Angela Grossman’s and Polixeni Papapetrou’s Adventures in Wonderland

Silvia Sorbelli

The After Alice exhibition, on display at the Maison de la Culture in the Plateau Mont-Royal from September 2-25, 2005, presented Angela Grossmann’s photographic series, Alpha Girls (2004-5) and Psychological Alice (2003-4), and Polixeni Papapetrou’s series, Wonderland (2003-4) and Dreamchild (2002-3). Amid myriad representations of young girls, the theme of childhood innocence emerged through a controversial association with the works of Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (also known as Lewis Carroll), the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. As well as being the creator of the chimerical tales of Alice, Carroll also ventured into the world of photography by capturing the highly criticized images of his favorite child friends, such as Alice Liddell, who also inspired his whimsical stories.

Grossmann’s photographic collages reflect a certain image of young female sexuality disguised by innocent faces appropriated from photographs of anonymous Victorian schoolgirls. Papapetrou investigates Carroll’s illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ( Wonderland ) and his photographic endeavors, picturing his child friends ( Dreamchild ) through her daughter Olympia and her friends, who play the roles previously assigned to Alice Pleasance Liddell, Xie Kitchin and the rest of Carroll’s “little friends.” These works offer a particular psychoanalytic understanding of childhood and teenage innocence and knowingness as seen through the maternal gaze, which find some sort of resolution in the highly critiqued works of Lewis Carroll.

Upon entering the After Alice exhibition, the viewer is confronted on the left by 23 colourful type C prints of the chimerical world of Alice in Wonderland, alongside the portraits of Olympia as Alice Liddell. The vibrancy and vivacity expressed in these works—very much like that of children playing dress up—is tamed and muted by the crude yet diaphanous images of Grossmann’s teenaged girls, which encircle those by Papapetrou. By placing Grossmann’s works around those of Papapetrou to seemingly parent them, the Alpha Girls and Psychological Alice assume a more serious and grim undertone. Grossmann’s body of work emerges from her interest, as a mother, in the overt manipulation of sexuality by mass culture and the consequent “premature sexualization” of girls in the coming-of-age stages in their lives.1 The bombardment of sexually-driven advertising specifically oriented to the fragile and absorbent minds of children is precisely what Grossmann wishes to attack through her large-as-life multimedia works.

In some of Grossmann’s collages, girls are huddled together in typical teenage cliques, “surrounding their alpha superiors” with eyes looking anxiously outward for acceptance, and occasionally in confrontation [1]. In other collages, girls are depicted in pairs or in isolation, denoting the cruel exclusions brought upon teenagers by their same, sometimes vicious kind. Grossmann’s raw treatment of her images and materials reflects this crude alienation. In a work such as The Girls (2004) (fig. 1), the viewer is confronted by the provoking, almost unsatisfied gaze of two girls, one with her arm authoritatively around the other’s shoulder. The faces, also appropriated from Victorian photographs of orphans and schoolgirls, are elaborated upon by the artist’s hand through muddied passages of black, white, red, blue and burnt sienna on vellum and paper. Grossmann adds hair, as well as bodies with strangely elongated and incomplete legs, to these nameless faces. Grossmann states, “I take my cues from my materials … I am not just painting on photos or other found materials … the combination is very considered and exact” [2]. A female’s legs are commonly understood to be a mark of sexual competence; traditionally, in many societies, women were encouraged, if not obligated, to keep them covered. Grossmann chooses to emphasize these parts of the human anatomy, making them as overt as the girls’ sweet yet confrontational gazes, but she does not complete them, which suggests a sort of tenuous and unfounded sexuality, often allocated to teenagers. What emerges from Grossmann’s oeuvre is the axiomatically divided notion of knowingness versus innocence and, consequently, “confrontation against seduction [and] individuality against conformity,” [3] overcoming Grossmann’s collages with a heavy unease and angst caused by years of competitiveness and “hypersexualized consumerism” [4].

These concepts are even more evident in her Alpha Girls (2004), in which a group of three girls are tightly huddled together, gossiping and isolating themselves from their surroundings. This time the viewer’s gaze is met by the back of one girl and the lively but incomplete grins of the other two girls. Grossmann outlines the girls’ fully-formed bodies in a bright bubblegum pink, further emphasizing their newly-acquired curvaceous features. The viewer’s presence can be read as both an intrusion and exclusion from their compact clique. The young girl with her back to the viewer does not allow us to participate, but it is as if she knows she is being watched (her friends must have warned her)—their knowingness, in conflicting combination with their innocence, allows for such discrimination. Furthermore, their sexuality is contrived through this innocent knowingness, which permeates through the image via their highlighted forms. Grossmann’s interest in young adults’ passage from childhood to adulthood might be the result of her own position as a mother of a thirteen-year-old. This is probably what prompted her to create images that comment on the overt manipulation of sexuality by our mass consumer society.

