Interview

Bill Henson

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Friday 5th October 2012

Bill Henson in his Melbourne studio.  Photo – Sean Fennessy

Bill Henson, Untitled #17, 2011 – 2012. Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Bill Henson, Untitled #13, 2011 – 2012. Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Bill Henson, Untitled #4, 2011 – 2012. Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

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.

Bill Henson
Until October 13th
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
8 Soudan Lane
Paddington
NSW

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.

Bill Henson, Untitled, 1994 / 95, typc C photograph, adhesive tape, pins, glassine.  Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Bill Henson: Three Decades of Photography, Art Gallery of New South Wales, January – April 2005.  Photo –  Mim Stirling.  Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
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.

Bill Henson, Untitled #8, 2011 – 2012. Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
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.

Bill Henson: Three Decades of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria, April – July 2005.  Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.
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.

Melbourne Questions

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.


Bill Henson, Untitled #4, 2005/06, type C photograph, Photo Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

by Lucy Feagins, Editor
Friday 5th October 2012

27 comments

  • julie @ tractorgirl 2 years ago

    not sure I can comment on this without sounding superficial…. especially because as a culture we tend to use the words “amazing” and “fabulous” way too often … but Bill Henson is a truly inspiring artist. His ideas on beauty and mystery resonate with me in a very deep and fundamental way

  • Gabrielle JONES 2 years ago

    Great interview. I particularly love Bill Henson’s thoughts about the importance of Physicality in making art -of materials, understanding them and handling them, and the unexpected thoughts ans twists and turns that occur whilst doing the mundane-so true! I always wondered how artists had assistants – i reckon it would turn the job into an event management or admin one – ugh!! beautiful, Beautiful work, of course! Thanks for the interview!

  • nancyblackett 2 years ago

    Lucy, I read your stuff every day and enjoy it but this interview blew me away. What a great artist and what thoughtful insights about beauty and “unpopular culture”

  • ant 2 years ago

    OMG five minutes later and still in awe of the man. Thanks for an inspiring interview, and those beautiful images

  • Joy 2 years ago

    The Opera series was my first experience of Bill Henson,s work….have never forgotten their beauty!
    Artistic expression like no other!

  • anon 2 years ago

    Introducing Bill Henson – the original hipster.

  • CJ 2 years ago

    Awesome.

  • Helen 2 years ago

    I’m flying up to Sydney on Tuesday with the sole purpose of seeing this exhibition – after reading this interview I have butterflies in anticipation!

  • Pia Blair 2 years ago

    One of my absolute favourite artists. Sorry to state the obvious, but what stunning use of tone and composition. I’m so proud that he is Australian. I loved teaching my High School Visual Art students about his work and the visal comparisons that can be made to Carravaggio and modern culture. His work was such a great conversation starter for teens. I just wished that K Rudd had been in my class and studied his work and actually understood the beautiful symbolism inherent within! Thanks Lucy and Lisa for sharing this interview.

  • Starline 2 years ago

    I understand some people love his work but I cannot see the need to take images of naked children as an expression of art.I know artists often push boundaries to make their mark but we have to draw the line somewhere.
    A teenager with artistic images of scantily clad women or men on their wall is not unexpected but a mature male at least with images of naked children is simply not normal.Even an artistic image of an 18 yr old you would think him a pervert but if they were an11 yr old we are supposed to think of it as art.
    I’m sure the art world can survive without the need for such works.

  • Thank you for sharing the interview. Bill Henson’s work is stunning and even though it is controversial at times, there’s no denying he is talented (and Aussie yay!). It’s is not often that art actually moves us – and that is something special indeed.

  • Em 2 years ago

    Thank you so much for this interview Lucy. It’s such an engaging read about a fascinating person.

  • Jen 2 years ago

    He’s an amazing artist! What a great opportunity for you Lucy, you must have been thrilled!

    RT: Starline, nudity does not mean make something sexual. In my opinion his photographs do far less to sexualise the young models than the advertising industry repeatedly does with it’s scantily clad preteens.

    But it’s a big can of worms, I can appreciate that!

  • WDF 2 years ago

    Excellent Lucy – an epiphany for you. Another Twombly fan who also likes the long detach interpretation in art. Fascinating reading. He doesn’t mention Di Stasio where we saw him one time…

  • Midge 2 years ago

    On a technical note…. There is way too much noise in some of these recent digital prints. I reckon it’s a metaphor.

  • Lucy Mora 2 years ago

    Great interview! Bill Henson is one of Australia’s greats. Very impressed that TDF interviewed him… well done!

  • Jason m jones 2 years ago

    Lucy.. How lucky are YOU!!! I saw Bill walk out of a little tiny lane way in northcote and was star struck!!! I said to my partner.. That’s Bill Henson.. And he said ‘go say hello’ but I froze!!! Haha! Me! Scared of no one! Intimidated not even by my peers.. But no.. Alas.. Could not even bring myself to say “I love your work…” .. His exhibition at potter 5 years ago? Still has me shivering.. The lighting.. The black walls.. The Paris opera project, the silence of people wandering around.. Incredibly a life changing experience for me .. Yes.. Ronnie has the best collection of Hensons ever.. And both Ronnie and Bill.. Two of my idols in life… I love your blog and after a night out I probably should not be blabbing on about two of my Favourite things in the world.. Di Stasio and Henson.. And I am so excited to be going up to Sydney on Friday to see the exhibition and hopefully.. Hopefully purchase my first Henson. .. We all have our little whims in life.. I bought a beautiful work by Godwin bradbeer from James MAKIN gallery called naked boy dancing.. It is one of my true loves.. Hopefully after next week I have three things in my life which mean the world to me.. Godwins NBD, BH untitled #11 2011/2012 and mr beautiful partner!.. Bremi!! Enough rambling… Just wanted to say great work on an interview that I would have stumbled on… Don’t know the guy.. And this interview made me realize.. He is just one of us (with an extraordinary talent that makes people think : have goosebumps : talk…) after all.. That’s what art is about? Cheers… And goodnight! Love ur blog/ style! JMJ

  • Myles 2 years ago

    I’d be curious to know whether Bill has switched from film to digital? It seems like he has. I’m an enormous fan of Bill’s but I’ll be honest, I was disappointed in his last exhibition in Sydney.
    The pictures seemed to have lost that magical, luminous quality they had at the big exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. And I’d say it was because they are now digital?
    Is this true?

