Isobel Parker Phillips at Polixeni’s wake
It seems an impossible task, this attempt to commemorate Poli through words. Standing here before you, I know that anything I say will only be insufficient. How to begin? How to capture and hold and honour a person whose vitality and brilliance was always so close to the surface. How to pay tribute to someone who loved so hard and so generously without allowing the sentiment to stagnate.
At once, I don’t have any words, and yet I also have too many.
But what words even make sense or cut through when talking about a person who knew how to evade and outrun words themselves. Who made images that are knowingly ambiguous – that refuse to be held down; refuse to be described, defined, or over determined. Images that tell stories, but not straightforward ones.
But words are what I have to work with.
I suppose it’s quite fitting that I find myself here, wrestling with what to say about a woman and her work, because that takes me full circle.
When I was finding my feet as a writer I was given an opportunity to review an exhibition as a trial. I chose Poli’s 2010 show Between worlds with its landscapes populated by half-humans, half-animals and its delicate negotiation of the line that demarcates humour and heartbreak (I’ve always felt those figures, alone against the wild wind, were in some way studies of solitude). I was 20, naïve as all hell and with no idea what I was doing. That review was to become my first published piece of writing and it opened a professional pathway that has since wound its way around many twists and turns. But that review also triggered something else.
A few weeks after it was published, I got an email from Poli. She’d read the text and had somehow found my email address. For someone who was just figuring out how the world (let alone the art world) worked, and how they might be placed in it, her gesture was earth shattering. That an artist I admired would be interested in what I had to say, and would take the time to reach out was staggering. A polite exchange became a prolonged conversation. A prolonged conversation became a profound emotional connection and an enduring friendship.
Poli didn’t treat me like a student, or a child. She spoke to me as an adult. She held out her hand and in that action – in that gesture – became something of a fairy godmother. Someone who comes into your life, unexpected and unannounced, but changes it forever. And while that may sound totally twee, I can’t think of another way to describe her. She gave me so much, and for that I will always be thankful. She taught me how to be curious and how to be compassionate through the simple fact of her presence. Because she was present through it all – she was present as I began to explore and navigate my own work as a writer and a curator and was present (and pivotal) through personal trauma and much in between.
It’s not lost on me that Poli would have perhaps quite liked being called a fairy godmother. Fairy tales are familiar and favoured territory; part of the dense allegorical terrain that she wove into her work. So allow me to indulge the metaphor a little further.
Fairy tales catalogue innocence – they narrate our childhood – but also chronicle its conclusion. They expose us to pain and cruelty so that we may be equipped to move through the world beyond happily ever after. They are tender and dark, and dark in their tenderness.
Poli’s work performs the same feat. It is maternal and melancholy in equal measure. It distils the depth of experience into a single image; a single intake of breath.
Poli’s characters – so much a part of her, and animated by those she loved most – are joyful and strong and sad and resilient and curious and comical and mournful and everything else. This is photography as celebration but also as lament. Lament for the passing of time, the passing of childhood, the passing of life.
Poli has left us with work that speaks pointedly and poignantly about what it is to move through the world and what loss can look like. Loss as metaphor, loss as allegory. Loss as a funereal wreath framing a young woman’s face, as a figure with a child’s hand but an old man’s head staring out to sea, as a child lost in the bush, as a girl holding the end of a rope at dusk, as a clown, deflated and alone. In her work, and in its complexity, she has given us an index of loss. She has given us the tools to deal with her absence.
I read back over some of our early emails yesterday. Even though they were written years ago, they returned me to that time – to the burgeoning of our friendship – so swiftly. The emails are a tangle of sporadic anecdotes, half-formed thoughts and fragments from daily life. She speaks of shows seen, movies watched, props sourced (with the triumph familiar to anyone who regularly bids on EBay). She speaks of those mischievous dogs, of past travels, of attempting to take the photograph The lighthouse keepers and fending off a group of tourists who were trying to help her carry the pram down to the beach, only to find it occupied by a doll wearing a grotesque mask. She speaks of how beautiful a word or an image can be, of the slipperiness of photography, of what she’s reading, of Robert, and of Solomon and Olympia all with such intense love.
In one email from 2010 she mentioned picking Solomon from school when he wasn’t well. She asked him how he was feeling he replied ‘hollow’. In the email she was merely noting the incidental poetry of that response as a way to make me – who had the flu – feel somewhat better about my predicament by offering a lyrical description of what it feels like to be sick. It was a passing comment but when I read it over yesterday, it hit me in the chest.
Eight years on, and I’m hollow again. Hollow because she occupied such an important place in my life. Hollow because her presence was expansive beyond comprehension. It touched and filled everyone that knew her.
Yet however acutely I feel that lack and that loss, I know that presence isn’t really gone. For that’s the thing about fairy godmothers. Their magic is not bound by the limits of corporeality. They are not tethered to the physical. To flesh. For their presence – her presence – persists against and through immateriality. Against and through death.
Isobel Parker Phillips