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Banning Ken Park, however tiresome, reveals Australia's spiritual bigotry

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Tuesday, 22 July 2003

In what is becoming an increasingly dangerous pattern in this country, the Australian Film Classification Board has prohibited cinemas from screening artist Larry Clarke's Ken Park. Although accepted for release in the United Kingdom, Austria, Spain and Greece, Australian censors want Ken Park's two-minute masturbation scene removed or the show cannot go on. Fortunately, Clarke won't agree to having his work tampered with and why should he?

Many who remember Clarke's darkly tuned Kids, won't necessarily rush out for more of his merciless insights into the sexual rituals of bored junked-up urban teens. Regardless, it is a sad day from Australian culture when the artistic vision of directors like Larry Clarke is prohibited from our experience.

Clarke has been challenging audiences' moral comfort zones for the past 25 years of directing unsparingly rendered feature films and documentaries as well as publishing controversial collections of photography of young drug addicts, sexual misfits and marginalised low incomers. His disillusioned portrayals of the edges of American society are graphic and achingly poignant. Indeed Clarke's relentless visual "romance of the vein" can at times be a little too much for this critic.


But when visiting New York in mid June, I couldn't miss Clarke's exhibition Punk Picasso before it closed. In spite of America's well known puritanism, the leading international contemporary art gallery Luring Augustine was layered in the artist's black and white photographs, family snapshots and newspaper clippings of his personal journey from teen life as a dispossessed Tulsa speed freak, to successful Hollywood film maker. Punk Picasso includes risque casting notes and photographic outtakes from Ken Park and Kids and more of Clarke's slightly overburdened expose of his own eroticised narcissism. He loves hanging out with urban teenagers because their sexual games and narco-fuelled realities transpire into the type of languid narratives that fire his imagination. Yet when images of Clarke's own teenage kids appear in Punk Picasso the drama of his highly rationalised permanent mid-life crisis seemed to fall a little flat.

But as Clarke has stated in numerous interviews, this is all part of an artistic vision that like the best documentaries, must be felt to be real. His on-screen excitement in anticipating the return of his girlfriend, Ken Park star Tiffany Limos, plays on a video monitor in the show and several times while viewing Punk Picasso, I realised with a slight shudder that Clarke's perceptions of the boundaries between public and private will always be different to mine.

Should we care about a junky son who includes shots of his elderly bed-ridden mother in his exhibition? Is her documented role in his narrative pathologies designed to provoke something else in our acceptance of him? I think it's needy and a bit too damned obvious when artists insist their parents are part of the picture, although there will always be some exquisitely fortunate exceptions. And Clarke's automated diatribe of such unfocused blurts in his emotional landscape are in the genre of late-night teen confessionals so we shouldn't be surprised at how mawkish his emphasis can be.

As Artforum magazine's Domenick Ammirati has remarked, "Clarke has always wanted to freeze time - consider his fixation on the awful but glorious moment of adolescence; the illusory time-stoppings of drugs and sex; the choice of the photographic medium itself - and the documentation of so many fugitive moments only sharpens the hopelessness of such a drive".

Indeed Clarke is a self-confessed pervert actively challenging many of Western society's shockingly hypocritical ideals about sexual freedom. And if even if this self-indulgent artist pulled his pants down and paraded his shrivelled privates in front of his own camera, I'd be duty bound to support him, no matter how boring, repetitious and emotionally self-aggrandising I may find his work critically. As others more versed and eloquent than I will remind us in weeks to come, censorship of his Ken Park drags Australia's spiritual heart and intellectual mind into bigoted darkness.

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The Hobart Mercury's Sunday Tasmanian.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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