If only there were a magic medicine we could take to enter into the imagination of a great artist. For some of us, to gaze upon their work is the closest we ever get. And so, when Polixeni Papapetrou offered her time for this interview, I was overcome with excitement.
The Greek-Australian photographer’s arresting work spans decades. Covering topics from identity politics (what IS gender, anyways?) to childhood, her photos have a way of taking your world, flipping it upside down, and tickling a part of you that you always knew was there, but maybe forgot about.
Read on for a peek into Papapetrou’s fascinating world.
Tell me a bit about growing up Greek in Melbourne. How did that setting shape your lens of the world?
Growing up in a Greek-speaking immigrant household in 1960s Melbourne I experienced the feeling of being an outsider and felt that I did not belong to mainstream white Australian society. I wondered where I belonged as I felt neither fully Greek nor Australian. I was sensitive to the idea of not belonging to the conventional mainstream.
This does not bother me anymore, but when you are growing up you don’t want to feel different. When you are young you want to fit and blend in with the group because being singled out as different can feel humiliating. However, as an adult the opposite would be true and to be singled out as different can be something to be proud of. These questions and feelings of unease growing up opened my mind up to the question of what identity means, and how we define ourselves, whether we do this on a personal level or society constructs the parameters of identity for us.
Much of your work deals, vaguely speaking, with identity. How has your approach to this changed over time?
As the result of my childhood experience, it was natural to go down the path of exploring issues of identity and otherness in my work. At the start I was photographing homeless people, drag queens, Elvis fans, Marilyn Monroe impersonators and body builders. I was drawn to photographing people who lived on the edge of the conventional mainstream or who deviated from the mainstream archetype. I was interested in ‘otherness’. Despite the diversity in the groups that I photographed what they all had in common was that they were performing their identity, that identity is something that is fluid, malleable and can be constructed. While the representation of identity has been a consistent theme in my work, in the past 15 years I have been exploring portrayals of childhood identity. But more than this I have tried to understand what it means to be human.
We live in a fascinating time where intersectionality is finally receiving its due attention. Ideals of gender are changing rapidly. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think art has the power to drive greater cultural change?
When I was photographing non-binary gendered people—in those days they were known as ‘cross dressers’—and body builders I was looking at how the notion of gender and body is not a fixed thing but can be constructed through dress and performance.
I am not sure what drives cultural change as such but I think that art has the effect of bringing it to public attention, sometimes a bit randomly but nevertheless ahead of the theory. I am often surprised how artists can sense a Zeitgeist in the air and start a mood or a movement possibly making the unconscious visible. We didn’t understand intersectionality; but all the elements were in the viewfinder of photographers: people not on one margin but on many intersecting margins, with florid deviations from the normal. So I love your question because, although we hadn’t formulated the full richness of these concepts, we were at least showing the phenomena that we’re now able to understand better through an enriched vocabulary.
As humans, we tend to anthropomorphize everything. When I look at The Ghillies series, I almost see nature putting itself onto humans – the opposite of anthropomorphizing. It suggests a degree of fragility of how we tether ourselves to reality with things that make us identify as ‘human’. Tell me more about your inspiration for this series.
In ‘The Ghillies’ (2011) and in ‘Eden’ (2016) I was exploring the idea of how we are nature, but also how we go through a natural process in life if transforming, shedding one skin for another, growing and wilting. These works look at the human connection to nature as well as the masculine and feminine parallels that exist in this relationship. The Ghillies series was inspired by my son’s enthusiasm for computer games and his spontaneous desire to step outside of the screen and sync with nature for some unknown surprise ambush. The players sometimes wear camouflage uniforms to conceal themselves in warfare and hunting. I used the ghillie suit as a metaphor to talk about a kind of disappearance where the morphed human is paradoxically monumentalized, standing out as more essentially present rather than negated by camouflage.
On the other hand, these statuesque figures could be read as adolescents awaiting adulthood, isolated and vulnerable, wanting their presence to be known, but not singled out. Eden in contrast, depicts young women decorated with flowers to symbolize their metamorphosis from child to adult. Wild nature replaced with domestic flowers, depicted as the beauty of nature, fertility and purity. Like their counterparts in The Ghillies, the girls cannot escape their gender image; they are locked in, visually sandwiched between the floral backdrop and their own floral dresses and real flowers laced over them. Presented together, these layers allude to social constructs long symbolized in relationship to the natural world.
Your work often features your children. How do you hope to have influenced their perspective by incorporating them into your art work?
The children, like actors, perform identities other than their own, transgressing boundaries and blurring the lines between fantasy and theatre, mythology and reality, archetype and free play, male and female, child and adult and animal and human. For example, in Phantomwise (2002) Olympia as a four year old was able to transcend boundaries of age, ethnicity and gender through dress, masks and her performances. In Between Worlds (2009) the children wore animal masks, allowing them creatively to inhabit an intermediary position that separates them from adults and human from animal. They appeared as something we recognized, but they were hybridized to reveal an in-between state. In The Dreamkeepers (2012) the children wearing masks, costumes and using props appeared as elderly, creatures of private habit, eccentric and remote but always symbolic. I would say that in playing all of these characters the process has enabled them to see difference but that difference can also be an illusion of sorts. In all the difference that I create in my characters I would like them to symbolize a universal type to the extent that we can see a little of ourselves in these characters. Up to this point the children are conscious of this power.
Who are your greatest artistic inspirations that are currently working?
Ooh, that’s tough. My list of inspirations is very long and it is hard to single out individual artists although those creating constructed images interest me a lot. I especially love the tableau vivant photography of the 19th century, artists such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Oscar Rejlander and Charles Dodgson. But my list also includes composers and poets, playwrights and the old masters.
Childhood, adulthood, these are all ways we categorize the world. yet your work breaks them down. What can “adults” do to stay more playful?
Trust their imagination. I think that growing up often consists of taking on responsibilities where imagination has little place; and education further banishes it. We are very lucky to get through life retaining a good imagination. I’m very sympathetic to this question because you’ve put together the timeline of development with the downward trajectory of play. We used to play so much and now we can only play if it’s socially valorized by some ritual with rules around it. Fortunately, there is art, which is one window where play is to some extent vouchsafed by an institution of people who recognize intellectual growth and joy; but it isn’t all that there is. I would love it if my images could touch people beyond the gallery circuit who can see that dress-ups and performance and thinking poetically are important and accessible for everyone, in the same way that we had such ready access to them when we were children.
Do you think it’s important for Greek artists – whether in Greece or not – to identify with their Hellenism? Why or why not?
I think that it is important for artists worldwide to identify with their home, cultural identity and history. Everyone has a culture. For a Greek, yes, there is something ineradicably Hellenic in us. I am very lucky that while a first generation Australian, I have retained the Greek language and understand how life is lived in Greece. I’ve also had the good fortune to study ancient Greek civilization. That’s a privilege that isn’t always afforded even to people living in Greece. But one thing that I’d add is that we don’t identify with things Greek for patriotism’s sake. There is a lot in Greek culture that we can be critical of—after all, critical is a Greek word—no matter how sublime ancient culture was and how intensely sociable is demotic culture today.
For more of Polixeni Papapetrou’s vast catalog of work, visit her website.