What would Bill Henson, one of Australia’s most acclaimed and widely known contemporary artists, change about his days? ‘I’d put more time into daydreaming’ he says. ‘I think it’s a good investment.’
With no regulated routine, Henson’s days vary from wandering down the garden path, sometimes not to return till mid-afternoon, to getting completing absorbed in the process of making. Irrespective of how the hours unfold, there is always plenty of space for ruminating. ‘It is quite important to purposely create, maintain and expand the space in which you can daydream. It’s becoming increasingly a luxury,’ he explains.
Technology, scheduling, and having a ‘waterfall of social commitments’ tends to crowd our lives and plant us in a perpetual state of distraction. Instead, we have to be on guard about mindless busyness.
We do ourselves a disservice when we allow ourselves to be crowded out with the white noise of other people’s agendas, we need to have a bit of space.’
Henson describes his work as a private conversation, and admits the temptation not to show the work to audience gets stronger as he gets older. Creating space and refining commitments is what allows the artist to dip in and out of the public realm depending on the project – the latest is an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) featuring a body of works created between 2008 and 2011.
Space may be a luxury for a successful artist with a career spanning forty-years, but what about the rest of us? ‘It depends on what you want – if you want to have a so-called career, perhaps, yes, you need to be busy,’ he says.
‘But if you are focused on what you are trying to make – for me the interesting thing is how to make a picture – then you always have to put that first, don’t you? You always have to give yourself that space, not matter what stage, what part of the landscape you occupy.’
Every day is entirely different, but I tend to get up quite early around five-thirty or six. I have always enjoyed the mornings – for decades I would get up when it was still dark and run ten kilometres every morning. The air is really clean and there is no one around and it is quite peaceful and meditative, really.
I stopped running on the advice of a close friend who reminded me that if you are running ten kilometres every morning, eventually your knees are going to wear out. So a few years ago I shifted from that solitary pursuit – the loneliness of the long distance runner – to the gym, where I go three times a week.
I’ll make something for breakfast, but not straight away, usually a little bit later. If I go to the gym, I tend not to eat very much because I don’t like to train on a full stomach.
I’ll make a pot of tea, listen to some music and stay right away from current affairs and all that stuff – I never have the TV or radio going, ever.
One can have fortunate accidents – perhaps could go outside for a bit of a stroll in the garden, and just not come in again until lunchtime. Of course this would mean all of the obligations and expectations and requirements and requests and whatever else are all forgotten about because you’re in the garden. One just drifts off looking into things and thinking about things and nothing impinges on the calm and reverie that you’re in.
Alternatively, I could find myself diligently dealing with what people want. That’s probably the significant difference when it comes to how the days pan out. It depends on what comes up, who gets a foot in the door first, and when the phone starts barking. If I’m smart about it, the phone is never turned on.
I think it’s very important to be able to collect your thoughts and keep a finger on your own pulse, not to be dragooned into somebody else’s agenda. Any space, personal or otherwise, becomes the ultimate luxury.
It is rare for me to pick up the camera – it takes a lot for me to pick up the camera. It happens when I have no choice but to make the photograph. It’s a long, solitary process where I’m alone with my ideas before going out into the world to take pictures. Then once alone with the results of the shoot I’m trying to extract something interesting and it takes time. It might be six months or a year to realise what I have in front of me.
With exhibitions like the upcoming National Gallery of Victoria show – short-term projects – there is a beginning and an end. I’ll decide at the outset that I want to do something, and if I make that decision, I’ll make a commitment to give it everything I possibly can.
You either really do it, or you don’t do it all. That’s how I see things.
At the end of the day, a certain amount of energy has been expended, so unless I’m really involved in something, I’ll get tired and hungry, and so by seven or eight I’ll be ready for a break.
Occasionally I’ll cook something myself, but there is no set routine. I might go out for a bite with Louise locally, or there are friends I can hook up with, it just depends what is happening on the night really.
I should say I have an increasing anxiety about things that are planned ahead – I don’t like having commitments weeks, months and years ahead. It really bothers me seemingly more and more. I am increasingly disinclined to commit myself to things, even things I would no doubt enjoy. But you see it’s part of that luxury of space – your space is being circumscribed by activities and things set at certain points in the future and impromptu occasions are more enjoyable.
If I’ve been out to dinner and have been working on something intensively in the studio that day, part of me will want to go back to the studio and look at what I have been doing. I might do that and then crawl up the stairs and fall into bed.
I find that the time I go to sleep varies, but generally it’s not that late. We apparently need less sleep as we get older, I don’t know if that’s true or not.
‘The more space you give yourself, the more sensitive you are to nature and to the beauty and complexity of life around you. It’s pretty nice to be able to get up and be completely drunk on the light, the sky – you know? That is ultimate luxury.’
Recent Photographs by Bill Henson
NGV Festival of Photography
March 10th to August 27th
180 St Kilda Rd
This story was written as part of our monthly collaboration with Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines.