A Tribute to Poli Papapetrou (1960-2018)
Poli (short for Polixeni) Papapetrou was my friend in Melbourne for over 20 years – I believe I met her, in the company of her beloved husband Robert Nelson (who later became my PhD supervisor), at this book launch in 1995. A wonderfully warm person, fantastic artist, and devoted family member, Poli struggled with cancer over an 11-year period. I wrote about Poli’s photo-art half a dozen times; gathered below are the three essays she selected to appear on her website, where some of the images I discuss are reproduced.
1. Legend (2002)
Searching for Marilyn: the very title suggests not merely that Marilyn Monroe is now gone, but that she was never really there to begin with. Pop mythology has enshrined her as that poor, unfortunate woman stranded between two identities: Norma Jean and Marilyn, the real person and the fabricated Hollywood icon, the flickering candle and the imperishable myth. But the poignancy of Marilyn’s story comes from the fact that she was as lost to herself as she would forever be to her idolaters. The modern pop ethos is as suspicious of pristine, innocent origins as it is in awe of transcendent, incandescent stardom. Through telemovies, songs and a flood of biographies both elevated and trashy, we rehearse the primal division of Marilyn from Norma, but we finally believe in the humanity of neither figure; both are mere creations, images. And these images consumed, to the point of death, the individual who fragilely incarnated them.
Marilyn was double, and she was also – even in her lifetime – ceaselessly redoubled. When tales of her decline began to circulate in the early ‘60s, ingénue Stella Stevens played a blonde, showbiz wannabe eaten away by self-doubt and hitting the barroom skids all the way to prostitution in John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1962). Stag movie loops from the 1950s fool even modern viewers with their naked, tawdry, look-alike Marilyns lolling about in an alcoholic, sexed-out, drug-induced haze – footage that, once recycled in Bruce Conner’s ‘found footage’ avant garde ‘60s classic Marilyn Times Five or the Jennifer Jason Leigh erotic thriller Heart of Midnight (1988), now merges in the public consciousness with the latest revelations about suppressed photographs of a dissipated, partying Marilyn at some celebrity hideaway. In the ‘80s there was Madonna as Marilyn, the Material Girl recreating the staging of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) – but also, more on the independent/underground circuit, Australia’s own Linda Kerridge in American movies including Mixed Blood (1984) by Warhol’s ex-collaborator Paul Morrissey, a blonde bitch left alive just long enough after being shot in the head to be able to gaze on her blood-stained, white dress and laconically drawl: “I look like shit”.
More than just about any another pop figure, Marilyn (like Elvis) is a mythic continuum holding together staggeringly diverse scenarios, associations and images: her early innocence and her late degradation; her inner naturalness and her prefabricated craft; her childlike charm and her ‘bombshell’ sexuality. She comes over as both domesticated and wild, guileless and predatory, scheming and dumb. All her most memorable movies, including Niagara (1953), Bus Stop (1956), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Misfits (1961) and Monkey Business (1952), play on the thrilling and ambiguous oscillation between these extreme possibilities contained in her persona.
Marilyn was born to cinema as a composite image in an era when – with the help of Widescreen and Technicolor – pop culture revelled in its own exaggerated artificiality and makeshift nature. Even in those years, the myth of Marilyn could scarcely be separated from the paroxysms of inspired infantilism offered by the likes of Mad magazine and Jerry Lewis comedies. It was only a small step from Marilyn to her grotesque parody, Jayne Mansfield (seized on gleefully as a screen icon by Lewis’ mentor, Frank Tashlin, in The Girl Can’t Help It  and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? ). Among her legion of serious commentators, Norman Mailer saw Marilyn as a forerunner (after Mae West) of camp irony, ‘femininity as a masquerade’; just as Raymond Durgnat slipped easily from a study of her physical and facial mannerisms to a rumination on “the joke in female impersonation”.
Polixeni Papapetrou’s art has long been devoted to a careful, loving study of postures, gestures and attitudes as immortalised in the many registers of pictorial representation (painting, photography, sculpture, film, publicity). Glamour, understood in its largest sense, is both her ethos and her subject. The poses that constitute the lexicon of glamour exist for her in a kind of eternal, wall-less museum of archetypes and stereotypes – forever recreated within the present-day phenomenality of everyday culture.
