Bonfire of the Vanities

By Adrian Martin

Surveying the already extensive photographic art of Polixeni Papapetrou, one cannot fail to recall Oscar Wilde’s famous witticism: ‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances’. Or even better: ‘I love acting. It is so much more real than life’.

All of Papapetrou’s models are raised up to a realm far beyond mundane, everyday existence. They exist as pure image, transfigured by their own performance. Her subjects enter the realm of myth – classical myth (including its iconic version in classical painting), and also pop culture myth in the case of those adoring fans who dress up as Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe. These people ‘come out of themselves’in order to become someone else; theatricality is the order of their day.

Glamour, taken in its broadest sense, is Papapetrou’s true subject. Her work inhabits a kingdom of appearances and masks, a modern parade of the Vanities. Beauty is a matter of costume, attitude, staging–of striking a pose. But when her subjects become someone else, they enter a world far beyond their control, a great whirlpool of images encrusted with historical and social associations. Not for nothing did Papapetrou name one of her early shows ‘Curated Bodies’.

Papapetrou is the reigning queen of aesthetic artifice in contemporary photo-art. She eschews off-the-cuff snaps and natural locations in order to achieve total, immaculate control over pose, costume, lighting, colour and design. Realism is not her thing. Drawing richly from traditions of painting, cinema and theatre–and thus coming at the medium of photography sideways, as it were–she has revitalised the practice of mise en scene or staging.

Papapetrou’s practice is a discreet example of a postmodernist art which dwells (as contemporary French critics say) ‘between images’–on a shuttle between different art forms and media. But Papapetrou is not a showy collage artist, or a conceptualist who drags in text-appendages and architectural conceits for the display of her work. For her, the mastery of the large, single image–and then the arrangement of these images in elegant series–derives from a strong, classical, highly aesthetic impulse. Beauty is immediate and everywhere in her work, but the underlying ideas are implicit, requiring an act of immersion and interpretation from each viewer.

Within her chosen world of images and artifice, Papapetrou has explored (since her first exhibitions in the early ’90s) various styles and modes in a patient, rigorous manner–from the black-and-white portraiture of early pieces to the lush colour prints of today. In her series of works (the shows ‘Dreamchild’, ‘Phantomwise’ and ‘Saturday’s Child’) based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, Papapetrou employed painted backdrops in a beguiling trompe l’oeil effect, delving ever more deeply into the pictorial paradoxes of the artificial image. More recently, she has swapped these studio settings for natural bush landscapes, in images of lost children that evoke the filmic worlds of Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout–but she has subtly manipulated these natural vistas by means of digital technology.

The most celebrated and striking motif of Papapetrou’s work is her favourite model, her beautiful young daughter Olympia. Thus is created a remarkably intimate mode in which a mother observes her daughter and watches her slowly grow into a woman. Will Olympia one day return ‘her mother’s gaze’and further enrich this artistic dialogue? Only time will tell. But what, in the present moment, links Olympia, her handsome brother Solomon and the other children used by the artist, with the pop-culture impersonators and T-shirt wearers Papapetrou has immortalised elsewhere? It is precisely a beguiling quality of innocence. Because, in the seemingly infinite Pandora’s Box of multiple moods, identities, games and poses that her work stages, the sentiment of Tom Waits’song rings clear: ‘You’re innocent when you dream.’ The grungy ‘dark side’ obsession dear to much contemporary Australian photo-art–which looms every time young, vulnerable women are photographed and manipulated in staged scenes–is absent here. There is no perversity, only play. Hence, Papapetrou reclaims the rather tarnished imaginative projections (photographic as well as literary) of Lewis Carroll, and returns us to their preciously light, Utopian dimension.

In the ‘lost children’ series, however, a single, sombre note strikingly enters Papapetrou’s art: the children are not hypersexualised objects and the artist’s gaze that frames them is far from prurient or voyeuristic, but the land itself–the very fabric of our nation’s deepest history–seems menacing, haunted. The secrets it holds are social secrets, sins of exclusion, abandonment, genocide. These sins do not well from within the hearts and souls of Papapetrou’s innocents, but they play, unmistakeably, across the surface of her immaculate images.

Again, Papapetrou does not spell this new theme out for us. We must intuit it through the play of forms, of gestures, of looks – the placement of bodies within settings uncannily both real and unreal. Her artifice revels in a world-unto-itself, a world apart–but, increasingly, this world is starting to warp under the pressure of another, more sinister and melancholic reality.

Adrian Martin 2007

Adrian Martin is author of ‘Raúl Ruiz’: Sublimes Obsesiones’ (Altamira, 2004), ‘The Mad Max Movies’ (Currency, 2003), ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (British Film Institute, 1998) and ‘Phantasms’ (Penguin, 1994). He is Co-Editor of ‘Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia’ (BFI, 2003), ‘Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage’ (Rouge Press, 2004) and the website Rouge (