Cemetery speaking: The artists who gave life to the MGC

Published:  September 23, 2015
Maggie Hellyer

Cemeteries have many stories to tell. This is no different with Melbourne’s iconic Melbourne General Cemetery, which was given a voice by three exceedingly talented and established photographic artists John Gollings, Polixeni Papapetrou and Jane Burton. For the Centre for Contemporary Photography’s exhibition Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, which ran from 11-20 September, the three artists used their own unique styles and perspectives to visually interpret the Melbourne General Cemetery.



The title of the exhibition is in reference to Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy from his tragic play Macbeth. Upon hearing of the death of his beloved wife Macbeth laments that she would have died later if not now, ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’.  Therefore, the exhibition is a celebration of a moment in time, and according to organiser Naomi Cass is, “pointing towards the the longing for longevity, immortality, everlasting presence and hope for the future.”  desktop had a chance to chat to the artists and stopped by the exhibition to view their work.

John Gollings  'Subdivision' 2015 inkjet print. 96.8 x 65 cm edition of 4 +1 AP Courtesy of the artist

John Gollings
‘Subdivision’ 2015
inkjet print. 96.8 x 65 cm
edition of 4 +1 AP
Courtesy of the artist

John Gollings

What do you love most about Australian architecture?

Australian architecture, especially in Melbourne, has an experimental quality that makes for strong images. I am always attracted to the seminal work of our best architects because it is a bit extreme and will influence future directions. My compositions probably pick up on that extremity with their own strength. An architectural photographer is only as good as his subject material because you are trying to showcase someone else’s creativity.

Your photographs are quite breathtaking; how does your background in architecture influence the way you photograph landscapes?

I think the influence comes from mathematics and compositional theory, which is part of my architectural training. All my best images have a strong compositional rigour and this is based on an anti-aesthetic of dumb centralised elements and contradictory negative or oppositional spaces. This is probably why I like aerial images so much. They are two-dimensional and make composition easier without dealing with perspective.

How do you interpret the contrast between ancient and modern cities and structures? Which do you prefer photographing?

Ancient cities are reductionist and thus about a pure formal object which can be dealt with. Modern cities are living beings and as such they contain all the sub texts and distractions of inhabitation. I prefer the old, except for the proliferation of tourists who mess up the photos, but a modern city is intellectually more challenging and physically harder to deal with so that when you get a good picture it is more satisfying.

What do you love most about photography?

I love two things, the constant quest for a strong meaningful image and the intrinsic beauty of the actual equipment. Cameras and lenses are employed to freeze a moment in time but they are just beautiful things in their own right. They encompass so much theory and engineering simultaneously to produce the optical clarity of a photograph that I still marvel at each exposure. However, the ultimate goal is to produce a body of images that help record and explain the world as I have seen it and this is both satisfying and challenging.

Polixeni Papapetrou 'I wove me a wreath' 2015 type C photograph, 75 x 75 cm edition of 4 +1 AP Courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

Polixeni Papapetrou
‘I wove me a wreath’ 2015
type C photograph, 75 x 75 cm
edition of 4 +1 AP
Courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

Polixeni Papapetrou

Your work has many thought provoking undertones; where do you get the inspiration for the types of themes present in your collections?

For the exhibition Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, we were invited to make new work addressing the Melbourne General Cemetery. I wanted to make something about the material culture of MGC by working with something from the site. I decided to work with flowers as they are used symbolically to celebrate many occasions ranging from birth through to death. I brought the flowers from the cemetery into the studio and experimented with them in different ways. It was important for me to convey something symbolic but also positive and hopeful and I found this in the flowers. I have photographed them in a way that brings forth their ambiguity: are they real or are they textile? I also photographed my daughter Olympia, who along with my son Solomon are the primary subjects in my work.  Olympia was dressed in a costume suggesting another time and she is portrayed running across the area of the cemetery containing the unmarked graves. I was moved by the site and to photograph Olympia in this way.

Do you find any aspect of being a photographic artist challenging?

Making art is challenging because you are always aiming to make your best work yet. It may be that your best work is behind you, but wanting to make even better work drives you. Creating images that are meaningful and which communicate meaning is a constant focus for me. Making time for creating photographs, exhibiting and the administration of it is a challenge together with creating a meaningful and sincere family life, but like most other people I know, I just get on with it.

How does history and contemporary culture influence you?

I try to refresh my knowledge and ideas through conversation, life experience, reading, looking and research.  Many of my series refer quite directly to history, as well as to conventions and issues in the history of art. I am interested in both the past and the present and how this impacts on our lived reality and creates cultural shifts in our understanding, mores and practices towards certain subject matter. For example the representation of childhood and our changed social attitudes towards the representation of death and even sexuality.

What is your design process like when planning elaborate sets and costumes for your photographs?

I would describe the pictures as story telling, works that contain narratives about identity and how we create roles that sometimes take us to another world. I like to create spaces, creating a new reality from fiction and fantasy. I try to have enough reality in my pictures to convince the audience that they are still in the real world, but enough ambiguity to induce fantasy. I try to achieve a balance between fantasy and reality by relying on narrative, mood or atmosphere, lighting, costumes and the acting by the subjects. I like the pictures to feel like a still from theatre or a film. I tend to frame my work by balancing the background with the narrative happening in the foreground. Because I work with people, I experiment broadly with costumes and props. It is an iterative process of photographing and looking at the work and returning to photograph. The process is more elaborate if we work off site in the landscape, as I have to find the best setting to frame the idea and then of course there is the process of post production and that decision making can be as complicated and fraught as taking the photograph.

Jane Burton  'Childe #1' 2015 62 x 42.7 cm edition of 4 + 1 AP Courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

Jane Burton
‘Childe #1′ 2015
62 x 42.7 cm
edition of 4 + 1 AP
Courtesy the artist and Karen Woodbury Gallery, Melbourne

Jane Burton

Your photography is very emotive and references femininity and sexuality.  What inspires you to highlight these themes in your work?

Perhaps it all started with the imagery I first saw when I was a young girl: images in books that my father brought home, for example, art of the late 19th Century Symbolists and Decadents, the drawings of Norman Lindsay, a published catalogue of the celebrated photographic exhibition The Family of Man. I was exposed to the nude, and nudity, in poetic, allegorical, and erotic representations. When I began to make my own work, I was predisposed romantically to draw upon these early influences. I have continued to work with the nude – predominantly female – because it excites me and is a means to explore my own experience of the world as a woman, as well as being part of a historical tradition. Beyond depicting the body, my work seeks to delve deeper into the emotive, spiritual and psychological interior of my subjects.

In your own words how would you describe your photographic art?

As an atmospheric realm: dark, beautiful, melancholy, mysterious, romantic, brooding and erotic.

What do you love most about photographing landscapes?

The landscapes I photograph are the ones that inspire a feeling of the sublime within me; places that make you feel more alive within yourself, as part of the universe. The feeling of exaltation is something I mean to capture in a landscape photograph. Though having said that, sometimes I am drawn to smaller, less picturesque landscapes and bleak urban terrain, inspiring not so much feelings of the sublime, but rather melancholy, pathos and sometimes, fear.

Do you have a favourite photograph or collection?

No, I can’t say I have a favourite. I am attached to them all for the memories they invoke, and the emotions attached to these mementos of place, people, and the experience of making the picture.


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