Papapetrou’s subjects – whether drag queens or Elvis fans, friends wearing logo-encrusted T-shirts or her own young children playing dress-ups – find themselves caught in a sometimes unwitting spiral of historical reference. In feigning the look of an adored, 20th century star or pop culture type, they spontaneously (or with the artist’s subtle prompting and mise en scène) recreate the expressions and stances of mythic figures as depicted in classic works of art. These depictions, in turn, refer to an anterior legend of another kind, an inventory of signs tied, via the code of allegory, to specific states, values, emotions and meanings. Thus the sexiness of Marilyn, as rendered in Ben Jacobsen’s living performance – itself a veritable vertigo of doubling, displacement and fantasy projection - comes to frame, in each triptych, figures such as Jean Marc Nattier’s “Thalia, Muse of Comedy” (1739), Guido Reni’s “The Death of Cleopatra” (c. 1635), or Bartolme Esteban Murillo’s “The Penitent Magdalen” (1650-55).
There is an aspect of cultural study in Papapetrou’s art – an archaeology of images, tracked relentlessly through the history of representations. The best comparison, on the levels of intricacy, intensity and elegance, might be the American experimental film artist Kenneth Anger, whose Scorpio Rising (1963) draws its real-life biker subjects into a fetishistic, subterranean image-history that begins with Marlon Brando and James Dean in posters and on TV screens and gleefully plunges back into depictions of Hitler, Christ and Satan. But there is also something measured and philosophical at work in Papapetrou’s vision, tactful and yet quietly compelling. I am reminded of the uncanny phenomenon of ‘eternal return’ as imagined by Nietzsche and extended by disciples like Pierre Klossowski (in literature and art) and Raśl Ruiz (in film): individual identities are instantly dissolved or dispossessed the moment that any of us, knowingly or not, repeat or incarnate a gesture performed, staged or recorded by someone else, somewhere – gestures without origin, but with a wealth of accumulated, phantom association. Marilyn was herself one such dispossessed soul.
Fittingly, the question that continues to dog Marilyn’s legacy – could she really act, or was she just ‘playing herself’? – goes right to the heart of Papapetrou’s own explorations. One never knows, looking at the living subjects captured in her art, to what extent they are performing or putting on, believing or sending up, the images they wear as their second skin. Again, like the inscrutable mystery of Marilyn herself – but also the mystery of each of us every day, in our clothes and make-up, our adopted attitudes and postures. Durgnat saw in Marilyn’s ‘50s screen artificiality “intriguing discrepancies (not to say montage effect) between her postures, gestures, and expressions … each part of her face fluttering contrapuntally from one identikit position to another”. To wonder whether there was a self hidden amidst all this manufactured, put-on imagery is, finally, to wonder whether there is a self inside any of us – or, instead, a flickering procession of ghostly apparitions haunting the facades of ephemeral pop culture, eternal high culture and, last but never least, our own impermanent bodies.
2. Strike a Pose (2004)
More than ever, contemporary photography in Australia (as in the rest of the world) is splitting starkly into two camps. On the one hand, there is documentary photography, bearing witness to the extremes of suburban grunge and the spontaneous effusions of daily life. And on the other hand, an extremely stylised type of photography which revels in artifice, in the constructed image.
Many artists incessantly cross the tracks and try to mix these two forms, but Melbourne-based Polixeni Papapetrou dedicates herself purely to the research of the artificial. Her models – dressed as Elvis or Marilyn or Alice in Wonderland – have an affecting, flesh-and-blood reality, but everything around them is studiously unreal, from the props to the backdrops. Papapetrou is a master of staging, of that art known from theatre and cinema as mise en scène or setting the scene. In that great aesthetic choice that all artists must make between the studio and the street, Papapetrou chooses the studio – even if it is a makeshift one tucked away in her home.
To judge how far Papapetrou has gone in thirteen years of exhibitions – all of them technically precise, conceptually tight and aesthetically assured – we need only cast a glance over her recent successful shows “Dreamchild”, “Phantomwise” and “Saturday’s Child”. These exhibitions form a vast series of restagings of photographs by Lewis Carroll, as well as recreations of the famous illustrations that accompany his novels. The undoubted star of the series is the artist’s striking young daughter, Olympia.
With the help of trompe l’œil backdrops painstakingly provided by Papapetrou’s husband, art critic Robert Nelson, Olympia becomes the reincarnation of Carroll’s muse, posing in exotic, fantasy worlds that might be situated, say, in an imaginary Orient, or else somewhere ‘through the looking glass’. There is no detail of furniture or clothing, not the smallest or slightest prop, which is not under Papapetrou’s strict control. The values of tone and colour, light and shade, composition and framing are rigorously orchestrated to achieve expressive effects of mood and meaning.
