I do think that Egyptian art is the greatest thing that has happened so far.
These days, when most people lift their cameras, they find themselves taking pictures. A reasonable, innocent enough verb to describe the action, no? To Bill Henson—a life-long artist—there is a fundamental difference marked in this choice of words: Henson is sure to make his photographs, each and every one.
Spending 30 minutes with Henson will convince you powerfully of his understanding of art. He is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists, and his eyes dance with a real maker’s passion, his spirit seems to infect the air around him. This is a true artist, a creative soul in the flesh.
Centrally, Henson believes that our contemporary moment gives pride of place to vision (and vision alone). We stare at our screens and look at the world through endless mediations. Even in the art world, this habit is having a dangerous effect: great care is ensured to make art that looks great in reproduction—whether on the internet or in a magazine or in a catalogue—but at the expense of the thing itself. More and more, we discover a new artist via a mediated experience, but when we make the effort to see their original work, it lacks an essential staying power.
For Henson, the act of creation begins (and ends) with the thing itself. After all, it is things—objects—that have the power to trigger our deepest emotions. And for Henson, it is through the process of making something that he can begin to understand what he wants to communicate. Ultimately, Henson uses photography to produce his objects, but this is almost incidental. More deeply, he works (and responds) with his entire body to produce beautiful objects that others can respond to in turn.
Henson draws this philosophy from many sources. For example, Henson spoke fervently of visiting a simple arrowhead, well over 400,000 years old, at the British Museum: the arrowhead—without an artist’s statement or a curatorial slant or a numbered edition—continued to convey a great force so long after it was first made. In Henson’s words, “Objects derive their power from two things: stillness and silence. When we are really apprehending the world around us, our whole body reacts. True art must be contemplated and felt, not just glanced at and walked past.”
Other artistic references help deepen Henson’s position. The great painter Francis Bacon once said that it was the Egyptians who really made things, they were true “artisans.” And, of course, thousands of years later, their artisanal productions continue to fill us with a sense of wonder.
Or take the work of Cy Twombly. His deceptively simple paintings rest on the thin line between nothing and everything. Either they contain the whole history of Western civilization—or they are nothing but some amusing scribbles on a canvas. But the next time you can, try to spend some real time with a Twombly painting. Smell, feel, taste, sense the thing in front of you. Be with it. Try to find a gap in the curtain and step inside. There is something there if you can find your own way into it.
A similarly rich source of inspiration for Henson is music. The artist can often remember exactly what kind (or, even, what piece) of music he listened to when he made a particular object. Perhaps a single Mozart requiem was needed—for six straight months. Indeed, it must be specific music, at specific times; not mere background noise. The right composition can serve as a mantra, pushing Henson onward in his efforts to understand the thing that is unfolding into being before him.
Still, Henson is careful not to credit any single artistic source as the direct inspiration for his works. Yes, he loves painters and artists and sculptors and Mozart—but a viewer would be wasting her time searching for a one-to-one correspondence. As Henson said, “What about a walk along the river? Can’t that be as valuable as listening to Mozart?”
Indeed, the act of creation is more mysterious, more like an alluring scent than a definable process. Like a half-forgotten smell, creation comes on slowly, but once it has piqued his senses, it evokes something profound, something he doesn’t fully understand. Only by beginning the process of making something can he begin to respond and make some sense of his half-apprehended discovery.
With this willingness for ambiguity comes an acknowledgement that final objects will always be imperfect. Mark Rothko, another of Henson’s reference points, once said his feelings and thoughts could not actually be conveyed through his paintings…but that painting was the best means he had. So that’s what he made.
Similarly, Henson’s works offer no definitive answers. But if we make (not take) the time to respond to what he has made—if we listen to our bellies and our hearts as well as our minds—we can reach a deeper place of understanding with respect to his (and to anyone’s) artistic creations.
If this seems daunting, just look at Henson. Today, after decades of ceaseless artistic output, Henson is not slowing down. Even after all these years, the artist finds that the work continues to make itself—“I’m only along for the ride.”