Some thoughts on art and the public arena


I’d like to share a few thoughts and observations that revolve around what I think of as the last frontier, that is, where the individual consciousness and the body ends and the rest of the world begins. What is essential to the way in which we relate to our society, particularly to the arts, whether in the institution or in the privacy of our own homes, reading books or listening to music?

Rapture. Is it becoming increasingly difficult for museums to give people the one thing they want more than anything else? The fashion industry and the car industry and, of course, the advertising industry understand this perfectly, and I’ll even go so far as to upset the modernists and postmodernists by suggesting the entertainment industry (of which the art museum need not necessarily be a part) also understands it perfectly well. Indeed did not the arts, particularly the visual arts, shoot themselves in the foot when they decided, in an effort to be taken more seriously, to call themselves an industry? I’ve always wondered about this because as a consequence they find themselves increasingly assessed as one. And of course, once alongside other industries the never-ending drive for numbers begins. How could this not lead to the problem of extremes of non-commercial, non-business and unpopular programs and projects being labelled indulgent, pretentious or, even worse, out of touch with the real world? So with these observations in mind, what should museums do? In what way should they find a more direct line into each of our lives? And just how might artists collaborate and work with these institutions?

I’d like to consider the way in which artists and museums work together and how important it is for museums to be truly radical. Being radical can sometimes mean doing less than expected. I sometimes worry about the push toward entertainment that occurs in the arts industry, and the idea that you have to be constantly appealing in new and novel ways to attract the general public or to attract funding. Young people in particular are so media savvy, so awash with images, so immersed in a sea of electronic stimulus that institutions may well have a role in saying ‘slow down’, even ‘stop’, thus creating a space for genuine contemplation.

Objects play a very important part in this process because they require stillness and silence. True contemplation is only possible with stillness and silence. Just slowing people down is a tremendous gift. Suddenly your own personal space opens up, you have a space in which to daydream and there’s not this constant cacophony filling every small recess of your mind. This stillness and silence, and the quiet spaces in museums and galleries such as the National Gallery of Victoria were one of the greatest gifts I received as a kid. Creating a space in which personal reflection is possible and not doing what the entertainment industry does may well be the most radical thing that today’s art museums can do.

For me the value of places like the NGV comes from something that is almost the opposite: the time, the stillness and the space. How does a museum or institution preserve a meditative environment without appearing to lose touch when everyone is conditioned to expect the next thing, the next version, the next movie, the next book, the next bestseller, the next everything else?

I think that objects emit a certain force. Fragments of ancient Greek sculpture and their Roman copies, for example, always strike me as though they contain secrets. I don’t think you have haunting revelations like this as a child unless you’ve been given the space and the quietness in which to look at these things. Just providing that opportunity in a commercial, globalised, economic world is possibly one of the most radical things that can happen in a public space.

I’ve always thought that the NGV and other museums I have been fortunate enough to visit over the years were like a tremendous gift. I can remember arriving in Vienna in the 1970s and going to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and quietly walking along creaking parquetry floorboards and coming across Titian’s Shepherd and nymph. I spent about a week looking at it. I was able to sit on a couch for days on end in front of this incredible picture at no expense. To stare at the paint and to be absolutely flabbergasted that, after a week, I still couldn’t actually describe the colour in the flesh: it was just light. To walk into the Accademia in Venice and stand in front of that insane Pietà of Titian’s, to see the painting move and squirm and to come to terms with how it feels as though it has just entered the physical world – this trajectory from the world of the imagination into the physical world – and to know that great art is epiphanic; that’s part of the electrification of the experience and also part of the sense of incredulity or amazement that comes with being in the presence of these things.

Strong experiences like that start when we’re young but they continue, if we’re lucky, throughout our lives. Creating spaces that are mindful of and sensitive to the way we respond to art with our whole bodies is critically important and, of course, a lot of this is common sense. You become more conscious of yourself in a quiet space.

Experiencing art with your whole body, the influence of acoustics, the humidity, the barometric pressure, the sense of gravity, all of these subtle things, all the information which is going into our bodies the whole time is there for a museum to use; to somehow beautifully subvert modern life at one level. These things are essential when I think about the way in which young people learn, the way they experience life and the way they take in information, and we don’t really change as we get older. In an age of rapidly advancing technology, more attention to the simple business of breathing and standing in spaces and to becoming more sensitive to the way in which our bodies negotiate objects is one of the most radical things that contemporary art exhibitions can bring with them.

In my case, I always like to play with lighting. People look at the dimness in some of my exhibitions and wonder if it’s happy or sad, good or bad, but for me it’s just really interesting. Every time you turn the lights down in a room, people slow down – they walk more slowly, they speak more quietly, they automatically open themselves up to a more sensitive response to the environment in which they find themselves. That’s just one small way in which the museum can bring people out of this constant roller-coaster ride of distraction, a kind of fuzz, a muzak that goes on constantly. Our need for this drone in the background can almost become a habit. I think it’s quite radical to be able to turn off the background noise of culture, to turn off the endless conversation and to turn off constantly ‘being in touch’ on the mobile phone. Museums have an important, indeed a central, role to play in resetting our clocks. Like bulbs that need to be chilled for twelve weeks before they can come back to life, we need our clocks reset.

Museums have a great opportunity to realise some of these fundamental readjustments that we need from time to time. Underlying all of these observations and thoughts, what I’m really getting at is the importance of the priority of individual experience and the fact that institutions and individuals are actually not natural opposites to each other, but in fact work beautifully together when there is sensitivity and intelligence. If one is mindful of the way in which people live their lives, the most radical thing to do sometimes can be just to stop and think.

Bill Henson, artist

Note to the reader: This is an edited transcript of a longer speech made by Bill Henson at the Melbourne Town Hall in May 2011, presented by the City of Melbourne and the National Gallery of Victoria in celebration of the NGV’s 150th anniversary. To view the lecture in full, see The Monthly, ‘Random thoughts on art and the public arena’, SlowTV, <http://www.themonthly.com.au/random-thoughts-art-and-public-arena-bill-henson-3397>.