EK Interview: Polixeni Papapetrou


Polixeni Papapetrou is a photographer whose work is surreal as it is intriguing. Walking the line between real and dream, her photography makes fantasy out of the world. Check out her interview:

Tell us about yourself, where are you from? How long have you been an artist?
I was born in Melbourne, Australia, to Greek immigrants. I have lived in Melbourne all my life. I love to visit places all over the world and admire them greatly, but I work best in Melbourne. I have trouble imagining living anywhere else, as the city and the rural character surrounding Melbourne inspire me so much.
I had a career as a lawyer before I turned to photography. I began taking photographs in the late 80s, but it was only in 2000 that I decided to work as an artist. The theme that I enjoy pursuing in my work is the relationship between history, contemporary culture, and identity. Intertwined with this is how dress-ups and performance can construct and portray identity. My subject matter has included Elvis Presley fans, Marilyn Monroe impersonators, circus performers, and body builders. For over a decade I have been exploring the portrayal of childhood in photography and have been engaged in an intimate photographic collaboration with my two children and their friends.


How did you build the suits for The Ghillies? How did you choose where to shoot? What inspired you to shoot Ghillie suits? Ghillie suits are traditionally used as camouflage for sniper, do you think viewers will associate this with your photos? How do you reconcile this association with your work?
My work seems to evolve out of family circumstances—maybe more than it arises out of art and certainly more than art theory—and observing and responding to where the children are at certain stages of their growing up. The Ghillies (2013) project began as a result of my son’s enthusiasm for computer games. At the time he was playing a game called Call of Duty where ghillie suits are worn by the snipers simulated online. He wanted to possess a ghillie suit and be photographed in it. When I photographed him in it, I noticed an uncanny transformation, as he was still there—my son—but not there: a bush or a rock that dissolved into the scenery.


The purpose of the Ghillie suit is to conceal the wearer in military action and war games. However, I wanted this work to take its point of departure from this use, interpreting the ghillie suit as a metaphor to talk about boys, adolescence, identity and how young males might reconcile their inner world with the social demands of the outer world as they navigate their teens. I try to tell stories about the condition of being a child in a way that foreshadows another reality by means of symbolism, sometimes focusing on representation from a historical perspective and at other times playing with roles and ideas that exist in contemporary culture. However, I did not want to conceal my son’s presence. He was always in harmony within the environment, both blending in, but also retaining a strong presence. Although he was partly submerged in nature, I also used his presence a symbol for his individuality where he could emerge as an individual in what I think is an increasingly conformist world.


As to building the the suits, in fact I bought ready made, but I adjusted them by adding more fibre to totally conceal his body. Like the costumes and masks that I use in my work, the locations that I select are both specific and abstract: they really exist as we go there to make the picture. Space is a medium, like time, to locate people in movement, in a journey, on an ontological quest. The choice of landscape has to suit the identity. The landscapes are chosen on the basis that we might imagine ourselves as that person in the picture being in that landscape, always far away and sometimes a bit transfigured in an atmospheric transport. I want to imagine these people’s personalities or the figures as timeless and even as people from a time and place that are not exactly ours.


You use your children as subjects, how does that change your attachment to your work? How does it affect your execution? When did you start using your children as subjects? What inspired you to?
I started photographing my daughter Olympia in 2002, taking pictures of her at play and also because of her wish to be photographed by me. Photographing my children and their friends was not something that I had planned for or had a long-term view about. The process evolved and some of the ideas arose organically from a spirit of play. But even before this I had photographed other children as the portrayal of the child in art history had interested me. But for sure, having children deepened the desire to make photographs about childhood. I try to comprehend the ambiguities around children—especially our understanding of them—and how they might negotiate the stage of art.


