Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Conversation with Polixeni Papapetrou

Polixeni Papapetrou depicts a childhood much different from mine. She comes from a lush Australian landscape and I come from small neighborhoods in Brooklyn. However, most children have dreams of play in open fields and all things that remind one of fairy tales.

I came across Polixeni's work through checking up on this Fall's gallery listings. There are many good shows to open and her series, Games of Consequence, is definitely one of the gems to see. She was kind enough to share some insight to this series.

Rope & The Fall ©Polixeni Papapetrou

NP: Tell us a little about yourself.

PP: I was born in Melbourne, Australia, where I still live and work. After leaving school, I studied law and began my professional working life as a lawyer. I worked as a lawyer from 1985 to 2001. While I was a law student I met an artist who introduced me to the world of art and photography. My interest in photography went beyond looking at it and I wanted to start making pictures. I began studying photography as a part time student at RMIT University, Melbourne while still working as a lawyer. In 2001 I left the law to devote my time to photography and study. In 2007 I graduated with a PhD in fine arts from Monash University, Melbourne.

NP: How did you discover photography?

PP: I started taking photographs in 1986 and was drawn to people who were exploring the themes of personal identity expressed through dress and popular culture, the cult of the body, brand names and consumerism. The themes of dress-ups, performance and the representation of identity have been a common thread the work I have made about Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe fans, drag queens, body builders and more recently children.

Dreams Are Like Water & Miles from Nowhere ©Polixeni Papapetrou

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

PP: The birth of my two children in 1997 and 1999 inspired me to make works about childhood, although I had been thinking about this subject matter even before they born. Photographs of children hold certain magic and appeal for me because of things we don’t yet know about children when looking at their photograph: the mystery of their future and the unknown experiences and fate that lie ahead. The period of childhood is a small space of time in the context of a lifetime, yet it is the part of our life that we like to hang on to, go back to and reflect upon. I am interested in preserving the moments of a child’s life, whether staged or not, that would be forever lost to me because the photograph is stronger than my ability to remember and keeps the memory alive.

I started making pictures about childhood because I wanted to express ideas about our culture that are best portrayed through the symbol of the child, but more importantly, I am fascinated by the world of childhood. I am conscious that my work on the one hand, takes the viewer into the realms of fantasy and story telling, but on the other hand, it challenges our expectations regarding the portrayal of childhood in photography.

In my earlier work on childhood I was interested exploring the imaginative space of childhood and play. In Dreamchild (2003) and Wonderland (2004), I re-staged the 19th century photography and story telling of Lewis Carroll. In Phantomwise (2002) I explored the power of dress-ups and masks in transforming appearance and boundary crossing. After making this work I moved from the realm of fantasy into the natural world. This seemed to be an appropriate move as the children were growing older and their experience of the world was shifting from the imaginative interior world of dress-ups and make-believe into a more pragmatic experience with the world outside. I became interested in stories about children’s experiences outside of the home. So I turned to the Australian landscape to tell these stories in Haunted Country 2006 and more recently in Games of Consequence 2008.

Dight Falls ©Polixeni Papapetrou

NP: How did this project come about?

PP: In my most recent work, Games of Consequence, 2008, I wanted to explore some ideas about the changed social landscape of childhood. The process of growing up in the modern world has changed and as my children—the subjects of much of my work—are growing up, the exploration of personal individuality seemed natural for me. I think that times have changed. It’s more or less impossible now for children to just hang out with other kids and wander off only to return in time for dinner. But that’s how I remember spending my childhood and adolescence – I seemed to have lots of freedom, time felt very still for me and I wasted it away. My children’s lives are so different to mine – much more regulated and organised – which is to be expected as technology has changed our lives and our experience of the world.

The ideas for the pictures in Games of Consequence came from my childhood memories of play, whether I was out wandering by myself or playing with friends where, for much of the time, I was not overly constrained by adult supervision. My friends and I had the freedom to explore the world beyond home; places I now think of as hallowed childhood spaces. In exploring my childhood memories of play, I wanted to reflect on the liberties that we had in these arcane spaces. I would like to think that I have conveyed the idea of a free wandering and self-determination of childhood experience before life became so heavily controlled by parental involvement and keen media interest.

By exploring the world beyond the home, we created for ourselves worlds that were full of possibility wonder and adventure. As a child, I experienced the landscape as a type of contested paradise. Even though we played at what seemed to be risky locations by rivers, full of snakes in summer, in ravines or in isolated places, somehow we grew up regardless and never thought that any harm would come to us.

I sometimes remember our playing as treading a fine line between fun and peril. To tie somebody to a tree or to swing from a tree was fun, sometimes these games ended in tears, but this was part of the process. I remember these situations as exhilarating and full of risk, but we had to think, act and negotiate our way out of them and I think must have been character-building for us. We learnt to trust ourselves, our friends and the decisions we made. I think that we navigated our way into adolescence and adulthood by coping with the range of experiences thrown at us.

In the title ‘Games of Consequence’, I wanted to suggest that with some of the games that children play, there comes a point when they might perceive how their actions and moods have consequences. There is the ever-present fear of malice among the children themselves, and I wanted to capture this mood. There is always the threat of other children hurting and humiliating you. Playing with friends was a time where you could test yourself and test your friends. Perhaps this has not changed much, except that we have adult supervision of play now to prevent it. The innocent plays of the children in part symbolize the last step of childhood, the last chance for them to remain young.

NP: What difficulties did you encounter while working on this series?

PP: When working outside of the studio there are many things that are more difficult to manage such as the light, the inclemency of the weather and communicating my ideas to the children. The sun appears when I least want it to and disappears when I need it the most. The light in Australia can be very bright. When making "The storm" the weather changed unexpectedly and resulted in this photograph. I am always more conscious of the children’s safety when working outdoors and in the warmer months we had to keep a watch out for snakes if we are close to a river.

NP: What's next (in terms of future projects, shows, residencies, books)?

PP: What I hope for the future is to continue making work that explores ideas of childhood, the transition between childhood into the next stage and tracing the lives of the children for as long as I’m lucky enough to do so.

NP: Thank you!

To see more of Polixeni's work, head to her website: She is currently represented by Foley Gallery in New York and is participating in a solo show, opening September 4, 2008.

"Games of Consequence"
Polixeni Papapetrou
Foley Gallery
547 West 27th Street, 5th floor
New York, NY 10001
September 4 - October 11, 2008

Opening reception: Thursday, September 4, 6 - 8PM

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