In Between Worlds, Polixeni Papapetrou has photographed children acting as animals in the Australian landscape. In these images, the children wear animal masks, which lets them inhabit an intermediary position that separates children from adults and human from animal. Papapetrou sees children as being between worlds: between the world of infancy and adulthood. Though in a sense absurdist, Papapetrou presents the children as animals because they seem to have a magical affinity with animals. Children meet up with animals through fiction and fantasy, from cuddly toys to animations, to the great stories of Lewis Carroll. Animals enter our consciousness in mysterious ways and we look at them in order to understand ourselves and our emotional realm. For most of the history of philosophy, it is what we don’t share with animals that defines us as human. In a similar way, children are the ‘Other’ that defines adulthood; and for that reason, children pervade our consciousness, at times adorably and at times threateningly.
Papapetrou is interested in the types of boundary-crossing that occur in photography, where children have the power to make other worlds in their imagination. They can dream up alternative worlds, but also reflect sardonically upon the one they share with adults. In dressing up and wearing masks, the children, like actors, perform identities other than their own. The children appear as something we immediately recognize, but are fantastically hybridized. They have lost their child identity and have adopted sublime identities borrowed on the terms of the mask. Beneath the mask that asserts the presence of a horse or pig, the child’s image is both present and absent, tangible and intangible.
Many of the landscapes Papapetrou has staged these dramas are portentous—as if at the edge of a space or the end of an epoch—conveying some of the wonder that children might entertain in entering the animal kingdom. As beasts, however, they have some of the archetypal quality of animals in narrative, perhaps pretentious authorities, as in Alice in Wonderland, perhaps august figures from history, from a play or a film. It is in this sense that the work takes on a comic dimension, as children take assume an image of the animal as charismatic human. In these sumptuous landscapes on the border of sea and land, forest and plain, land and air, the children as animals dance upon their own liminal world between fantasy and theatre, mythology and reality, archetype and free play, male and female, child and adult and of course animal and human.
The noted photography writer and curator Susan Bright says,
‘Between World’s seems the most confident and accomplished of Papapetrou’s work to date. Taking away any direct references to the history of photography and films and making the subjects more ambiguous (as she also did with Games of Consequence) leaves room for speculation, conjecture and confusion. … It’s that careful balance of autobiography, collective anxiety mixed up with wonderful and almost carefree fantasy that reverberates throughout the series and the combination makes for bold and unsettling works. They are not easy photographs, and like the characters The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll they invite an audience to ‘talk of many things’ and, more importantly,
risk finding answers they might not like.
Within these ambiguities, Polixeni Papapetrou fathoms the space that children occupy in our understanding and wonder how they might bestride the stage of art.
Polixeni Papapetrou is Australian. She lives and works in Melbourne. Her work has been widely shown throughout Australia, Asia and the United States, including, The National Art Center (2008, Tokyo), The Seoul International Photography Festival (2008) and Aperture Gallery (New York, 2006). In 2009, she was the recipient of the Josephine Ulrick-Win Shubert Photography Award and has received several Australia Council new work grants. Her most recent body of work, Between Worlds, will also be exhibited in her Australian, The Netherlands and New York galleries. Also, her works will be included in the International Festival of Photography in Pingyao (China, September 2010). She will be part of a group exhibition, La forêt de mon rêve at the Gallery du Conseil Général des Bouches du Rhône in Aix en Provence (France, October 2010 - February 2011). She will represents Australia during the Month of Photography Festival in Bratislava (Slovakia, November 2010).