I attempt to portray the subjects not as my own children, but rather as representatives from a context within which we can think about the meaning of childhood in our culture. While my work takes the viewer into the realms of fantasy and story telling, it also challenges our expectations regarding the representation of childhood in photography. In more recent times I have suppressed the identity of the children so that I could speak about childhood in an abstract way. My children like actors take on various guises and characters and suppress their own identity. In Phantomwise (2002–3), Between Worlds (2009–12), The Dream Keepers (2012), The Ghillies (2013), Melancholia (2014) and Lost Psyche (2014) as the subjects are disguised and cannot be named. By concealing their identity, I can reveal the ideas in my work without prejudice and speak universally about the condition of childhood and its paradoxical ability to act the role of others. It also means that I am less attached and sentimental about the work because when I look back over the images I do not necessarily see the identity of my children as such, but rather the characters they act in the work.

Where did you get the masks in ‘Melancholia’ and ‘The Dreamkeepers’? How do you use props in your work to accentuate emotion and meaning? How do props differ, if at all from scenery in terms of influencing a viewer? Is one more intentional than the other? Do they attract the attention of the viewer in different ways?
I source my props, masks, costumes and objects in various ways such as from junk shops, online and when I have not been able to find the props that I need, I have made them. Recently, I sourced a collection of costumes once used by the Victorian State Opera that were de-accessioned. Much of my source material has come from the theatre world and this is suits the performative and staged nature of my work.


Some of the props are modified so that they can inhabit the photographs in different ways. For example a mask used to portray an adult can be altered to portray a child or to switch a gender from male to female. I enjoy the way that the mask allows the subject to cross boundaries from male to female, child to adult and human to animal. The masks used in the series Melancholia and The Dreamkeepers are the same mask, but were modified to suit the character. I also used wigs and make-up to transform the masks so that different emotions and meanings were evoked. But this is also dependent on the props used and the body language of the character.


I think that the props, (background, mask, clothing, objects) can be used to affect or influence the reading of the work. For example the props in the work, ‘The Lantern Keeper’, evoke a sense of vulnerability, the masked child sitting in an old fashioned pram in ‘The Lighthouse Keepers’ suggests eccentricity and the father with the camera in ‘The Holiday Makers’ tells us that the family is on an outing. The scenery plays an equally important role. It not only acts as a backdrop but it can also create a feeling of harmony. For example, in ‘The Dreamkeepers’, the challenge was to balance notions of the grotesque with the sublime. I could evoke the grotesque by using the mask and balance it in the context of awesome landscape and nature, allowing opposites to co-exist.


You mention in your CV that your works are fantastical, and discussion of the realm between the real and the imaginary. For most people, somewhere along the lines of our development, that line becomes finite. Why is that? Is that line still blurred for you? How do you maintain your sense of wonder?
I would describe the pictures as story telling, works that contain narratives about identity and how we create roles that sometimes take us to another world. I would say that I create spaces, creating a new reality from fiction and fantasy. I endeavor to have enough reality in my pictures to convince the audience that they are still in the real world, but some ambiguity to induce wonder and a touch of the otherworldly in my protagonists to invite fantasy in the spectator. I try to achieve a balance between fantasy and reality by relying on narrative which straddles both; and so too with mood or atmosphere, lighting, costumes and the acting by the subjects. Perhaps the pictures could be described as a still from theatre or a film. As I do not fully appreciate the influence of my unconscious on my image making, I continue to be curious and imagine that the not knowing drives my sense of wonder.


What’s next for you? What’s your dream project?
The more I make new work, the more I want to make newer work. I don’t intend to abandon any of my interests, but I still discover new interests. For example, I have made a return to popular culture in one body of work; and in another that I am currently working on I am interested in flowers and their inscrutable language. I still work with the figure, with the figure both performing and belonging to another realm with a somewhat uncontactable identity. All the work that I have made in the last 10 years I could never have foreseen until I did the research and found out where my interests lay and where the artistic opportunities presented. So my dream project is again to be able to clinch the miracle, if you like, of a form that matches my intuition.


Where’s the last place you adventured to?
I have recently returned form Europe and spent time in Paris, London, and Greece. I am spellbound by these places and their cultural memory. But I’d never go there to make art. Just to look and taste and talk. The prospect of Europe, even when rocked by terrorism and a grueling economic crisis, fills me with confidence in cultures that have so long patronized the imagination.