Key Points:

Who:

Polixeni Papapetrou and Valerie Sparks

Where and when:

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Roger Williams Contemporary, 61 Randolph St, Newton, to Sep 13

Photography has given artists powerful technology to explore their ideas.

The challenge is to measure the result of its success in conveying the ideas, rather than being an artefact of the production process.

Two Melbourne artists who go beyond the technology are sharing space at Roger Williams Contemporary Gallery off Upper Queen St.

Polixeni Papapetrou shows several works from her

Haunted Country

series, which use stories of lost children to explore the relationship Australians have with their landscape.

The genesis was an 1886 painting by Heidelberg School painter Frederick McCubbin, inspired by an incident in 1867 when three boys aged 4, 5 and 6 wandered from home near Daylesford.

An extensive search failed to find any sign of them but, 10 weeks later, a dog found their remains in a hollow tree where they may have sheltered.

"I made a work based on Fred McCubbin's work

Lost

with a painted scenic background, like

Wonderland

," says Papapetrou, referring to her

Alice in Wonderland

series.

"I looked at the work and I liked it a lot and I thought how am I going to recreate these

Lost

paintings in the studio? That's when I thought I should go into the bush."

She started researching stories about lost children and drew on the writing of Peter Pierce, whose book

The Country of Lost Children

tracks how the figure of the lost child has haunted the Australian imagination.

"I was using the landscape to talk about the uneasy relationship we have had to the land and how the European settlers got lost in the land because it was so foreign to them," she says.

"The indigenous people never got lost, because it was home. So our relationship was filtered through these narratives."

Papapetrou used her children and their friends as models, taking them to the sites of the stories, true and fictional, dressing them in period clothes, and giving them scenarios to act out.

"It's troubling for some people that in my work the children are not cute, they are not fetishised but they have an active role in the production of the work," she says.

"Some people are unsettled as well because of the idea the children in these works died or disappeared."

Mirroring the Australian anxiety about the bush were her concerns about the photo shoots.

"The worst thing that happened was they were bitten by bull ants but we were looking all the time for snakes," she says.

The works track changing attitudes. Several reference Joan Lindsay's novel, Picn

ic at Hanging Rock

, set in 1900 but published in 1967, which - despite being a work of fiction - has such resonance that many people believe it was based on a true incident.

"That marks a turning point. In the 19th century, the children were taken by the land, as we see from the high infant mortality," says Papapetrou.

"In the 20th century, they were lost not to the land but to human intervention."

The works in the series which get the strongest response are not in the Auckland show.

They are of the three Beaumont children who went to the beach on Australia Day in 1966 - about the same time

Picnic at Hanging Rock

was being written - and were never seen again.

Sharing the space are three large digital images by Valerie Sparks, who is also examining people's relationships to landscape.

Her starting point is wallpapers produced in France in the late 18th and early 19th century, depicting idealised landscapes.

Two of the works were originally shown at Linden, a contemporary arts centre housed in a Victorian mansion in St Kilda. Sparks took photos of the rooms and, using her computer, added the wallpaper, a photorealist version of the entire Pacific rim.

It was supposed to be a representation of the Pacific imagery brought back from D'Urville and Cook's travels, she says.

"It was a very elaborate European fantasy of the Pacific as an Arcadian paradise."

The wallpaper may be the same as one that features in a room at Auckland Museum.

"When I first saw these wallpapers, I went off. Bits of my life came together," says Sparks, who did a degree in anthropology and Pacific studies before going to art school.

"I have a long-term interest in European representation of the Pacific and how it has defined itself against its perceived other."

The wallpaper depicted in the photos can be printed out in colour or monochrome and has been featured in separate installations, including a two metre by 12-metre strip for the foyer of a Melbourne theatre.

The other work at Roger Williams is a smaller version of such a strip - Sparks' take on a wallpaper called El Dorado, which showed temples from every continent.

"I wanted to invert that and say we have this location where all these continents are represented in a single place." That place is Melbourne, where Sparks found a Russian temple in Brunswick; a huge Buddha figure surrounded by concrete lotus followers in a north Melbourne industrial zone; St Patrick's Cathedral; a Hindu temple; an Albanian Islamic mosque and a Sikh temple.

She says the wallpapers, along with panoramic pavilions and even stereoscopic viewer, are early attempts at virtual reality.

"This is about the complete collapse of space and being," she says.