A week ago, Art Gallery of South Australia director Nick Mitzevich was excitedly revealing photographer Bill Henson (pictured) as one of the artists exhibiting at the gallery’s 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. Yesterday, after several days of controversy and escalating moral panic, he announced Henson had withdrawn from the exhibition.

Asked by InDaily for further comment, the gallery director and biennial curator simply released a statement from Henson’s spokesperson: “I believe it is in the best interests of all if I withdraw from participation in the 2014 Adelaide Biennial.”

Mitzevich was much less reserved at last Wednesday’s Adelaide media preview of the biennial, where he named 25 participating artists who he said would seek to explore the “underbelly” of contemporary culture. “Bill Henson, in his newest body of work that has yet to be shown, will have his first public exhibition within an art museum since the 2008 controversy surfaced in the media about his work, and Bill Henson will tap into the dark side of art-making,” he said at the time.

The furore erupted on the weekend with a news story and editorial referring to the police seizure six years ago of Henson’s photos at a Sydney gallery, and urging the Art Gallery of SA “not to host images that s-xualised children”. The row escalated with debate on the airwaves and culminated in revelations yesterday that a police detective had urged Premier Jay Weatherill to intervene to stop the Henson exhibition.

It’s important to remember two key things here: firstly, Henson photographs a wide range of subjects, not just adolescents. And secondly, none of those crying “exploitation” actually knew what work he would be showing at the biennial. Gallery chairman Michael Abbott has now said that, in fact, none of the works were of children. “The recent works of Bill Henson that we were considering … were landscapes and doorways, though such a banal description does not do justice to their artistic merit,” he told 891 ABC yesterday.

But it’s all too late: the moral horse had bolted.

Facts, details and measured responses are rarely prioritised when hysteria takes hold. No doubt many art lovers and advocates will be disappointed by the latest turn of events; Samstag Museum director Erica Green, who describes Henson as Australia’s most esteemed photographer, has strongly criticised the “public vilification” of the artist. Many more South Australians are likely unmoved either way, but anyone with an interest in art and culture should get very nervous when uninformed panic threatens freedom of artistic expression.

The detective’s letter to Weatherill reportedly said Henson was “unusually popular” among a number of paedophiles he had dealt with — but one suspects that if the police, moral campaigners and tabloids had not created such a controversy around the artist, most paedophiles would not even know who he was.

In the online world, there are surely — and sadly — far more accessible and graphic images of pre-pubescent children and teenagers than any dark black-and-white artistic portraits that might be found in a public gallery.

Oddly, despite its concerns about potential child “exploitation” and an editorial article’s claim there is something “deeply suss about Henson’s preoccupations”, News Corp’s Adelaide newspapers have still chosen to run cropped images of Henson’s photos of young girls alongside online articles.

In another example of the absurdity of the controversy, gallery director Mitzevich was urged to put a restriction or age limit on sections of the exhibition. Is the suggestion that most paedophiles are actually aged under 18? And should an age restriction be extended to all nude works in the gallery?

Asked on air this morning about who got to view works by Henson within the Art Gallery of SA’s collection, which are not currently on display, Michael Abbott was understandably flummoxed. He seemed equally taken aback by the whole controversy, saying: “This is just a beat-up that has no basis.”

Indeed.

With Henson currently in London, where his works are among those on display at the Australian art exhibition at the London Royal Academy of the Arts, the whole debacle seems rather embarrassing. No doubt Adelaide’s loss will be another gallery’s gain.

Back at last week’s 2014 Adelaide Biennial of Australian art preview, Mitzevich told the assembled journalists that the gallery was interested in people with big ideas — ideas that weren’t necessarily limited by convention. Of the biennial, he said: “The notion of Dark Heart — probing the personal, the political and the psychological — is an important element to telling the story of Australian culture.”

The exhibition appears to have already gone some way to doing just that.

*This article was originally published at InDaily

Peter Fray

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