Tomasz Sikora’s art expresses the latest cultural changes connected with the growing influence of commercial photography, including the photography of fashion. They have been taking place in the Anglo-American world since the sixties, beginning with the outstanding works of an American photographer, Richard Avedon, based on the concept of the portrait, and since the seventies, exemplified by the art of an Australian artist of German origin, Helmut Newton. However, we should remember that even constructivists were interested in commercial graphics and that surrealism influenced advertising agencies active in the area of fashion as early as the 1930s.
How has Tomasz Sikora’s artistic career evolved? Polish fashion photography has been a great unknown from the historical point of view. From the between-the-wars period we know only the portraits by Jerzy Benedykt Dorys (whose real name was
Z. Rotenberg), who documented Polish culture of the times and after the Second World War. His photographs are important for Polish photography but they do not stand out in any characteristic way among other portraits of that type made in Europe. Analogies with Dorys’s art may be found in many European countries of those times.
We had to wait until the seventies before Tomasz Sikora’s art transformed this kind of applied photography into a visual message of high artistic value. In his pictures, of which the most widely known are those that were a part of LOT’s advertising campaign, we notice the eroticism of the models and the purposeful use of accessories which complement both the sphere of metaphor and meaning. In photographs taken a little later Sikora made use of acting and employed elements of perversion (women holding a cat or walking a cat on a leash). It is a pity that those works were never edited in a strictly photographic form and therefore could not have been shown at an exhibition. Instead, they rather resembled graphic design of mediocre typography and they were mainly meant to be used to publish a magazine called “Propozycje” [“Propositions”] which never appeared on the market. Both reportage and commercial photography are often pushed aside to the fringes of culture and serve only giant press consortiums interested in various feminine topics.
We should add that in some pictures from the second half of the seventies Tomasz Sikora’s style closely resembled that of Helmut Newton who showed “the power of women”, though his photographs were most carefully staged and directed by a man.
Between 1978 and 1979 with the assistance of a graphic designes, Marcin Mroszczak, Sikora created his most popular series of black-and-white photographs coloured by means of an air-brush, called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This series of several pictures inspired by Lewis Carrol’s novel turned out to be his most significant artistic achievement so far. Fantastic clothes, playful atmosphere and the control the artist shows over a spacious set makes this series of pictures the herald of the so-called “staged photography”. It makes us realize that inspirations originating from commercial pics, as well as from film and theatre, may give new meaning to the notion of artistic photography. No wonder that those works represented Poland at the prestigious Youth Biennale in Paris, in 1980, and were bought by Muzeum Sztuki [Museum of Art] in Łódź. As the artist himself often repeated, the presentation of this series of photos in Australia allowed him to begin a career on the local advertising market. In 1983 Sikora moved from Poland to Melbourne in Australia where he achieved the status of a successful artist in the field of commercial photography.
He is a classical photographer who employs modernist tricks in his aesthetics, like the projection of photography on a model, montage, nudes – and he usually reduces all these elements to a neopictorial visual effect which creates the impression we have to do with a painting because Sikora uses certain manual techniques on the positive. He is also a talented studio portraitist. He has been living in Warsaw for a few years now, lectures in various photographic schools and has been engaged in the idea of Galeria Bezdomna [Homeless Gallery], which we shall yet discuss.
Tomasz Sikora’s photographs which have been coming into being since the seventies may be evaluated at least in two contexts: as products created for the advertising market and as broadly conceived photographic art.
At an exhibition called Nie do wiary, nie do pary [Unbelievable, Incompatible] Sikora presented models in pairs, contrasted by their clothes and physiognomies. He referred to the tradition of photographs taken at fairs and in market-places as well as to the ludic aspect of photography, posing questions about the relation between the characters in his pictures. I suppose that he was able to build such surprising relations between his models because he inspires confidence and trust, especially among young people. This trust lies also at the source of the sociological success of Galeria Bezdomna – an idea developed since 2002, which, however, does not amount to much in the sense that it did not create a new style or introduce new characters on the scene of Polish photography.
In the nineties it was decidedly easier for Tomasz Sikora to appear in popular Polish magazines of wide circulation (in which he is presented as the star of Polish photography) than in artistic galleries and museums. He also appears on TV very often, along with Ryszard Horowitz. The media – including television and the press – act according to their own criteria and choices which more often than not do not comply with the cultural politics of galleries and museums. However, such choices are usually short-lived, as is the ever-changing information, because the artist presented by the media is most of all supposed to be a piece of sensational information!