But what are these images all about? They are neither a simple homage to the fertile imagination of Carroll, nor a politically correct deconstruction of Victorian male fantasies. They combat the kind of reading, sadly popular today, which finds in Carroll’s dreams only traces of a dirty or perverse complex. Papapetrou is not out to expose the ‘dark side’ of Carroll’s fancies; rather, she is trying to clear out a space in which to insert her own fantasy and imagination. She confronts the charged history of Carroll’s imagery but also, in borrowing his idiom, creates a remarkably intimate mode in which a mother observes her daughter and watches her slowly grow into a woman, as the child tries on and discards a myriad of masks both literal and figurative.
The notion of the mask and all it implies is central to Papapetrou’s art. There is a kind of ‘cultural study’ in her photographs, a veritable archaeology of images tracked relentlessly through the history of visual representations. Her work devotes itself to a careful, loving, sharp-eyed study of the postures, gestures and attitudes that have been immortalised in the various registers of pictorial representation down the ages – painting, photography, sculpture, cinema, advertising.
Glamour, taken in its broadest sense, is Papapetrou’s true subject. Her work inhabits a kingdom of appearances and masks, a modern parade of the Vanities. Beauty is a matter of costume, attitude, staging – of striking a pose. And the poses that constitute our contemporary lexicon of glamour exist in a ‘museum without walls’ – that flux of stereotypes and mythic archetypes we call pop culture.
Papapetrou’s favoured models – whether drag queens or Elvis fans, friends wearing logo-encrusted T-shirts or young children playing dress-ups – find themselves caught up in a dizzy spiral of historical references. In adopting the look of an adored, 20th century star, they spontaneously (or with the artist’s gentle nudging) recreate the expressions and stances of mythic figures depicted in classic works of art. For example, Marilyn Monroe as channelled by Ben Jacobsen, depicted in Papapetrou’s series “Searching for Marilyn”, is juxtaposed with strikingly similar figures in images such as Nattier’s “Thalia, Muse of Comedy” (1739), Reni’s “The Death of Cleopatra” (c. 1635) and Murillo’s “The Penitent Magdalen” (1650-55). Not for nothing did Papapetrou name one of her early shows “Curated Bodies”.
Since memories of the rock’n’roll music and Technicolor Hollywood fantasies of the 1950s fill our minds when taking in Papapetrou’s images, we might reach for a comparison with the American filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who back in the ‘60s coaxed young, muscly bikers into posing as Brando or Jesus Christ while kitschy tunes like Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” played on the soundtrack. But there is something quieter and cooler, more restrained and contemplative about what Papapetrou does.
There is a philosophical edge to her work, reminiscent of what the French artist, novelist and essayist Pierre Klossowski (brother of Balthus) made of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return. Klossowski argued that none of us can ever remain very solidly ourselves, because everyday we find ourselves unconsciously repeating immortal gestures that have been performed millions of times before, by other people long dead, and also by our ghostly doubles in works of art. Klossowski believed this process turned us all into phantoms, dispossessed beings.
Papapetrou’s models sometimes have this haunted look about them, as if their desire to be glamorous and fabulous originates not in their own personal will, but in something beyond them. Perhaps they are possessed by vain, restless spirits hungry to relive their fleeting glory days of youth and beauty. Maybe – as Papapetrou’s images suggest – even Marilyn or Elvis were not really one of a kind, but themselves merely reincarnations of some nameless, eternal type.
The vividly evoked but spectral figures in Papapetrou’s photographs are caught in a kind of furious, unstoppable vortex. On the one hand, they are free to play, to pose, to define their own fantasy of who they wish to be on any given day before the camera lens. On the other hand, the materials they have available at their fingertips for this play-acting are saturated, through and through, with the unwashable stains of history, culture and politics.
The situation is irresistibly like Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic movie Sunset Boulevard (1950), a long-faded star descending the stairs in her forever-young delusion, calling out to her director: “I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr De Mille”. Norma is no victim, just as Papapetrou’s subjects are not victims – we find no trace in her art of that facile analysis of power relations (so prevalent in our whining culture of complaint) which blames patriarchy, capitalism or religion for anything that ails us.
The drama animating Papapetrou’s work is, mercifully, of a quite different order. If her models seem a little vain and narcissistic, if they love themselves as Norma Desmond loved herself, that is because they must pit the force of their inner, personal desire against both the ravages of time and the influences of the external world. Like Papapetrou herself, sizing up and appropriating pre-existing forms from the complex histories of art and pop culture in order to breathe something personal into them.
