The Specter in Presence: Polixeni Papapetrou — Eiichi Tosaki

On a small lake under a small wooden bridge in Merry Creek in Melbourne, where for a decade I have taken a walk early in the morning, there was a white goose. It was the only white bird among a group of brown and grey ducks, which shared that particular environment. The white goose had a broken wing, and a single feather stuck out conspicuously. So because of her whiteness and the broken feather, her presence was conspicuous among the other birds on the lake. In early summer every year, a new generation appears and adorable little siblings chase their mothers nervously and playfully. The lame white goose looked independent even though always somewhere among the group. One day she disappeared, and it worried me. For a while I looked in vain for her. Some voidness at the core of the group of ducks now dominated the everyday surface of the water. However, in no time another year passed and there appeared another juvenile white goose among the group of darker ducks. The voidness of the missing goose was suddenly filled, overlapping the ghostly figure of the one that was still missing.

The young white goose generates the same concentric, cyclic riddle on the surface where previously the now absent one had done. It is uncanny to see the cheerfulness of the white goose from the new generation, in the same scene: it is the recurrence of a similar formation or composition. My imaginative association duplicates the two geese across generations, now imbued with the memory of cheerfulness and the strength of presentness.
In Papapetrou’s ‘Haunted Country’, her own children, Olympia and Solomon, and their friends appear in the wild Australian bush as a new generation of lost children. Their images are now manifest. They and their images now act in the lost children’s stories in the Australian wilderness. Papapetrou and her team revisited specific bush sites, exactly where children had been lost. The locations were spread across country Victoria, accessed by long and sometimes disorientating trips by 4 WD vehicle. Although charged with memories, events, and grief, there remain no signs of tragedy at these sites: the Australian wilderness is indifferent as always, and manifests itself as potential endless outback. Appearing in front of the landscape, Olympia, Solomon, and friends act as lost children; dressed in period costumes made by their Grandmother.

News of lost white children in the middle of the 19th and the beginning of the last century, brought tragedy and fear to every household. Several novels, films and plays were based on these sad stories. These are stories of urban white children visiting the bush, and accidentally going astray. Some of them never came back. Some were found alive (mainly by black trackers), but many of these children were absorbed by the wilderness, their bodies never found. The heartbreaking stories of these missing children, which Robert Nelson beautifully recounts in his essay, still haunt the Australian nation generation after generation.

The photographic images are somewhat fictional and dream like. The strength of the contrast between white and dark in the photographs, reinforces the actual presence of the children. Their presence is the duplication or redundancy of the images of the lost children. These images supplement the tragedy. Bare nature does not give any sign of tragedy or loss. For the inevitably Europeanised eye, it reads like white noise, leaving just a feeling of ‘void’. Voidness cannot be filled by the presence of the acting children. The narrative aspect of the images directs the viewer back to the tragedy of the missing children.

White figures manifest in front of the dark formation of rock and shadowy bushland tones. In spite of the backdrop of tragedy, they are healthy vibrant bodies that now reenact the past. Their presence in the now overwhelms the old stories of loss. The images subsume the narrative. Partly this is due to the power of the photograph: the power of presence.
Papapetrou’s dream-like quality in her photographic images resides in this power of presence and objectification; a power which impoverishes memory. As subjective agents, we can read the images through the narrative and our own intuition. But the objective image manifests its own status. They configure the models and the landscape as composition: the presence of whiteness in contrast to the semi-dark background, various degrees of contrast between soft bodies and hard stone, clean white clothes and rough bushes, trees and volcanic rock formations.

Papapetrou’s photographic image is the materialization of memory. It initiates a process of objectification that allows multi-faceted interpretations. Papapetrou’s images accommodate endless associations: child-play, tragedy, ghosts, human vulnerability, history, innocence. Each photograph is like a monument, which people need to establish to make a memory become objectified. Memory never becomes concrete; but it can participate in becoming an object. An object is a public entity. This object also allows multiple interpretations depending on the subject who engages with the possible meanings of the object. The object becomes a monument, which carries a certain meaning, but at the same time it is an object: a thing. A thing itself does not care about what it carries. It is independent and shows its features according to various approaches we bring to the image. People need monuments because the monument offers unfixed meanings. Objectification arises through the process of participating in the multiple possibility of interpretations. This process opens upon refreshed interpretations and associations. This is the role of an object or a thing.

Papapetrou’s ‘Haunted Country’ is like a dream, since it is both monumental as object and somewhat funereal as ritual. But the photographs are also objective images themselves. These images allow viewers access to various interpretations, but also direct them to accommodate some specific meanings based on the real stories that are behind these photographs. At the same time, though, they are objects as image. Having the status of an object, the images allow viewers possibility of association and self-generated narrative. This conflict between the historical evidence behind the images and their having the status of object and presentness, generates a dream-like response.

There is a beautiful scene in Kitano Takeshi’s film ‘Kids Return’. The very last scene shows the two main characters together on a bicycle, circling the bare ground of their old high-school. The two figures are ambiguous and ghostly: in fact, one of them has been executed by the yakuza group to which he belonged, and the other is punch-drunk, and also lost to us. The scene is miraculous. It too is like in a dream, with the whole meaning of the film concentrated in this single scene: young energy, failure, fatality, and return. Here, the lame and absent goose is revived in the dream, in the actual scene of the present. The strength of their young energy again generates the feeling of the past flowing back from the future. Papapetrou’s ‘Haunted Country’ also offers this pastness in the presence of photographic images. It is the powerful message of an endless recurrence of empathy toward these children and to those who are still lost.

Dr Eiichi Tosaki

Dr Eiichi Tosaki is an artist and writer based in Melbourne. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Philosophy, Melbourne University.
Robert Nelson, ‘Haunted Country: The Secret History of the Australian Bush’, ‘Haunted Country’, exhibition catalogue, 2006
This observation is borrowed from Professor Philip Goad, Dep. of Architecture, Melbourne University, during a presentation on Australian landscape, at the Japan-Australia Modernism Study Group 2001 (Melbourne University).
This observation of the image as object is inspired by Edmund Husserl’s discussion of images. See Edmund Husserl, Phantasy, Image, Consciousness, and Memory (1898-1925), trans. John B. Brough, Springer, Dordrecht, 2005. Also see John B. Brough, ‘Some Husserlian Comments on Depiction and Art’, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, vol. LXVI, no. 2, 1992 (pp. 241-259). In Japan Professor KANATA Susumu published widely on Husserlian analysis of the image as early as 1980. See KANATA Susumu, Kaiga-bi no Kozo (The Structure of Aesthetics of Painting), Keiso Shobo, Tokyo, 1984.