Currently Tomasz Sikora is active in various cultural fields. In the same month, namely November, 2004, he opened simultaneously three exhibitions – in Łódź, Warsaw and Cracow. In the Warsaw gallery Fabryka Trzciny [Reed Factory] the artist showed his new colour landscapes with the motif of the road, photographed in Australia in 2004.
In Galeria FF [FF Gallery] Sikora presents his project Nie do wiary do pary [Unbelievable Compatible] which in a certain way is related to the idea of the exposition called Sąsiedzi z mojej ulicy [Neighbours from My Street], where the faces of Sikora’s real neighbours from Melbourne were covered by small photos containing the same motif.1 In this way Sikora reaches back to the tradition of conceptualism, trying to revive it. Such tautological ideas can be found, however, in the tradition of reportage photography, for example in the photograph Vienna (1949), by Ernst Haas from Magnum.
We could ask why Tomasz Sikora refers to the tradition of conceptualism? Obviously because he wants to be a part of the tradition of avant-garde art, as women’s magazines and advertising agencies represent different cultural territories, connected with the corporate practices of global capitalism. Perhaps he is also influenced by the Łódź Kaliska group, especially Andrzej Świetlik.
What does the series Nie do wiary do pary by Tomasz Sikora present? Putting together halves of portrait photographs is not only a conceptual idea but it also resembles the well-known commercials of a Vichy Laboratoires face cream in which famous faces (of actresses) and faces of anonymous women are divided along their axis of symmetry that separates the “better” – healthy part (after the cream’s application) – from the “worse” part of the face, on which the cream was not used. Sikora modifies this commercial trick in a conceptual way. He puts together faces of women, men and children in various configurations, showing two perfect, symmetrical parts of the face. Using short descriptions the artist reveals a given sociological motif which links the images of concrete human beings. Of course, we have to do here with a new proposition of a portrait. Influenced by cultural changes, including those of philosophical origin (the myth of androgyne), the artist decided to conduct an experiment which was justified by shorter or longer captions describing given pairs of people. Those “face-halves” are sublime, monumental, sometimes full of pathos. Let’s not be fooled, however – it is a purposeful trick of the photographer who wishes to prove the assumption that all images when put together are extremely similar! They all underwent a methodical authorial analysis and similar technical manipulations (identical lighting; moreover, the photographs were taken at almost the same time which caused a similar reaction to being photographed). Therefore, we have to do here with conscious framing and cutting of reality which is called back into existence as a hybrid. I have used the very popular notion of a hybrid here because it seems the best term to describe such attitudes that try to create new values with reference to the portrait and the photographic document. The artist gives up distinctions like trustworthiness, the truth of the moment (though not entirely!), realism and the psychological qualities of registered images. He moves in the direction of digital photography in which any portrait can be transformed into any artefact of high artistic quality, as the American duo of Aziz&Cucher proves.
In 2003 another exhibition by Tomasz Sikora, called Minął rok [A Year Has Passed] took place at Wyższa Szkoła Sztuki i Projektowania [Higher School of Art and Design] in Łódź. In this case we had to do with a kind of a photo-performance – the show was a specially arranged game of a clearly melancholy and intimate message. The exposition as a whole concentrated on facial and bodily expression of the models. I was very much under the impression of this show. I did not expect that Sikora would present himself as a lonely and alienated person, appearing in many beautiful but “empty” places all over the world. One could see in his face (perhaps a faked?) expression of fear of everyday reality/existence. Here an important, although unanswered question arises: was this the real image of a famous Polish photographer? One way or another, the artist’s perfect control over the arranged situation along with the “otherness” and “strangeness” of being created a very convincing final effect.
Tomasz Sikora is active in various artistic fields in which he interchangeably employs practices known from conceptualism and photomedia art, including performance, but also from classic portraitism and most of all, from neopictorialism.2
At the Nie do wiary do pary exhibition in Galeria FF he proves his interest in a covered and at the same time uncovered face, a face that is simultaneously created and destroyed.
Sikora is also a traditional landscape photographer. Undoubtedly he represents an eclectic style combined from a few different, and sometimes even opposing, artistic attitudes (portrait, conceptualism, landscape). However, nowadays we cannot treat his approach as erroneous.
Is it possible to be effective and successful in more than one branch of contemporary photography? Has not photography long become a specialized subject that demands concentration on only one kind of matter? Each viewer of Sikora’s exhibition at Galeria FF should be able to answer these questions himself.
Translation Maciej Świerkocki