 13-year-old girl, were pornographic. The show was temporarily shut down, and a frenzy of public debate swept through the nation. Regional galleries that held Henson pieces in their collections removed them from their walls to avoid similar police intervention. Prime minister Kevin Rudd called the works “revolting” and devoid of artistic merit.

The 2008 controversy was sparked as much by naiveté on the part of Henson and the gallery as by anything else. The image of a naked “tween” was used provocatively on the invitation card and the gallery website—a portrait of inordinate beauty, but one that did explicitly show a young girl in puberty. The media jumped on the story and guardians of public morality, such as campaigner Hetty Johnston of the child protection organization Bravehearts, delivered loud accusations suggesting that the art world was dabbling in child pornography. Indeed, the show had been particularly poorly timed. Stories about pedophilia had preoccupied the Australian news cycle in 2008, and Henson’s own admission that he scouted for models at a local school—with the cooperation of the head teacher—further inflamed the public.

However, the director of public prosecutions soon determined that there was no case to answer, and no charges were brought against Henson. But there was a huge ripple effect. In what was seen as a knee-jerk reaction, the New South Wales attorney general set about reforming the state’s child pornography laws. The Australia Council, the government’s arts funding and advisory body, instructed federal minister for the arts Peter Garrett to produce a set of protocols for working with children in an art context that would be binding for all who applied for a grant.

And in the broadest ruling yet, only days before Henson’s recent exhibition opened, legislation was introduced into New South Wales State Parliament that removes artistic merit as a criminal defense when dealing with illegal images of children. In the words of Tamara Winikoff, director of lobby group the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA): “A very worrying thing is being played out. There is a degree of hysteria, and artists are being scapegoated.”

Thus, Henson and the Oxley9 gallery trod delicately ahead of the artist’s latest show. A few weeks before the opening, ten of the 31 photographs, which showed a young, female model emerging from deep shadow, were submitted to the Australian Classification Board, the body responsible for the rating of movies, video releases, computer games and literature. None were anywhere near as revealing as Henson’s 2008 work, and all were considered “bona fide artwork” and granted an unrestricted M (for “Mature”) classification: “not recommended for those under 15 years of age.”

All told, however, the remainder of the works in the artist’s latest show—moody, digitally enhanced landscapes and statuary wrapped in the dark shadows and melancholic light—seemed substantially toned down. Though neither Henson nor Roslyn Oxley would speak to ArtAsiaPacificfor this article, Sue Cato, Australian corporate communications heavyweight and PR mouthpiece for Oxley9, vehemently rejected any suggestion that Henson had self-censored. “This is the show that Bill wanted to make,” she said. Dr. Gene Sherman, executive director of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, whose extensive personal art collection numbers many early Hensons, did not feel there was any evidence of self-censorship by Henson, but did see, “A lack of density in the images compared to others, arising perhaps from the change of methodology that working in digital imposes.” This was Henson’s first show of digital prints.

Even if Henson did not explicitly go out of his way to avoid contentious or controversial subject matter, his newly safe body of work does raise the disturbing idea that Australian artists may have to preemptively filter their work in a climate where fear of prosecution weighs heavily.

NAVA earlier this year voluntarily produced its own set of suggestions for Australian artists, entitled The Arts Censorship Guide, which clearly outlines what an artist can and cannot do. It errs on the side of caution, but in fact the introduction of the new legal and advisory framework concerning child pornography resulting from Henson’s 2008 show could eventually work in an artist’s favor, Winikoff explained. To that end,NAVA is in discussions with the attorney general’s office on the establishment of a panel of art experts who would be consulted on a work’s content before the heavy hand of the law reaches in and pulls work from gallery walls.

Meanwhile, as AAP goes to press, red “sold” stickers at Oxley9 gallery indicate that Henson’s women with erotically charged facial expressions and languid arm movements lingering in the half world of adolescence are outselling the landscape works two to one.

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