Polixeni Papapetrou: Australian Centre for Photography
I was previously unaware of Polixeni Papapetrou’s work, but I was really excited to be able to attend the opening of her retrospective at the Australian Centre for Photography during a recent trip to Sydney.
It is a remarkable collection of work, with a cohesive conceptual thread that runs through each distinct series of images. One of its greatest successes is the collaboration between the artist and her daughter Olympia (and more recently her son Solomon and their friends) who are centre-stage throughout the work.
In recent years there have been several artist/children collaborations in the art/photography world that have either raised questions about exploitation, or (and I know I’m being a bit harsh here) have just been a bit dull. In my experience only Grandparents have a limitless capacity for hearing about their Grandkids every move – but some artists and photographers seem to think we should all feel the same way about their progeny. In contrast Papapetrou’s work has a fresh take on family collaboration and her work bursts with original ideas.
In its most basic form, the photographs are make-believe pictures where Olympia dresses up in a variety of scenes that look fairy-tale or dream-like. The work heavily references work by Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, but while the starting points are familiar stories, the combined imaginations of mother and daughter have taken them into a new worlds with their own distinct, visual language.
There is a set of images with beautiful painted backdrops created by Papapetrou’s husband Robert Nelson. At a time where manipulated digital images are ubiquitous these hand-made works add a layer of visual complexity that a blue-screen could never achieve, and also deepen the artistic family collaboration.
Technically, the images are realised with a precision and mastery and each one is perfectly composed and lit. The work has been printed on a large, painterly scale and while the reproductions in the catalogue give an indication of the work’s quality, seeing them in a gallery setting made them come to life.
The images taken outside in the Australian landscape under an unforgiving sun are stunning and contain Australian cultural references about children missing in the wilderness. While I recognised the nod to Picnic at Hanging Rock I was unaware of the other references. When you live in an arts center like London it’s easy to be deceived that you know-it-all, when in fact much of the international work that gets shown is merely a highlight: to really understand a country’s arts and culture there’s no replacement for experiencing it first-hand.
Something else that was very impressive about the opening, which also featured a remarkable series of work by Carie Nelson and a collection of Images from Adland, was the brief introductions and speeches.
ACP curator Alasdair Foster spoke about about Carie Nelson’s work and introduced Daniel Leesong from The Communications Council to discuss the Images from Adland. Gael Newton, Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia introduced Polixeni Papapetrou’s work. The whole presentation lasted 10-15 minutes but gave a focal point to the evening.
As well as artist talks, one of the other innovative events the ACP organised was a talk hosted by Olympia and Solomon , where they talked to other children about their collaborative experience working with their mother. This obviously wasn’t an event for adults – but if it had been I’d have liked to know more about the day-to-day life in the Papapetrou/Nelson household. When I was growing up my brother was often relieved of washing up duties if he practiced the piano for an extra 20 minutes. I’d be curious to know if Olympia and Solomon have been able to exchange their domestic chores for being photographic models!
I sent Poli a link to this blog and she was able to answer my question about chores…
In relation to the day-to-day life in the Papapetrou/Nelson household. Olympia avoids any form of housework by saying that she is practising piano, violin, French or Italian. In reality she is on her computer for social networking purposes! When I was growing up I seem to remember that I had to do lots of chores as well as do my school work. In return for being photographic models, I pay them and they are more than happy with this arrangement and don’t especially mind my mistakes which may involve a re-shoot.