Melancholia — Polixeni Papapetrou

‘Melancholia’ (2014) represents an exploration of a time in my life when sadness and grief were hanging over me and I was searching for a way to express it. Diagnosed with advanced metastatic cancer in November 2012 and already facing organ-failure, the only treatment that could be offered at the time was palliative pain relief. It was a devastating time as I was preparing to farewell my family and coming to terms with letting go of my identity and work as an artist, my friendships, my home and this world. I was preparing for another type of world, that of the unknown.

Before I became ill I came across some vintage clown costumes and wigs. I had thought about photographing my children as clowns to express ideas about constructed personas, otherness, disguise and fear. I was troubled now that I would not be able to do this and further because I had just acquired a new camera, marking a switch from analogue to digital photography. As sick as I was, I was determined to photograph my teenage daughter Olympia dressed as a clown to express something close to me about our feelings of sadness, horror and fear in the face of the unknown. I wondered if I could draw a parallel between the transformation in the public imagination of the clown’s persona and the changed attitudes towards death and dying, both seemingly weighed down by a fear and anxiety of the unknown.

The clown, joker, trickster, entertainer and jester has been a complex figure in cultural history. Being interested in the clown’s transformation from a sage to entertainer to freak, I was curious to explore why the clown has become a character beset by darkness, sadness, repulsion and fear in contemporary consciousness. Even though the modern institution of the clown is designed to amuse and death is not, there is an uncanny coming together of the two. Clowns do not reveal anything other than what we already know about the heavily-painted archetype as a vehicle for hidden sad emotions such as grief, despair and loneliness. The works are titled to evoke the sad emotions often connected with the clown character and also death. In a similar way death does not reveal anything about itself. In drawing a parallel between perceptions of the clown and the ontology of dying, it occurred to me that neither wears its true face and both are imbued by sadness and fear. I wanted to put aside all sad and happy constructs and look beyond the physical to question our understanding.

Polixeni Papapetrou