Bill Henson in his Melbourne studio. Photo – Sean Fennessy
It’s not everyday you get the opportunity to interview Bill Henson. So when this opportunity crossed my path just over a week ago, I couldn’t help but pounce. I have long been a fan of Henson’s distinctive, haunting photographs. It was quite an honour to interview him by phone this week – and a little daunting I must admit!
In fact, in conversation, Bill is less intimidating than you might think. Chatty, even. In a very intellectual and kind of measured way, of course. He comes across as a bit of a philosopher, though also quite matter of fact. Henson has old fashioned sensibilities – somewhat predictably, he prefers second hand bookshops to Google, and he rejects the modern idea of using assistants in his practice (‘the Hollywood management mentality’), preferring to work primarily in solitude. But he wasn’t snooty or pompous in the way you might expect an artist of his notoriety to be. And equally, he didn’t appear remotely jaded or withered by the controversy that seems to circle his exhibition calendar ominously every two years. He was gracious and patient and generous with his responses to all my questions. And he provided some genuine pearls of wisdom which I hope I have been able to pass on below… Oh the pressure!
Bill Henson is one of Australia’s most acclaimed and widely known contemporary artists – his work has been exhibited extensively in the most high profile galleries both here and abroad, he represented Australia in the Venice Biennale in 1995, and was the subject of an incredible retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria in 2005.
It must be said that Henson’s work does tend to polarise. After the now infamous incident which resulted in a police raid of his 2008 Sydney exhibition, and the confiscation of various artworks, Henson briefly returned to slightly less inflammatory subject matter. His following show in 2010 played it a little safer, focussing primarily on landscape and architectural forms. But his current exhibition, which opened two weeks ago at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, is back in familiar territory. Depicting ghostly, ethereal, teenage bodies, the show is sure to prickle Henson’s usual detractors. The selection of works – melancholy, brooding and mysterious as ever – seems quietly defiant. I guess you could say, after a brief diversion, Henson is ‘back’.
The show runs until October 13th.
Immense thanks to Bill Henson, Kym Elphinstone and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery for facilitating this interview.
Until October 13th
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
8 Soudan Lane
Tell us a little about your career background – what drew you to photography originally, and which early influences contributed to the development of your distinctive style?
Well, I never really thought of what I did as a career, early on or even now.
Probably the best way to describe it, is simply that from the earliest age I just drew and painted and made things out of clay and whatever else. I’ve always obsessively made things, that’s all I was really interested in, and that’s what really absorbed all of my attention through childhood and adolescence, and nothing’s really changed.
I never really had that thought of ‘what will I do’. It never occurred to me that I would ever not be making something, and mostly that was pictures.
I got into Prahan College tertiary art school with a painting folio, which consisted of various things I’d done in the preceeding year, but by the time I was about 15 I had pretty much moved away from painting. The only way I can describe that transition from painting and drawing to photography I suppose, is that painting increasingly felt as if it was falling ‘short’ of something, that I wasn’t even able to identify. I started to muck around with photography and somehow photography started to seem as though it fell less ‘short’, if I can put it like that.
Initially I didn’t study phtography specifically. I went into a preliminary year at Prahran College, I would have been about 16 at the time. We studied all types of art, but really by then I was pretty much absorbed in making my own photographs. In fact, much to the frustration of my lecturers, I was there very infrequently, I was just making my own pictures. Every few months I’d come in with a bundle under my arm and my lecturers Athol Shmith and John Cato would wring their hands and tell me that they loved the pictures I was showing them, but if I didn’t do the assignments there was no point in me being there!
But really as far back as I can remember it’s just been about making pictures, for better or worse, that’s what it’s always been for me.
Tell us about your current show at Roslyn Oxley9 in Sydney – what has inspired these works, and how long have you been developing this body of work?
Well I never work to an exhibition, and I have never worked to a particular date. It feels to me very much as though new work grows out of preceding pictures or preceding bodies of work, and so it’s a continuous evolution really – pictures gradually build up in the studio over months and years and at a certain point there seems to be a critical mass. The commercial view is always to sort of plan their calendar as it were, and I’m always saying ‘book me in if you like – we’ll see’ because I really can’t work to anyone else’s schedule.
Fortunately things tend to fall into place. The show that’s in Sydney has been accumulating over the past few years. It’s a continuous gradual process, that just feels as though each image is sort of a fragment from some larger thing in a way, that you can’t quite see the boundaries of.
In a recent statement you quoted poet Peter Schjeldahl, saying – ‘beauty presents a stone wall to the thinking mind. It makes a case for the sacredness of something and wins that case, suddenly, and irrationally.’ With this idea in mind – Do you strive for beauty in your work?
I think that what interests me in any art form, whether it’s music or literary or anything else, are the same things that interest all of us in life generally. Things that shape our lives – loss, longing, love, a sense of mortality – these are the things that have inspired various artists throughout time. Really beauty is the mechanism that animates those things. That sense of attraction, longing, fascination. It’s got more to do with love, really, but beauty is the agent of that, and it takes different forms.
