For over a decade, Polixeni Papapetrou has been engaged in an intimate photographic collaboration with her children and her children’s friends, and has gained international recognition for her ability to contemplate the childhood imagination. Her art is a contrapposto of drama and interiority. Its physical creation involves a diligent trawling of charity shops, garage sales, and eBay auctions in relentless search of the perfect costume, and long drives to magical places in nature in search of the perfect set.
Papapetrou left a degree in law to pursue art. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. This interview was conducted by email over several winter months.
The Wanderer #3
THE BELIEVER: Tell me about The Wanderer #3.
POLIXENI PAPAPETROU: In 2009, my family and I traveled to the high country in Victoria, Australia, to make a photograph of a human/animal figure as the symbolic wandering figure. This work is set in the mountains because the mountain landscape feels as heroic as the figure that I wanted to portray. My idea was that in this majestic setting, the human figure could transcend its material existence by reflecting upon a spiritual one. The initial idea of using the figure of the wanderer was inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). The archetype of the wanderer symbolizes the greatness of man in the face of the universe. But I didn’t want to create a symbolic picture of the heroic archetype, which the wanderer tends to be in art, but rather a “heroic other”—symbolizing individuality and a unique voice. The image is meant to be sympathetic. It isn’t meant to be some kind of postmodern pastiche. It’s not meant as a satire of the mysterious Romantic alpine archetype; it’s more about a theatrical person coming to a point in life and wondering about being itself. The landscape is sublime, and by placing a kind of comic figure on the high plateau, I’m thinking about an existential richness and void that people share, regardless of whether they’re heroic or pathetic or grotesque. It’s fascinating how our culture admires children when they express themselves, dress up, pretend, fantasize, and have the ability to become other. Yet at some point we begin to fear this difference, and it slowly threatens, so we rein it in. The wanderer speaks of this otherness and of our quest to remain an individual, to seek a point of difference in our own life that marks it as distinct from others in a global population of seven billion people.
BLVR: Tell me about your use of costume and props in your work.
PP: I use them to build an identity and create the character. In the “wanderer” pictures (there’s also a Wanderer #1 and a Wanderer #2), I used walking sticks and bags to portray a person on a journey. This bag belonged to a friend of twenty-five years, who recently died of cancer. I was invited to her house to choose some things that I wanted to remember her by. I had no idea that I would use the bag in my work, but it seemed like the perfect thing when I placed it beside the costume. The mask is a commercially available Halloween-style mask, which I adapted with wigs and makeup to create the character. The costume is a vintage theater dress. For years, I would go past a costume shop in Melbourne that stocked exquisite ex–opera and ex–theater costumes. I recently decided to investigate their stock, only to discover that the owners were closing down. I was able to buy some amazing costumes. By chance, during this period the owners saw some of my work in an exhibition and then contacted me, offering me more costumes because they wanted to see them live on in my work. Maybe this character reflects how I feel in the world: almost like a visitor, prepared with an itinerary, but drawn by somewhat-unnavigable pathways somewhere beyond the mountains. Of course, we have to live a life with politics and economies and ecologies in it. But existentially— which I think is the point of the image—I don’t come out of those urgent contingencies, but somewhere else. In trying to understand the external world, I create another world within it, which is a reflection of my internal world as it operates in the real world. I often wish that I could be a documentary-style photographer and photograph the world as I encounter it, reflecting all the issues you might find in the daily press. I really admire the photographers who do this well, and create images full of topical meaning. But when I take these types of pictures, it is as if something is missing from the image, and my inner world and the external world are not aligned.
BLVR: How do you mean?
PP: The inner world is often suppressed because direct experience with the immediate world has precedence. Maybe if you’re given to socializing all the time, it even recedes and becomes marginal; but if you allow yourself time with yourself, it leaps from the background and is present in everything. “Inner world” is code to describe what we know intimately of ourselves but cannot account for. Maybe it isn’t built for communication, but only for talking to ourselves. Last week I was asked why childhood is the subject of my photography. A photograph is a powerful memory. It allows us to know and remember our past. As a society, we can measure ourselves by our advances in science and technology—that is the intellect aspect of the society—but how do we measure the soul of a society? I feel that the child carries the soul of the culture. As adults we have either chased away or lost this soul in our day-to-day existence, and we go looking for it in the child, who we consider more innocent and pure than we are. So the child has come to stand for everything that we value about our lives.
BLVR: You mentioned once that clowns fascinate you, but that they’re also creepy?
PP: The fear of clowns is the third most common phobia in Britain, after spiders and needles. The clowns that we’re familiar with are solitary figures who are not part of a family, and may belong to a group of like-minded outsiders. In contemporary consciousness, the clown is often portrayed as scary or evil, and people are going to be suspicious of these nonconformist loner types. Yet historically the clown or fool or minstrel performed a socio-religious and psychological role. The roles of priest and clown were often held by the same person. This may be why the painted face or the mask became an important feature of the clown/priest/ shaman. On a symbolic level, the masked human is no one in particular and, strangely, speaks for us all. There is a scene in the Charlie Chaplin film The Circus in which Chaplin walks into a circus and becomes a clown by default. He’s not a trained clown, but he has the ability to excite the audience and make them laugh because he is so incompetent; he stumbles, he falls, and the audiences laughs at his failure. This is a picture of pathos, and perhaps the clown symbolizes a mood that we find unsettling; the public staging of incompetence or even unhappiness makes it a real and immediate experience for us. This is the part of the clown’s persona I want to tap into. I see the clown as an endearing figure who portrays the bittersweet experience of life. The final scene, of Chaplin sitting alone on a box in the center where the ring was, his feelings laid bare, is a touching moment for me.
BLVR: Do you hope that your art has a shamanic function?
PP: This is such a big question. Contemporary theory disowns that kind of language, but I am not so dismissive, and I sympathize with your question. The motif of communicating with the spiritual world—or acting as an intermediary between the material world and a world of ideas—is shared by art and shamanism at some level. Before you asked this question, I’d never thought about my art having that type of function, but I certainly want the pictures to resonate with ideas that lurk in the psyche from century to century.
BLVR: Why is it that you champion otherness and people unbound by convention?
PP: One reading of globalization is to see it as a world project to eliminate difference. The wayward language of the old, the awkwardness of youth, the eccentricity of parsimonious people, the conventions of other ethnicities… these things are seen as backward and embarrassing. They don’t fit the globalized template of advertising and consumerism. Celebrating individuality is a kind of resistance to this relentless pressure toward conformity and middle-class values. It’s for artists and poets—who are in any case different in so many ways—to reinvent the dignity of the individual.