Bill Henson talks about Oneiroi, his photographic exhibition featuring pieces from The Benaki Museum in Athens on loan to Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum.
The original conception of the idea happened a year or more ago and I allowed it to grow. I kept thinking about the pieces in the Benaki Collection and I was draw to the more intimately scaled objects, particularly the gold jewellery and the pieces from Ancient Greece. The idea is very simple, as they often are. Realising isn’t always simple but I just thought why don’t we put them back where they were originally designed to be on the human body. A very simple idea. Then there’s the whole thing about how you use a living person but keep them at a bit of a distance so that they are a bit of an armature for the jewellery, so it doesn’t turn into a fashion shoot for a jewellery house. You want to keep the intimacy and the tenderness of the living form with these ancient pieces of jewellery so that the jewellery could seem to be almost on a statue. The next part of the project was about finding the right sort of model. That didn’t take too long. And then working out how to navigate that model so they were there but they were aloof or distant, rather than having the sense of the person as an individual.
That really ties in with what I do anyway. I’m interested in handling the intimacy and the tender proximity of the human form and the closeness of that but at the same time having this unbridgeable gap, this unknowable thing happening. You retain intimacy but you don’t have anything anywhere near familiarity. And that’s a very important distinction for me. This was another chance to investigate that, which was interesting for me.
Apart from having the luxury to control and create the environment, in terms of light and colour, there was also another experiment I decided to conduct on the Hellenic Museum and myself and that was to frame the works quite differently. The great challenge in anything in contemporary art is that when you introduce something a little different, is that it doesn’t collapse into novelty. The great problem is when people try things that are obviously very different from what they normally do in terms of the physical construction of the work or the way it’s framed or packaged or any of that is that it can tip over into novelty. In other words, the form that you choose still has to be balanced perfectly with the content. That was the other experiment I was interested in trying out for better or worse and I’m pleased with the way that has turned out. The frames are unique in terms of my activity.
There is such a twilight beauty to this collection of photos. There are two landscapes at either end of the room which bookend the exhibition and even they seem otherworldly.
A bit of a dreamscape. Well, they are all to some extent meant to be archetypal. It’s a picture of a particular mountain on a particular day but it should suggest more generalised notions that we get from the Alps and Olympus. The same with the sea, the importance of the sea; when you read Pindar’s Odes, there is the whole connection to the elements, the culture being inside nature. I felt that just having the jewellery on the model was too sealed, too hermetic and I wanted to open that out a bit and let some air in. That’s where the landscapes came from.
Do you have a story in mind when you prepare for an exhibition?
I don’t. I tend not to think in terms of linear narrative progression. I tend to think in terms of objects. The most important thing for me is the power of the object and the way the object makes you feel something. Because if you feel something, then you go off on whatever tangent you are able to and then reflect on that. I deliberately enjoy the ambiguity of not having a narrative. I like the idea that it should mean different things to different people.
We’re all conditioned to see a photograph as proof of something specific, objects in space, events in time. There’s the proof. So we come to every photograph preconditioned to see certain information and I’m very interested in the idea that you can hang onto that power, the power of evidential authority and at the same time suggest or universalise the subject and turn it into a kind of a suggestive instead of a merely prescriptive experience which is how we normally approach photography. So I’m very much more interested in creating a kind of wonder or causing people to ask questions,” what is this place, what does this mean?” That’s more interesting to me. The best experience is going away with more questions than you came with.