Beauty is central to all art forms – from a Mozart piano concerto to a Cy Twombly painting. It doesn’t really matter what medium or what period in history. You could almost say that everything in the universe runs on attraction, whether it’s 2 molecules in a vacuum or an episode of Home and Away.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of your practise? Do you employ others or outsource any specific tasks?
I’ve never worked with assistants, work is a solitary thing for me. Except of course when I’m working with my models, but 99% of my time is spent in a room looking at the pictures I make. I think the presence of anyone else would be a bit of a distraction for me.
But I think there’s another more important aspect to that, from a process point of view. Having a kind of intimate negotiation with the materials and the physcial manifestation of making work is very, very important.
Negotiating materials physically acts as an automatic editing or filtering device – in many cases this automatically kind of filters out the things that are not essential. It acts as a purifier and focusser of your ideas. For that reason assistants are something I don’t feel necessary in my work. I’d rather negotiate the drudgery and the difficulty of whatever physical processes are involved in my work, whether its cleaning out a photographic processing machine, or doing whatever else I do.
I think otherwise you tend to do yourself out of a journey. The unexpected thoughts and feelings that come from wrestling with the actual materials themselves are gone if you hand that over to assistants or technicians. After all, everything we know about the world comes to us through our body, not just through our eyes and ears. Having that total immersion going on in whatever you practise is invaluable.
Which other Australian artists or creative people do you think are making excellent work at the moment?
I’ll give you two very different people who work in very different ways.
Gerald Murnane is a great writer of fiction. His books are incredbly ambitious. Everything he writes is sort of a long shot. It’s a characteristic which I admire in all art forms.
A musician who I admire a great deal is Richard Tognetti who works with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
What both these two have in common, is that their creative activity seems almost as though it is happening against the odds. That to me is the consistent quality of really impressive art – whether you are listening to a great concerto or standing in front of a late Rembrandt in a museum somewhere in Europe. There is a gathering sense of disbelief when you experience really interesting artwork, because part of you is going ‘how is this possible?’. That applies to literature, music and great work in visual arts as well. But it’s the thing that links them all for me.
Can you list for us a few favourite resources across any media (ie specific books, journals, magazines, websites or other media) you tune in to regularly or which inspire you creatively?
I’m very interested in unpopular culture. So what I tend to read are books which have been out of print for years. So I would nominate as one of my favourite resources second hand bookshops. I think second hand bookshops are the most interesting bookshops anywhere in the world now, whether you’re in New York or London, Paris or Melbourne or Sydney.
They’re interesting because they’re almost starting to accidentally fulfil the role that libraries used to play. Whereas libraries now are being emasculated – anything that hasn’t been borrowed for more than two years is taken out, which is an apalling state of affairs and will sadly keep libraries entirely superficial and fashion prone in future. But second hand bookshops are filled up to the rafters with all this stuff which is not necessarily in vogue, so they’re a real treasure trove.
Second hand music shops that sell vinyl and CDs I find really interesting too. I like to be able to browse physically in shops – record shops and book shops. It’s a totally different thing to browsing online – because you really don’t know what’s going to catch your eye, whereas online the path people use really does involve a line of thought beforehand, so the truly unexpected doesn’t occur in the same way as it does in a physcial shop.
Do you travel much for work?
I try to avoid travel wherever possible, but I suppose being in photography particularly, once an idea clarifies itself, it might happen to be that I just need to walk down the street, but it might equally happen to be that I need to go to Egypt to get the picture.
It really depends on what’s necessary to create the pictures. I had to do a bit of work off the coast of Sicily the year before last. I had the image in my head, I knew the sort of still active volcano I wanted to photograph, sticking out of the Mediterranean, and there was no way around going there and getting the pictures. So I had to, you know, get on a plane and go there and spend a week in a helicopter going round and round.
It’s all about the picture you’re trying to get, it’s the picture that dominates the mind’s eye. You’re trying to bring something from the world of the imagination into the physcial world. So you know, you do whatever it takes, and it’s always exciting and absorbing, but it’s a long way to go for one photograph!
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
There’s not really a typical day. I mean I have a sort of a pattern, but really nothing structured. I suppose the only thing I would say about what I do is that it’s really up to me. You know there’s no one else here to sort of say what needs doing. You have total absolute freedom and total responsibility, let’s say! It’s a double edged sword in that respect. I tend to be working most of the time.
Which suppliers do you frequent in Melbourne for the tools or materials of your trade?
Well I have a only couple of suppliers of materials I use on an ongoing basis, and they’re very accommmodating and very professional. Kayell is the photographic and digital suppliers that I use and they’re great.
Where do you love to eat a great meal in Melbourne?
I quite like the food at Coda.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
No point in telling you. We don’t want to spoil it. I think that more secrecy in general would be a good thing! It keeps things interesting.