  • Mindi Bee 2 years ago

    Wonderful interview, he is full of colour and passion and seems to love being absorbed in ideas. Just wonderfu.

  • Simone P 2 years ago

    I have a 13 year old daughter who would make a perfect model for Bill, but I would never agree to it. Mostly because I have no right to do so. Nor do I have the right to ask her to make such a decision at such a young age.

    However there’s more to it than that. When discussing Henson, I wonder if putting young nude kids in his work is required to create a point of difference, or an edge, perhaps he isn’t worthy of all the acclaim he receives and status he enjoys.

    Let’s consider the rights of a child over what an adult believes he needs to include in his works to create something that will make people sit up and take notice. Lets face facts… Many people, more than who are prepared to actually admit it, had never heard of Henson till he received the massive publicity from the nude kids media firestorm…

  • Nikki 2 years ago

    ….a very interesting artist…….and an excellent interview !

  • KKarenn 2 years ago

    Well said Jen:”nudity does not mean make something sexual”.

    Love the insight into this artists’ mind. Thanks for sharing…

  • Philip Harvey 2 years ago

    Bill Henson is plainly having little more than a chat. His comments on bookshops and libraries require responses. All Bill is doing here is reporting on what thousands and thousands of people do anyway, and have since the time of Samuel Johnson, never mind the internet. Browsing in secondhand bookshops is no big secret. He is not alone in finding pleasure in doing so. If Bill was really up to date with libraries he would be taking more time to visit the libraries like this one in Middle Park that are standing collections and always were. ‘Standing collection’ means no book is ever removed from the shelf except for a very good reason. Melbourne is full of libraries that contain remarkable collections, they are one of the city’s big secrets. He is right about one thing though, the
    turnover of books in the public library system is a scandal. Can I emphasise that Bill is talking about public libraries only in his chat. In some public systems today they remove books not borrowed after one year (not two). Some public libraries put up sales but most send their new-old
    books to the tip. This is a waste of taxpayers money that should be frontpage news. The public libraries have felt the pressure to go technological, which is why funds for books have diminished.

    Then, to make a distinction between say Hill of Content or The Avenue here in Albert Park and secondhand bookshops in terms of ‘interest’ is a bland distinction. Hill of Content &c. are massively interesting shops and Bill is doing them and civilisation itself a disservice by running them down. There are shops that have become barns of paper, true, but good bookshops flourish in Melbourne alongside and despite the internet. I buy from them all the time, in the shop itself.

  • Philip Harvey 2 years ago

    Expansions to this response to Bill’s opinions on bookshops and libraries can be found at this blog: http://thecarmelitelibrary.blogspot.com.au/search/label/Bill%20Henson

  • fiercepierce 2 years ago

    Oh dear, looks like you’ve been had just like all the rest by another slick PR exercise! Be interesting to know if you were approached first…were the images supplied as a press release package? Did you actually see the Sydney show? If so, did you happen to ask your interviewee where he got his beautiful blond 8 yr old boy? In Sicily, perhaps, where he shot his volcano? And the older dark-haired boy with the nasty shoulder scar, what is that all about? And the supine teen girl with nice breasts but sans pubic hair, what is that about? And how many far more explicit versions come out of each shoot while kids are spun around like so many lumps of alabaster? Who checks anything pending or post-production? And where are the remainders and who buys them at thirtykay a pop? ? But of course no one wants to poop the party by quizzing our hero of unpopular culture about the highly controlled processes involved in photographing very special, very beautiful butt-naked under-age kids in all kinds of awkward, highly suggestive poses in “solitary” fashion on a darkened set.

    To the cool Mum who posted her determination to never permit a child of hers to pose for this ghoul – just don’t you fret your wise ole head about it – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child absolutely overrides your parental permission. Because of local sensitivities now, it’s likely the 2010/2011/2012 exhibition batches were sourced overseas, say in Sicily where life can be cheap, where children are poor and uneducated, where the age of consent is 14, and where our aussie laws don’t apply. But who the heck knows? And yes, he switched a couple years ago to inkjet printing, but film stocks are still in constant supply & it’s still a doddle to bring in a few rolls of film…

    Surely it’s time to start thinking like grownups instead of coming over all gooey like uncle bill’s star-struck teens…there’s heaps of other wonderful artists to drool over, maybe make up your own minds about. This artist is all about power and parading that power. The insights into this artist’s mind are all supplied by him and his publicity machine. Don’t be duped by slick techniques and stylish surface qualities and all the highbrow gobblegook written about this man, and try to look more closely at a very big game being played against a very much bigger picture.

  • priscilla 2 years ago

    fiercepierce: SO TRUE, SO TRUE
    l too love Bill Henson’s work and have for a very long time. But something has alway troubled me about them. When l read that he only works alone alarm bells started screaming in my head. fiercepierce you have just articulated all that has been troubling me for so long. Well put!!

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