3. A Bonfire of the Vanities (2006)
Surveying the already extensive photographic art of Polixeni Papapetrou, one cannot fail to recall Oscar Wilde’s famous witticism: “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”. Or even better: “I love acting. It is so much more real than life”.
All of Papapetrou’s models are raised up to a realm far beyond mundane, everyday existence. They exist as pure image, transfigured by their own performance. Her subjects enter the realm of myth – classical myth (including its iconic version in classical painting), and also pop culture myth in the case of those adoring fans who dress up as Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe. These people ‘come out of themselves’ in order to become someone else; theatricality is the order of their day.
Glamour, taken in its broadest sense, is Papapetrou’s true subject. Her work inhabits a kingdom of appearances and masks, a modern parade of the Vanities. Beauty is a matter of costume, attitude, staging – of striking a pose. But when her subjects become someone else, they enter a world far beyond their control, a great whirlpool of images encrusted with historical and social associations. Not for nothing did Papapetrou name one of her early shows “Curated Bodies”.
Papapetrou is the reigning queen of aesthetic artifice in contemporary photo-art. She eschews off-the-cuff snaps and natural locations in order to achieve total, immaculate control over pose, costume, lighting, colour and design. Realism is not her thing. Drawing richly from traditions of painting, cinema and theatre – and thus coming at the medium of photography sideways, as it were – she has revitalised the practice of mise en scène or staging.
Papapetrou’s practice is a discreet example of a postmodernist art which dwells (as contemporary French critics say) between the images – on a shuttle between different art forms and media. But Papapetrou is not a showy collage artist, or a conceptualist who drags in text-appendages and architectural conceits for the display of her work. For her, the mastery of the large, single image – and then the arrangement of these images in elegant series – derives from a strong, classical, highly aesthetic impulse. Beauty is immediate and everywhere in her work, but the underlying ideas are implicit, requiring an act of immersion and interpretation from each viewer.
Within her chosen world of images and artifice, Papapetrou has explored (since her first exhibitions in the early ‘90s) various styles and modes in a patient, rigorous manner – from the black-and-white portraiture of early pieces to the lush colour prints of today. In her series of works (the shows “Dreamchild”, “Phantomwise” and “Saturday’s Child”) based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, Papapetrou employed painted backdrops in a beguiling trompe l’oeil effect, delving ever more deeply into the pictorial paradoxes of the artificial image. More recently, she has swapped these studio settings for natural bush landscapes, in images of lost children that evoke the filmic worlds of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Walkabout (1971) – but she has subtly manipulated these natural vistas by means of digital technology.
The most celebrated and striking motif of Papapetrou’s work is her favourite model, her beautiful young daughter Olympia. Thus is created a remarkably intimate mode in which a mother observes her daughter and watches her slowly grow into a woman. Will Olympia one day return her mother’s gaze and further enrich this artistic dialogue? Only time will tell. But what, in the present moment, links Olympia, her handsome brother Solomon and the other children used by the artist, with the pop-culture impersonators and T-shirt wearers Papapetrou has immortalised elsewhere? It is precisely a beguiling quality of innocence. Because, in the seemingly infinite Pandora’s Box of multiple moods, identities, games and poses that her work stages, the sentiment of Tom Waits’ song rings clear: “You’re innocent when you dream.” The grungy Dark Side obsession dear to much contemporary Australian photo-art – which looms every time young, vulnerable women are photographed and manipulated in staged scenes – is absent here. There is no perversity, only play. Hence, Papapetrou reclaims the rather tarnished imaginative projections (photographic as well as literary) of Lewis Carroll, and returns us to their preciously light, Utopian dimension.
In the lost children series, however, a single, sombre note strikingly enters Papapetrou’s art: the children are not hypersexualised objects and the artist’s gaze that frames them is far from prurient or voyeuristic, but the land itself – the very fabric of our nation’s deepest history – seems menacing, haunted. The secrets it holds are social secrets, sins of exclusion, abandonment, genocide. These sins do not well from within the hearts and souls of Papapetrou’s innocents, but they play, unmistakeably, across the surface of her immaculate images.
Again, Papapetrou does not spell this new theme out for us. We must intuit it through the play of forms, of gestures, of looks – the placement of bodies within settings uncannily both real and unreal. Her artifice revels in a world-unto-itself, a world apart – but, increasingly, this world is starting to warp under the pressure of another, more sinister and melancholic reality.
© Adrian Martin March 2002 / May 2004 / September 2006