Tuesday, 14 April 2009
Above is the cover for the recent Pushkin Press edition of the alarmingly young Florian Zeller's novel Julien Parme. It uses an untitled photograph by Australian artist Bill Henson, one of his many moody, shadowy pictures of young people.
This is particularly interesting because Henson was recently the subject of a startling controversy in Australia, in which the country's media and self-appointed commentators went absolutely mental.
Australia has an odd history of censorship. It's an unusually plain-spoken country (example: when the CEO of my bank rang me recently in response to a negative letter I'd written about them to my local newspaper*, he began with, "I understand you're a bit shitted off with us."), where, for the most part, people are pretty relaxed about swearing, sex and violence on the telly and in print.
But Australia has occasional paroxysms of stupidity about "dangerous" art as well. Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho has to be sold shrinkwrapped in plastic, with a big 'Rated R' sticker on it, to prevent impressionable youths from buying it or from flipping through the pages in bookshops. Laughably, it's completely banned in Queensland. There are no other books to which this law has been applied, other than photographs of hardcore pornography, which are technically illegal outside of Canberra.
The Henson photos were the focus of another of these sporadic eruptions last year. A Sydney gallery was going to host a show of his photos, and sent out invitations featuring one picture of a 13-year-old girl with visible nipples. All hell broke loose. The Prime Minister went on national TV to make a fool of himself, describing Henson's pictures as "absolutely revolting". The Opposition Leader rushed to agree, despite the fact that he (a millionaire ex-banker who tries to claim the common touch by saying that he's "lived in flats") even owns some Henson photographs. Police seized all the photographs and tried to put together an obscenity case.
In the end the police action fell apart, as it should have, and most people calmed the fuck down. You can see most of the exhibition online (though not the photo which triggered all the fuss), and more of Henson's work elsewhere. You can see that particular shot on the cover of a book about the kerfuffle, though it's been carefully cropped to avoid frightening the horses.
* Yes, I am officially becoming an angry old bugger.