There is one truly beautiful and fascinating photography show in Sydney right now, and it isn't Annie Liebovitz. The Australian Centre for Photography on Oxford Street is home to 'Tales from Elsewhere' a gorgeously hung, vivid and provocative retrospective of works by Polixeni Papapetrou. Like the fairy tales she plays with (the dominant and recurring theme in her work) Papapetrou presents scenes of apparent whimsy that even with the slightest pause seethe with undercurrents of ambiguity. Again and again we are pulled below surface and between so many images and ideas in tension, between the innocence and sexuality of children, the dangers lurking between fantasy and reality and the questions between meaning and response.
The title 'Tales from Elsewhere' is apposite for the show. It's hung in darkened rooms where light picks out big luscious photographs and you feel transported from the harsh summer light outside. What's clear is that 'Elsewhere' isn't and external place though, it's very much an interior landscape, specifically that of children and our own memories of childhood. The first room of note shows a series of black and white portraits of children wearing masks and fancy dress outfits. Together with the costumes the children wear the blacked out studio and the silvery black and white place the images somewhere timeless and indeterminate, between the Victorian child exploitation and the sexualised tots of today's child beauty pageants. Papapetrou creates a sense of dislocation by placing the children in lush featureless black backgrounds, each child has a costume but what makes them disturbing is the masks, oversized and of adult eyes, that each wears. The difference in scale is disconcerting, it demands you look again and recalibrate and that's the point at which the very adult gaze out, the child's body and the pantomime of adult posture come together. Little girls in harem outfits are not intrinsically disturbing, even in a world where the dress-ups chest has become a sinister Pandora's box. These pictures aren't that either, they're just slightly off, they're displaced and at once lush and cold.
Polixeni Papapetrou creates worlds that, even as they are fantastic or contrived, are intensely affecting thanks to their colour. The ability of pigment to effect us very directly is often overshadowed by the symbolism of colour, Papapetrou is better than that she has such an eye that images can hum or clatter with tonal washes and crashes. The sensual saturated colors reveal mental shadows and even that brightness has a sumptuary lasciviousness that scares us. The imagination and the senses are unruly, it's why they scare bigots and puritans of every stripe. A line of red in the piping around the pocket of a schoolgirl's blazer is so subversive it could be can enough to set off populist palpitations. This subtle accretion of provocative detail loads each image with meaning, but it's the human presence that translates it into something meaningful.
Countless adaptations and retellings of Lewis Carroll's Alice books have never managed to erase the presence and power of the original's characters. In her 'Wonderland' series of pictures Papapetrou creates tableaux from these books, built up with vivid stylized painted backgrounds and one or two figures. The effect is charming but that shouldn't take away from how effective it is. The Alice figure. Papapetrou's daughter Olympia is played straight, the girl poses with the just the right amount of seriousness and one can't help but note that she's not the classic blonde Alice but rather an intense dark haired girl who reminds us that this is a child playing a role. The painted backdrops add are another link to the ideas of dress-ups and school plays, but their primary colouring and the just rough enough brushwork help retain an air of unreality. These aren't just artless puns though, the interactions of girl and image are a crafted blur, in one the face of the Queen of Hearts oddly echoes that of Alice and you are left knowing it can't just be happy accident. The girl playing a girl in a fantasy world, or even, a girl playing a girl playing past representations of that girl, in such a sombre way reminds us of the way that even our imagination is subject to complex mediation and also the serious business of fantasy.
The pretty constant presence of Papapetrou's daughter, the tenderness of some treatments of her and the strangeness of others, helps this body of work retain a personal dimension rather than disappear into structuralist rabbit holes or other theoretical cul-de-sacs. As a model she is a still and deep centre to many of the images, so that the child characters she represents seem to have a flesh and blood presence whilst it is the set-ups and backdrops that swirl. That centre allows the dominant conceit to develop, the odd, askew, loaded landscapes around the girl are representative of both her internal worlds and the lens through which others see her. Without making the work specifically biographical we also watch this girl grow through the course of the retrospective Papapetrou follows this and themes shift and evolve. It makes the images feel very intimate, like a conversation between two women full of care and fascination.
It looks like no accident that many of the images in the who touch on, explicitly or otherwise, the Victorian era when childhood was first romanticized. It's more remarkable that Papapetrou manages to use that era without creating some kind of photo essay. Measure of Papapetrou's craft is the affect she creates from an economy of means. When we see girls in Victorian smocks fainting on stony outcrops in the Australian bush it's easy to see 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' and assume these are nothing but pastiche. However, when one looks again it's plain to see that so much is achieved through subtle means. In her series of works that explore tales of lost Australian children Papapetrou manages to touch on cultural archetypes and current anxieties, but her work is never dependent upon these contexts alone. When the booted and bonneted children are replaced by sullen, modern teenagers it's inevitable that we reconsider our assumptions. Quaint historical children are in danger from something unknown, whilst messy warm-blooded contemporary kids are a threat to us. If this makes the works sound like cultural studies lectures by other means I'm doing them a huge disservice as they work in their own right as beautifully balanced and composed frozen narratives without the interpretation.
Later works create fantastic characters, masked, role playing, part-human, part-animal they can be amusing or deeply moving and their protagonists have the presence of characters in fairy stories. Folk tales have proved a ripe and fruitful source material for many female artists and writers, and Papapetrou works in some of the same spaces explored by Angela Carter in fiction, Marina Warner in popular cultural studies and Paula Rego in painting. What all of these have in common is a sense of the danger and sex that rub up so insistently against female childhood. The format of the folktale allows artists to apply the sane distance of metaphor to that subject, it allows us to escape the tabloid hysteria about bad girls just as it rejects the titillation that the same media thrives upon. Whether hyper-real or stage set daubed you see something of the heady strangeness of childhood here. What is always notable is the impassive nature of the girls in the photographs, as all this weird shit happens it is almost a challenge to the adult viewer, and let us be honest they mainly will be, to deal with and process the ambiguity that suffuses childhood.