Papapetrou also addresses the challenge of children in art and, more specifically, as seen through the mother-artist’s gaze. She photographs her six-year-old daughter Olympia in an effort not only to incorporate images from the past into the present but also “[to] explore the boundaries of [Olympia’s] body and her ability to perform and cross boundaries of gender and ethnicity before the camera” [5] by portraying her in the likeness of “Chinese tea merchants, shipwrecked orphans, [and] beggar maids” [6]. In her Olympia as Lewis Carroll’s Beatrice Hatch before White Cliffs (2003) (fig. 2), from her series Dreamchild [7], Papapetrou stages the scene like a tableau vivant, just as Lewis Carroll had done before her and, precisely as Carroll was criticized for his supposed lewd intent, Papapetrou also faced such criticism, “yet was not surprised to hear it again” [8]. Olympia, seated nude on a rock, stares out at the viewer with a naïve yet attentive gaze, which reflects back upon the gaze of her mother taking the photograph. The possible interpretation of Olympia as a sexual being is tamed here by the mother-artist who creates a sort of filter between her daughter and the viewer, permitting the child’s innocence to emerge. Zara Stanhope argues that, due to “the proliferation of pornography in contemporary visual culture, photographs of children have become problematic in suggesting the potential for defiled innocence” [9]. Nevertheless, as soon as it is acknowledged that behind the child lies the mother’s presence, nudity is interpretable as childlike play rather than explicit sexuality, and the child’s innocence emerges as a result of this juxtaposition. The female nude has long been objectified in the history of art. However, it has historically been made acceptable through the reference to the past, where instances of photographically representing the female nude, and even nude children, went hand in hand with preceding portrayals in art history or literature [10]. Contrarily, in the case of Papapetrou, because the image of Olympia is captured by her own mother, this critique barely applies, though it finds confirmation through the fact that it is subject to the male gaze.

Innocence is confirmed through Papapetrou’s Wonderland series, which reenacts the original illustrations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by John Tenniel. Riddles that have no answers (2004) (fig. 3) presents the viewer with an amusing image from chapter seven in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, entitledA Mad Tea-Party. The “riddle with no answer” refers to the Mad Hatter’s famously unanswered riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” [11]. Olympia looks into her teacup, as if mimicking Alice with her “curiouser and curiouser” gaze [12]. The viewer is presented with a temporary escape from the reality of everyday through what Roger Caillois identifies as “vertigo, resulting from the destruction of the stability of perception … [and] mimicry, involving the escape from the self into another form of being,” [13] both of which are vividly present in Carroll’s chimerical world of the dream-child [14]. Papapetrou seems to be responsible for the escape “of the individual consciousness … into the fantasy world” created by her precedent, Lewis Carroll.

Finally, we are brought “down, down, down” to the one who encapsulates much of the argument brought to bear on the works of these two contemporary artists [15]. In the defense of Carroll’s representation of his child friends, it must be noted that he was “drawn naturally to them; he revelled in their unaffected innocence, their unsophisticated, unsocialized simplicity; he worshiped their fresh, pure unspoiled beauty” [16]. The notion of childhood sexuality cannot be denied, but Carroll looked beyond this element, to those features of young children (yet incongruously only girls) that were—and are—absent in adults. How can Carroll’s photographing of them possibly be justified? This finds consolidation in that among Carroll’s many reservations and fears—his stuttering, his concern for time—was also his terror of death and growing up. His conception of girls’ lacking sexuality was based on the fact that, once sexual awareness was reached, girls (women) grew older, and were brought closer to death [17]. For Carroll, capturing their image through photography was a way of preserving them against death (strangely enough, he never wanted to be photographed), where they “would always be beautiful and everlasting,” [18] allowing Carroll “to believe that little girls remain forever little” [19].

Through the critical and confrontational works of Polixeni Papapetrou and Angela Grossmann, the viewer is given a particular understanding of childhood and adolescence that induces the viewer to think about the nature of innocence and sexuality in a world of mass advertising. Both artists, in their own original way, provide the viewer with raw images of childhood sexualization veiled by their innate innocence. In a manner different from Lewis Carroll’s photographic endeavors, Grossmann’s and Papapetrou’s images of sexually defiled childhood innocence are mediated by a tender mother’s gaze, which emphasizes their innocence even further. However, all three photographers use the photographic medium as means to escape from something, whether it be from the manipulation of sexuality by mass culture, from reality, or from an innate fear of death. Just as Alice awoke from her dream, bringing Carroll’s tale to an end, so I am done “Realing and Writhing” on Papapetrou and Grossmann’s works, which give duly merited homage to Lewis Carroll and his dream world of Alice [20].

1. Angela Grossmann, Press Release, available [link].
2. “The Use of Found Materials”, available [link].
3. Robin Laurence, “Girls Caught in Market’s Tide,” Georgia Strait October 14, 2004, available [link].
4.  Ibid. 
5. Polixeni Papapetrou, Dreamchild Artist Statement, available [link].
6. Zara Stanhope, “Serious Play” on Dreamchild 2003, available [link].
7. This body of works takes its name from Gavin Millar’s film Dreamchild (1985). Carol Mavor, Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 42.
8. “Image and Imagination: After Alice and Polixeni Papapetrou”, available [link] postcafe/cafeDetail.asp?pd_id=1028.
9. Zara Stanhope.
10. Mavor, pp. 13-5.
11. Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in Martin Gardner, ed., The Annotated Alice(Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970), p. 95.
12. Ibid., p. 35.
13. Vivienne Webb, “Mystical Places” on Wonderland 2004, available [link].
14. Morton Cohen, quoted in Mavor, p. 8.
15. Mavor, p. 25.
16.  Ibid.
17.  Ibid., p. 34.
18. Carroll, p. 129.