Who: Bill Henson
Where: Tolarno Galleries, Exhibition Street, Melbourne
When: 26 March to 21 April 2011
I’m quite sure there are a heap of reviews out there for this show (seeing the crowds that it drew) but I’m going to write about it anyway. There is no such thing as “too much” in the blogosphere ;)
Ever since the huge and unwarranted kerfuffle that came out of Henson’s previous show at Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in Sydney, good old Bill has become quite the household name. Little did I know that this would drive crowds, and I mean crowds, to this show at Tolarno, his first since Roslyn Oxley9.
We rocked up to the gallery just after 1pm on Saturday (the gallery opens at 1pm). If you know Tolarno, there are no signs and you need to take some 50-year old lift up to the 4th floor of 104 Exhibition Street before you get to the gallery. I was shocked to find myself in a packed lift and subsequently packed gallery. As you know, I have had my fair share of experience visiting galleries on weekends and this was by far the busiest I have seen any gallery, excluding the blockbuster shows at the NGV of course. Imagine the last day of the Dali exhibition at the NGV. This wasn’t far behind.
I don’t mean to be a snob, but I can’t stand crowded galleries, especially for work such as Henson’s. I need that quiet space between me and the art, you know? I made my way around the works anyway, attempting not to walk into anyone and trying to dodge the sea of heads blocking my view. As I did this, the thought ran through my head — is this what he has become? Some spectacle, some entertainer? I could be wrong, but no such crowd ever goes to other similar gallery spaces in such droves. I was quite sure that a large proportion of the visitors were there for the shock factor, much like the crowds that Sensation drew at the Royal Academy back in the hey day of the YBAs. I couldn’t help but feel upset for Henson as this is clearly not the objective of his art.
But is it such a bad thing that people are making the effort to get out of their pajamas on a Saturday morning just to see art? Of course not. But there seems to be a fine line between seeing art as art and seeing art as entertainment. And as an artist, nothing makes me more annoyed than the kind of people who goes and sees the Mona Lisa for the sake of seeing the Mona Lisa. The “spectacle” is a huge distraction to what the art itself is really about, and it is this superficiality that causes people to miss the point entirely. In this world today where we often look to visual imagery for entertainment, people forget that viewing art requires engagement and commitment. Art gives you what you are willing to give it. You can’t expect the satisfaction of literal and obvious messages found in cheap entertainment, and unfortunately the “spectacle” makes a good substitute for these messages.
Unsatisfied with my first visit that crowded Saturday I went back on a weekday during lunch time. When I got there, I was the only one there. Success!! It didn’t last very long. Ten minutes in and there was about 25 people in the gallery. But it was still better than Saturday and I managed to find the time with the work.
Thirteen large scale photographs were displayed around the gallery consisting of two landscapes, two museum photographs and 9 nudes. The two landscapes consisted of a solitary mountain each, one a large glowing orange rock formation, and the other a volcano peeking through heavy mist and fog. Both shot in the night. The museum photographs (I call them museum photographs because they remind me of Thomas Struth’s museum photographs) were shot at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, of unfocused blurry heads of people viewing paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn, which were in sharp focus. The nudes were a range of female and male adolescents steeped in darkness in heavy chiaroscuro, in poses reminiscent of many classical figures such those found in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera and works by Artemisia Gentileschi.
Despite the mismatch of subject matter, there was an undeniably strong and deep thread running through all of them. That thread is the ephemeral. The mist and fog of the landscapes suggested the transient nature of the weather and environmental conditions, the potential eruption and erosion of volcanos and rock forms. The mortal that is the museum visitor is juxtaposed against the figures immortalized in Rembrandt’s paintings. And, like the skin of a fresh corpse, the precarious interplay of warm and cool tones of the skin of the nudes make you question whether these people were in fact dead or alive.
Life, in this series of works, is always interjected by the imminence of death, which is then undercut, again, by the beauty and preciousness that is life. A memento mori that never ceases to shift in meaning and significance.
One word – sublime. Perhaps this is such a cliched thing to say, but Henson took my breath away. And then some.