Eulogy for Polixeni

Eulogy notes for Polixeni (read by Bishop Iacovos)

Born to Greek Australian parents, Eftychia and Andreas Papapetrou, Polixeni showed great academic aptitude and studied Law at Melbourne University and practiced Law for 20 years.

While working in corporations and government, Polixeni became deeply interested in photography and began seriously to study the art, which soon gathered professional momentum, reinforced by the other reproductive art, which is parenting. It’s no coincidence that Polixeni’s most famous work is the photography that she created as a mother. Motherhood meant so much to Poli. Normally, the conceit goes that we make children; but Poli used to say that the children made her: they made her as a person and made her as an artist. Poli was creatively obsessed by our children Olympia and Solomon and the artistic residue that could be distilled from the experience of motherhood. The children made Poli as a person and as an artist in the sense that they brought her into contact with an undeniable and immediate infinity, which is that endless growth in consciousness that we can witness in children. To watch children growing up at close hand—and to be the special core of love for them—is something that she experienced as a privilege, a godsend, the great windfall of her life. Nothing that she achieved compared with it, she used to say; and nothing that she achieved from their birth was without the benefit of their development.

Polixeni thought of the children as a conversation with the future. We only go so far but they go a lot further; and the intimate contact with their trajectory is like a promise of a world beyond.

Polixeni leaves us at her artistic peak. At 57, she has reached the cusp of her potential: creatively, intellectually and emotionally. She had plenty of ideas for future projects, but what she was still doing represents a constant growth from what she had already done.

Poli’s international profile has been steadily rising. Every year brings a fresh list of exhibitions and articles.

Polixeni’s photography has always been rich in subject matter, a story, a theme, a moment with a narrative, a picture with a keynote in language. She was a voracious reader, from fiction to cultural theory, news, history, art and criticism. Her work has delved into subcultures and identity-performance; but then her work with childhood opened up a whole speculation about the individual, with uncanny vistas into mortality, risk, joy and malice, analogies with animals, art-history’s biological backstory, and the aged, the eccentrically autonomous and outside society.

Her work is intensely visual, formally robust and rigorously composed, with a classical alignment of form and subject matter. In all her pictures, there is a poetic alliance between style and iconography, a strong sense of mood, without any fear that its sentimental tug will end in illustrative closure.

Polixeni used to say that she didn’t like photographing on her own. She mustered lots of people, usually her family but others as well. This gift of bringing people into relations with the art project is consistent with everything in her personal life. Poli was a giving person: outwardly-oriented, keen to make gestures to other people, to build them up and see them clinch some unknown potential in themselves. The special gift that distinguished Poli and explains a lot of the magic in her visual work is that Poli excited others in her own project. The special thrill in being in Poli’s company was to be involved in her projects. Her energy has spread infectiously from every stage of preparation: the sourcing of props and intricate fashioning of costumes, often performed by Effie, the artist’s mother. Sometimes it would involve finding locations, for which numerous friends assisted very generously, like Stewart Russell, Donna O’Brien and the de’ Pieri family, who would also provide accommodation. Sometimes the expeditions involved a small party going to a remote location with support by Roy Chu and Nicci Daniels; and it often involved complicated arrangements with outdoor lighting and mitigation of unpleasant weather and otherwise uncomfortable actors.

Other talented people were involved in production, like Gary Foley and Roger Moll and especially Dr Les Walkling, for whom there would have been no substitute throughout the world.

Poli’s vibrancy as a person grew to a high point—almost the sicker she became (at least until the end)—as if every year she became happier, younger, stronger, more robustly surrounded by friends. With her metastatic cancer, she decided to rescue two greyhounds, bringing her into the rich social capital of other wonderful people who walk dogs in the Carlton gardens and who would soon also have a collaborative role in her artistic work. It seems that the whole of Fitzroy and Carlton knew Poli and her amiable hound Lexi.

Poli loved people; and if it takes a dog to be the vector of contact, she was all for it, breaking down the alienation, competitiveness and anxiety of contemporary life. The reason that she so liked people, who are the core of her photographic practice, is that they were so judiciously chosen according to their traits: honesty, openness, sincerity, loyalty and generosity, with a focus on their work that fills them with content and passion. Because of their integrity and energy, her friends are mostly accomplished in their field, famous in their own way, and also well-networked. For the Nelson family, she has brought the world into the home. The people with whom she converses daily are often overseas, curators and artists who prize their intimacy with this artist in Australia.

Polixeni worked indefatigably, even on her death-bed, till she could no longer see the screen on her phone, whereupon she began dictating to voice recognition until she lost the ability to speak. Her penultimate body of work is currently showing at Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney, organized from her bed. Its luminous silvery images printed by Stewart Russell speak prophetically of the transition from life of a material kind to life of an ethereal kind, where the relation between mother and child is places both as somehow interchangeable, transferable, drawn into a pious circle that promises eternal continuity.