Police seize 'child porn' art from Sydney gallery

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The Independent Online

Is it art or pornography to exhibit photographs of naked 12- and 13- year-old girls? That perennial debate was reignited in Australia yesterday, where police swooped on a Sydney gallery displaying works by the internationally renowned artist Bill Henson.

Police confiscated 20 of the 41 images in the exhibition, hours before it was due to open on Thursday night. Well-heeled art lovers and critics arrived at the Roslyn Oxley9 gallery in the fashionable suburb of Paddington to find a police car outside and a sign saying the opening had been cancelled.

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, condemned the photographs as "absolutely revolting", and New South Wales police said they expected to lay charges.

But respected figures in the art world defended the moody photographs, with their dark backgrounds, claiming they were neither "sexualised" nor pornographic. Judy Annear, the senior photography curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, said: "They're beautiful. They're very, very still. They're very formal, they're very classical. They're a bit like looking at an Ancient Greek Attic vase."

Others noted that Henson – whose photographs are in the collections of all the major public galleries in Australia, as well as New York's Guggenheim Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris – has been producing similar work for decades.

However, police, who were alerted by local newspapers, said they had identified "items depicting a child under the age of 16 years of age in a sexual context". A 13-year-old girl, who has not been identified, is believed to be the subject of all the images seized.

The local police commander, Allan Sicard, said: "Police are investigating this matter, and it is likely that we will proceed to prosecution on the offence of publishing an indecent article under the Crimes Act."

It was not clear whether charges might be laid against Henson, or the gallery, or both.

The gallery owners agreed to suspend the exhibition, but plan to re- open it, minus the offending images. Police are also investigating Roslyn Oxley9's website, where the photographs were on display.

Hetty Johnston, a child protection campaigner, denounced the pictures. "It's child exploitation, it's criminal activity, and it should be prosecuted," she said. "These are clearly illegal child pornography images. It's not about art at all."

In media interviews before the exhibition, Henson said that he photographed adolescents because of their humanity and vulnerability. He added: "You can't control the way individuals respond to the work."

Mr Rudd's response was unequivocal. "Kids deserve to have the innocence of their childhood protected," he said. "Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff – frankly I don't think there are any – just allow kids to be kids."

Police plan to speak to the parents of the 13-year-old. Hugh Macken, the president of the New South Wales Law Society, said a prosecution would only be successful if it could be proved that the photographs were designed for sexual gratification, rather than artistic purposes.

The police action was denounced as censorship in some quarters.

Michael Reid, an art dealer, said: "The naked body, whatever age, has been a subject [for artists] for thousands of years. The question is, was there consent, which I can't answer. And has the image been sexualised? In my opinion, it wasn't."

John McDonald, the art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper, said: "To me, the big shame is that the only time that we start ... talking about art in the mainstream media is when it's banned, when it's supposedly pornographic."

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