Photograph: Jessica Hromas.
For Wildcards, Bill Henson combed through the more than 1500 photographs in the Monash Gallery of Art’s collection. Instead of starting with an idea and finding photographs to fit it, Henson chose works that evoked a strong, personal response. As Toby Fehily learns, the exhibition offers an unprecedented insight into Henson’s aesthetic and sensibility.
What sort of responses did the photographs you pick evoke?
There’s quite a broad range of works, going back to the 1860s and up to some pieces that are really quite recent. I’m not sure. The whole thing is something that I haven’t formed an opinion on. I just responded to the individual pieces, things that caught my eye, things that I found interesting, that stimulated some kind of interest.
I won’t really start to understand, in any kind of useful way, what the pattern is until I actually install the work, because installing the work is also a very important part of it. I can tell you a few of my ongoing concerns and preoccupations with photography and those obviously condition my response to the pictures in the MGA collection.
One of those preoccupations is an interest in the photograph as an object, in the physical presence of the print or whatever kind of technology is being used to make it. Part of the reason for that is that photography, more than any other medium, suffers from a mistake or misunderstanding people have when they’ve seen a reproduction in a magazine or online: they think they’re seeing the original. A certain amount of photography is made with its ultimate intention being to be seen in a magazine or online, but most photography, historically, ended up in its final form as a print – a cyanotype, or a tin type or a daguerreotype or whatever it might be.
What would you say a photograph needs to have to stick out?
There’s very little photography that sticks out to me. I’m exhausted and bored and really not interested in much photography at all, never have been. I think when you look through any collection, you’re often struck by the kind of pointlessness and banality of photography. It doesn’t matter which museum in the world you look at. It’s like, “is there any need for this thing to exist at all?”. It probably comes back to the capacity of the object, the image to suggest things, the suggestive potential rather than the prescriptive, which is a given in photography of course, the evidential authority of the medium preceding any individual reading we have of particular pictures. Maybe it’s the fact that the photographs have the ability to suggest some other thing and that’s what draws you in – that’s that feeling, the thing that slips away from thought. These are really the same things that apply to our meetings with any work of art, whether it’s a piece of music or a sculpture or anything else. There’s something compelling, there’s something there that sort of animates your speculative capacity, causes you to wonder. Other times, or most of the time, that’s not the case. Certainly most of the time that’s not the case with photography.
In the past, you’ve said that images need to “transcend the medium”, allowing the medium to “disappear into the greater experience of viewing the work”. Does this concern appear in the exhibition?
That was one of the things that interested me and continues to interest me about photography: how these things inhabit the world as objects. And indeed we read them not just with our eyes but with how our whole bodies read and encounter and negotiate these objects, which happen to be photographs. And that’s very much a thing that interests me in the way that I work. I feel sometimes that I only happen to make photographs myself and that it’s a means to an end. And although I’m completely absorbed and in love with the medium – and dependent on it – I feel that if I thought that I could draw closer to these things in my imagination that I don’t really understand fully using clay or wood or some other kind of medium, high tech or low, to articulate these things, then I’d move to that. So there’s a sense in which I’m interested in these objects that happen to be photographs and the way that they inhabit the same space that our bodies inhabit. Everything comes to you through your whole body, not just through your eyes and ears – it’s a vast amount of information. Watching something get bigger as you draw closer to it, not just matters of proximity, but texture or the way objects sit in a space when they’re lit a certain way – all of this is very interesting to me, always has been.
Watch a video of Bill Henson discussing works in the exhibition here.
John EATON, [born United Kingdom 1881; arrived Australia 1889; died 1967], Sheep in clearing, c. 1920s, gelatin silver print, 15.6 x 23.8 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated by Janice Hinderaker through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program 2003.
Cherine FAHD, [born Australia 1974], Alicia, 2003, from the series A woman runs, gelatin silver print, 50.0 x 60.0 cm. Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
Mark HINDERAKER, [born United States of America 1946; arrived Australia 1970; died 2004] Fiona Hall, 1984, gelatin silver print, 14.5 x 10.0 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated by Janice Hinderaker through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program 2003. Courtesy of the artist.
Tim JOHNSON, [born Australia 1947], Light performances 2–4, 1971–72, three gelatin silver prints, 20.5 x 25.5 cm (each), Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, acquired 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
Fred KRUGER, [born Germany 1831; arrived Australia 1860; died 1888] Queen Mary and King Billy outside their mia mia c. 1880, albumen print, 13.4 x 20.8 cm. Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, acquired 2012.
David MOORE, [Australia 1927–2003], Himalaya at dusk, Sydney, 1950, gelatin silver print, printed 2005, 24.5 x 34.25 cm. Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated by the Estate of David Moore 2006. Courtesy of the Estate of David Moore (Sydney).
Axel POIGNANT, [born United Kingdom 1906; arrived Australia 1926; died 1986] Jack and his family on the Canning Stock Route, 1942, gelatin silver print, printed 1986, 22.7 x 33.6 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, acquired 1991.
Leonie REISBERG, [born Australia 1955] Portrait of Peggy Silinski, Tasmania c. 1976, gelatin silver print, 14.0 x 20.0 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated by Janice Hinderaker through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program 2003, courtesy of the artist.
Wesley STACEY, [born Australia 1941], Untitled 1973, from the series Friends, gelatin silver print, 17.5 x 17.8 cm. Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated by Bill Bowness 2013, courtesy of the artist.
Mark STRIZIC, [born Germany; arrived Australia 1928; died 2012], Pride of possession – 2, 1971 1971, gelatin silver print, 33.7 x 22.8 cm. Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, donated by the Bowness Family through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program 2008. Courtesy of Sue Strizic.
Unknown, Untitled c. 1900, cyanotype print, 7.5 x 10.0 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection, acquired 2012.
Beverley VEASEY [born Australia 1968] Study of a Calf, Bos taurus, 2006, chromogenic print, 88.6 x 63.8 cm, Monash Gallery of Art, City of Monash Collection acquired 2006. Courtesy of the artist.