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It was on Thursday 20th September 2007 that a "concerned member of staff" at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead called in the police in order for them to provide the benefit of their professional expertise in respect of item they intended to display in a forthcoming exhibition. However it wasn't until late on Monday, 24th September that the matter came to the attention of the media, and prompted an official statement from Northumbria Police which explained that, "We attended the Baltic last Thursday at the invitation of management, who were seeking advice about an item from an exhibition prior to it going on public display. This item is being assessed and Northumbria Police in consultation with the CPS is investigating the circumstances surrounding it."

What appeared to be the case was that someone at the Baltic Centre was concerned that an item in their possession may have been in breach of the Protection of Children Act 1978 which, amongst other things, made it an offence to take, or permit to be taken or to make, any indecent photograph of a child, and also to distribute or show such indecent photographs or indeed to be in possession of said indecent photographs. At the time neither the Baltic Centre nor the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) were prepared to give any further details regarding the item being "assessed", and indeed the media was initially rather coy about the whole affair, with reports simply noting that the gallery had five exhibitions which had opened to the public on the Friday.

However anyone who ventured to the Baltic Centre website and perused the details of the five exhibitions concerned would have soon reduced the list of suspects to one, by noting that the Baltic Centre was advertising the opening of the 'Thanksgiving' installation, featuring work by the American photographer Nan Goldin which was scheduled to run from the 21st September 2007 until the 6th January 2008.

According to the Baltic Centre "Thanksgiving is a micro-retrospective installation of photographs documenting the artist’s life from 1973 to 1999. The installation immerses us in Goldin’s world, recording friends and lovers and her own intimate history". Even those unfamiliar with Goldin's work would have noted the reference to "intimate history" and drawn the appropriate conclusion. It certainly it did not take journalists at the Daily Telegraph very long to identify the culprit and by lunchtime on the 25th September had placed the story 'Seized 'art porn' owned by Sir Elton John' on their website; very naturally seizing on the newsworthy fact that the 'Thanksgiving' installation in question was indeed part of the Sir Elton John Photography Collection, who had loaned it to the Baltic Centre for the exhibition.

According to the Telegraph the offending photograph "featured two young girls one of whom was sitting down with her legs wide apart" but provided no further details. It later emerged that the photograph was a work entitled 'Klara and Edda belly-dancing' which, according to a report in The Times, "shows two young girls playing together in front of a kitchen sink. One is skimpily dressed, the other is naked and lies beneath her, knees bent and legs splayed towards the camera".

The Telegraph also reported that an exhibition of Goldin's work at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2001 had similarly attracted the attention of the police for featuring a photograph of "a very young naked girl looking up between the open legs of a semi-clothed older child". The apparent similarities between the descriptions of the two photographs became apparent when the Saatchi Gallery later confirmed to The Independent that the picture then being examined was indeed the same one as had been seized from their gallery in 2001. Back in 2001 Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Unit hauled the same photograph out of the "I Am a Camera" exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, only for the Crown Prosecution Service to rule that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, much to the apparent annoyance of the police concerned.

Elton John, who was described both as "an admirer" of Goldin’s work and also a "close friend", was initially said to be "not available for comment" whilst a spokesman referred inquiries to the Baltic Centre. However he later placed a statement on his website in which he claimed to be one of the "world's foremost collectors of photographic art" and simply noted that he had purchased the 'Thanksgiving' installation in 1999 from the White Cube Gallery in London. The statement further noted that;

The photograph exists as part of the installation as a whole and has been widely published and exhibited throughout the world. It can be found in the monograph of Ms Goldin's works entitled The Devil's Playground (Phaidon, 2003), has been offered for sale at Sotheby's New York in 2002 and 2004, and has previously been exhibited in Houston, London, Madrid, New York, Portugal, Warsaw and Zurich without any objections of which we are aware.

The point being that merely depicting the genitalia of a minor is not in itself 'indecent' (otherwise many parents would presumably face certain prosecution for photographing their children frolicking naked in the back garden); context is everything. In the circumstances it appears highly improbable that the Crown Prosecution Service (Northumbrian division) will come to a different conclusion from the Crown Prosecution Service (London division), and Mr John is therefore unlikely to be prosecuted under the provisions of the Protection of Children Act.


As it happened Mr John wasn't happy with the way that the Baltic Centre had dealt with the matter and asked for the rest of his pictures back with the result that the exhibition closed on the 1st October. Eventually some three weeks later the CPS Northumbria South Unit came to a decision. Having noted that the photograph in question had been deemed not to be indecent in 2001, the CPS were obliged to consider whether "standards of propriety" had changed since that time. As subsequently announced by Kerrie Bell, the head of the CPS in Northumbria South on the 26th October, it had been decided that the remained in the 'not indecent' category. He also offered the opinion that even if the photograph had was now been considered to be indecent, that there was a perfectly legitimate defence to any charge, namely that the photograph had been "distributed for the purposes of display in a contemporary art gallery after having been deemed not to be indecent by the earlier investigation".


SOURCES

  • Art exhibit in child porn probe, BBC News 24 September 2007 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/7011230.stm
  • Child porn probe over art exhibit, BBC News 25 September 2007 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/7011825.stm
  • Sophie Borland and Nigel Reynolds, Seized 'art porn' owned by Sir Elton John, Daily Telegraph 25/09/2007
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/09/25/nbaltic125.xml
  • Ben Hoyle, Sir Elton John owns photo seized from exhibition by child porn police, Times Online September 27, 2007
    entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article2537080.ece
  • Andrew Johnson, The strange case of Sir Elton's 'obscene' photo (first time around), The Independent 30 September 2007
    http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/this_britain/article3013048.ece
  • Press Release: Photographic Exhibition, The Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art, Newcastle, England. September 25, 2007
    http://web.eltonjohn.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070925&contentid=12923
  • Baltic porn probe photos removed 1 October 2007
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/7023055.stm
  • Seized Elton artwork not indecent Friday, 26 October 2007
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/7063564.stm

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