Every woman, every man, every object, every heavy breath on a freezing night, is a defiance against the pervasive perfection of light. You or I walk into a well-lit room and immediately, at various points in and around us, it falls to shadow. Sometimes abruptly, exposing our indelible human presence with gross pronunciation. Sometimes softly, as if transposing through space from vapour to liquid, deepening in tone and texture as our corporeality quietly affirms itself. Regardless, when matter meets with light, it cannot escape the darkness it immanently carries. In The Gothic Cathedral, art historian Otto von Simson writes: “In a Romanesque church, light is something distinct from and contrasting with the heavy, somber, tactile substance of the walls. The Gothic wall seems to be porous: light filters through it, permeating it, merging with it, transfiguring it ... Light, which is ordinarily concealed by matter, appears as the active principle; and matter is aesthetically real only insofar as it partakes of, and is defined by, the luminous quality of light.” For an artist, this point – the point at which light begins to define a ‘thing’ and vice-versa – presents as a gateway to meaning and ultimately, truth. It is the ‘clear dark’ – the chiascurro – from which all that is concealed recommends itself for illumination. It is from existing as a wound in the profound coherence of pure light that the complex and beautifully flawed architecture of human life is revealed and the artist edges ever closer to the subtle breath of creation, to very nature of being.
Bill Henson’s images seem to drop into a dense reality from an etheric realm – to descend, carefully, from this state of immense light to a rich, bulging darkness. As if from the deepest catacombs of the human psyche they emerge as eerie simulacrums of concealed truths – the things we cannot see but fear, and suspect, are there; as dangerous as they are strangely enchanting. I once heard him say, “Art itself of course can never be entirely safe, either in its origins or as it’s experienced, because it’s a form of truth and truth is a wild thing for us to tame.” I’m curious as to how, as an artist, he sets about extracting, shaping and revealing truth in his work. And moreover, what does he mean when he speaks of ‘truth’. “Well of course it’s a different thing for each and every person and the priority of each individual experience cannot be overestimated,” he explains. “But it seems to me that when we slow down we tend to gain a little more ‘personal space’ – we become more aware of ourselves, of the way we are behaving and the way we’re experiencing the situation in which we find ourselves. You need a certain amount of stillness and silence for contemplation, for a gentler and deeper kind of thinking about things. That’s not a loss of strength but a deeper sense of being in the world. “It’s that contemplative space,” he adds, “into which you slide when you’re really absorbed with what you’re doing and it’s certainly something that I can see with people I photograph. If you work with them for hours and hours sometimes they will enter a completely different zone. And so there’s a certain truth (in that). I think it possibly does bring you closer to the truth of your own existence, without necessarily understanding what that is.”
In this sense, Henson’s subjects sit for his lens the way they might for a painters easel, but moving ever so slowly, incrementally, so as to access this profound sense of being. “I think one of the main things that allows this space to open up in the relationship that artists have always had with models comes from encouraging them to slow down ... And with this people become a little more sensitive to the breath of their own body.” It would almost appear from the intimacy and sense of quiet that characterises his images that the artist himself is entirely absent from the space – that his subjects are completely unaware of his presence. It surprises me then to learn that he’s fastidiously instructive on set. “I give a vast number of directions to my models,” he says. “I think that one of the things that these quite precise instructions are about is slowing them down so that the smallest gesture or movement, even the way they breathe, becomes significant – perhaps even momentous at times. If you can drive things a bit in that direction then people become fascinated with just the business of breathing – just living inside your body becomes a fascinating thing and, of course, you’re not hanging upside-down from a tower or something, you’re just standing there in a room.”
It takes a particular type of person to just stand there, open, comfortable with just breathing, just being. For this reason Henson’s careful selection of subjects is based on much more than pure aesthetics, but the exact criteria, the amorphous qualities that compel him to a point his lens at something or someone, remain mostly a mystery.
“These things are powerfully apprehended but not fully understood,” he explains. “The process is a very complex and broad thing. At a certain point for me things that start out as vague feelings begin to coalesce – to produce some kind of an image in my mind’s eye – and at that point I think I need to go in search of perhaps a tree or a particular landscape. I can’t see these things very clearly at the beginning because it’s like trying to recall dreams as they slip away from you – you wake up in the morning and it’s as if it’s sand running through your fingers. So this is sort of the opposite, the sand’s running uphill back into your hand as you try to work out what this image should be or what the necessary subject components are … The feeling, when it occurs, seems as if – whether it’s architectural of landscape or a person – the subject is recommendending itself to me.” Henson’s subjects may present themselves at random with only an intuitive prior sense of what they might be, but there are distinct reoccurring themes throughout his extensive body of work (Henson has been shooting pictures since the early 70s). Ghostly urban and natural landscapes that seem bereft of life, pensive portraiture that sees no mark of a long life softened, and perhaps most notably, adolescents entering that perilous phase transition between childhood and adulthood. “The thing about adolescence for me is that it’s a microcosm for the macrocosm of society as a whole; there’s so much natural potential at this time in our lives but of course it’s a potential for things to go well or go badly, and certainly a part of that comes from the exponential growth taking place both physically, emotionally and intellectually. So it’s sort of like looking at how culture unfolds inside nature through the form of an individual face or body,” he says. “I suppose for me it’s just the most effective vehicle for trying to draw closer to the things that interest me – the beauty and the vulnerability and grace of the human form and the sense of time flowing through us as it does.”
For Henson, no thing in culture or nature works in isolation from another. As an artist he is just as much influenced by an Anton Bruckner symphony as he is by a trip to the supermarket. “I could go on and list things which interest me but the exact manner in which these interests stimulate you emotionally and intellectually – how much influence they have and how this comes out in the work – of how a trip to the local supermarket or walking down the street influences you, and of how these experiences swirl together and affect the work you make is impossible to tell,” he explains. “The light as we approach the shortest day of the year – it’s dark in the mornings it’s dark in the evenings – wet, damp and cold. The effect on us of the weather is so profound and all pervading – this influences your mood and in turn influences the way in which a piece of music is affecting you. All of these things are there for everyone, not jut for people who happen to make stuff that we call art and drawing a line somewhere in terms of influences is always going to be completely arbitrary in the end.”
The exact components that make up the intangible stuff of an effective image are, according to Henson, just as difficult to delineate. It’s just a sense of being moved on an abstract emotional level. “Meaning comes from feeling not the other way around,” he says. “I think it’s the capacity of something to somehow – I don’t know if ‘transmit’ is the right word, possibly it is – or at least to kind of disarm people so that they become simultaneously aware of both the great sea of humanity of which they’re a part and that vast, solitary inland sea of the subconscious. The experience deepens our sense of continuity, of being inside culture and of culture being inside nature.” Henson recalls a time he spent working in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Here, he would watch as busloads of people traipsed through the grand corridors chatting amongst themselves, until inevitably they would turn a corner and arrive in front of the great Rembrandt painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Time and time again they would forget what they were saying to each other and just stop, often without knowing why. “It’s the power of the picture. It’s just an inanimate object sitting on a wall but somehow it disarmed and distracted people. ‘Distract’ in the traditional meaning is to be taken away to another place, and that’s the power of great art.”
Leaving my hotel in Melbourne, Henson’s hometown in Australia, I turned a corner to enter the lobby, and stopped. A young girl with dark searching eyes, her disembodied face emerging from an inky abyss, pulling me towards it. It took me a few beats to realise: she was a Bill Henson, hanging there, just an object on a wall. I paused only momentarily; I had a flight to catch. But every so often, in a moment of distraction, my thoughts wander to her face – her utterly disarming face. And I can’t really say why.