MELBOURNE, Australia — Earlier this week, fifteen months after police raided and destroyed artist Paul Yore’s installation “Everything is Fucked” (2013), magistrate Amanda Chambers dismissed all charges against the artist and ordered the police to pay the costs of shutting down his exhibition. Chambers was particularly critical of the St. Kilda, New South Wales police’s handling of a search warrant, where they excised parts of Yore’s collage installation with a box cutter.
On Saturday May 18, 2013, the exhibition Like Mike opened at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts in Melbourne, Australia. It paid homage to the Australian artist Mike Brown, who was convicted of obscenity in 1966 and sentenced to three months hard labour, reduced on appeal to a $20 fine.
Adrian Jackson, an ex-Australian Army bed-and-breakfast manager whose hobbies include regularly attending city council meetings, running unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in local council elections, and writing complaint letters, claims to have been at the opening. But Jackson was not there to look at the art; he was looking for something to help his case for ending the local council’s $246,700 per annum funding of the Linden Centre.
On Tuesday the 28th, at a local city council meeting, Chris Spillane, another unsuccessful conservative local council candidate who objects to expenditures on what he sees as socialism and multiculturalism complained about the exhibition. Adrian Jackson was, as usual, at the council meeting.
In the unresolved wake of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 breakfast television attack on Bill Henson’s photographs, an accusation of “child pornography” was all that was needed to get the police to raid the Linden Centre.
On June 1st, St. Kilda officers cut seven pieces out of Paul Yore’s installation with a box cutter, effectively censoring the exhibition and creating their own collage of evidence. The Linden Centre closed for ten days in the wake of the police raid. On June 3rd, Paul Yore was interviewed by police but made no comment.
Two weeks later, Linden Centre announced in a news release that the Australian Classification Board (ACB) had classified Paul Yore’s installation “Classification 1 – Restricted.” This means that the work is considered to contain adult content and should be only be shown to those 18 years and over. (The Herald Sun described the work as “includ[ing] a collage with children’s faces superimposed on images of male bodies performing sex acts, and a cardboard cut-out of a child with Justin Bieber’s head stuck on urinating from a dildo into a sink.”)
At this point the case should have been abandoned as classified by ACB, as even having the article submitted for classification is an absolute defense against the production or possession of child pornography. If the ACB classifies something as restricted to those 18 years and over then it cannot be child pornography.
During the trial, Melinda Martin, gallery director for the Linden Centre, was asked if the police had asked her about the ACB classification. “No,” she replied. Did the police ask to see the documentation submitted to the ACB? “No.”
The New South Wales Police returned Bill Henson’s photographs — without pressing any charges — only two months after they raided his exhibition in 2008. However, on September 7, Paul Yore was charged with the production and possession of child pornography, which carries sentence of up to ten years.
Next there was a mess of court dates that went on for over a year. On November 25, the mention hearing adjourned, on January 10, 2014 the mention hearing continued, and on February 14 a contest mention hearing. Defense barrister Neil Clelland QC, in arguing for costs to be paid by the police, noted that aside from the execution of the search warrant, it was an ill-conceived prosecution that rushed to charges and ignored fundamental issues.
The case was finally heard on September 18 and 19, 2014. But it never had a chance of succeeding: not since the days of Mike Brown’s conviction of obscenity over 50 years ago have Australian police successfully prosecuted an artist over such charges. These repeated failures have not, however, stopped the police from trying.
Gallery director Geoff Newton, who represents Paul Yore’s art, had assembled what he called “an all star team” of art expert of witnesses. These expert witnesses, or “witnesses with specialist knowledge” in the current legal speak, were: Jason Smith, director of the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Antonia Syme, the director of the Australian Tapestry Workshop, and Max Delany, senior curator at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
Throughout this time Yore has continued to exhibit; he is currently showing in Primavera 2014: Young Australian Artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney.
People talk about the limits of free speech — the classic scenario of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded cinema — but these examples rarely include trying to start a witch hunt. Informing the police that an artist is exhibiting “child pornography” in order to put pressure on the council to stop funding the gallery was a very costly exercise. It cost the taxpayers in days of court time, more in delays, and the expenses of the prosecution and defense. It cost an artist and the Linden Centre their reputations. And it cost Australian art and culture by instilling the continuing threat of persecution and the chill of self-censorship.