Łukasz Skąpski, "People Thinking About Art"
Photo-shoot: 10-14 March 2015, 12 noon – 6 pm
Opening: 27 March 2015, 6 pm
The exhibition will run until 19 April 2015.
The exhibition People Thinking About Art is the result of a week-long event that involved the artist Łukasz Skąpski taking photographs of residents of Nowy Sącz. The BWA SOKOL Gallery had advertised for volunteers willing to take part in the project, with the incentive of receiving a free set of passport photos. In return, at the moment of the photo being taken, the sitter was meant to think about art.
Łukasz Skąpski talks to Anna Smolak about the project.
Łukasz Skąpski: My attitude to models posing for photos is no different to my attitude to people in general. So, how I relate to them depends on the level of personal interaction between us, shared communication codes and so on. For example, an older lady came to the gallery, a painter, who tried to treat me instrumentally – she brought her own photos and she wanted me to photograph and enlarge them. She wanted to use the situation, in which I was providing a service of sorts, for her own purposes. At the same time, I suggested that I take a photograph of her, and she happily agreed to that. She posed holding a handbag and artificial chrysanthemums – no, actually, they were artificial peonies… and, do you know, she was posing in such a pretentious way that she was acting like Violetta Villas, in fact she had a similar figure. Of course I treated her proposal a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was fun taking her pictures, because they were different from all the others. She was celebrating her charm and poses – a real God-send for any photograph! As a result, she is the co-author of these photographs. Anyway, I in fact think that, with such projects, when you don’t find your models but they are just a statistic, they become co-authors of the photograph. For one thing, they dress in any way they want; for another, they behave just as they feel like. So, some are co-authors and they themselves shape their image; others pose, they are dressed in impressive gear; others still are humble, they wear ordinary clothes – probably, they make the least attractive models. There is always a certain give-and-take between what I tell them and what they themselves put into the shoot. A very shy guy turned up, very tall, in kind of… funky clothes, he had a very interesting face. He was incredibly embarrassed in front of the camera, he didn’t really at all want to agree to take part. In the end I somehow managed to persuade him, because deep down, he did in fact want to have his photo taken. The photos were really great, some of the best ones, because he had a very interesting personality. This personality somehow or other comes over in the photos.
Anna Smolak: And what about the idea of ‘thinking about contemporary art?
ŁS: You were talking earlier about the triangle viewer – artist – model… We assume that it is in the nature of such a project inevitably the case that the viewers will be primarily the people who had been photographed, so the viewer will also be the model. Of course, more people than that will come to the opening. I was shooting the kind of people who don’t necessarily come to openings at SOKOL. I think this will be a very crowded opening. Let’s make an estimate: a hundred people plus their families – that’s some three hundred people, well – maybe two hundred. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what the public not involved in the project think about it. They will simply come to see people thinking about art – in a relatively cold and detached way. The hot story is what goes on between me and the model. They will be coming to check out the effects of my work and their own involvement.
AS: Why are we asking people in Nowy Sącz to think about art?
ŁS: If they weren’t going to think about art, I wouldn’t really have a reason to photograph ordinary people, because – really – why would I? Portraits of Nowy Sącz residents, or portraits of people who want to have a passport photo – what would be the point of that? The little, subtle device of asking them to think about contemporary art (without telling them how or what in particular they should be thinking) gives the project a critical edge. What are we criticising and why? We are criticising the general absence of people from art galleries, and not only in Nowy Sącz. We employ an absurd idea: we invite people who simply fancy having a passport photo taken and tell them to think about art. On the face of it, this makes no sense at all, but on the other hand, it reveals a situation that in order to get people to come to the gallery, they need to be given some bait, a free offer. This is not the same reason as coming to see art. Maybe they would come to see an exhibition of clocks or press photos, but they won’t be coming to an art exhibition, because they are not in the habit of looking at art, they don’t even like it. Like the majority of Polish people, they are not interested in art at all. So the criticism lies in showing a specific situation that is quite strange from the point of view of European culture, where – in order to drag people into the gallery – you have to use tricks, offer them a bargain.
AS: If the requirement to think about art is part of the transaction, does the expectation create any kind of tension between you and the model? Do the people who come want to talk about art?
ŁS: I didn’t notice anybody wanting to talk about it. As a matter of fact, our exchange of thoughts on the topic of contemporary art boiled down to me saying that the photograph for the identity card or a passport would be free, on the condition that they think about contemporary art. However, some people take this quite seriously and they talk about which particular kind of art they are thinking about or which exhibition. It all depends on the person. If my request is directed to someone who doesn’t have a clue about contemporary art, then he doesn’t really know, what he is supposed to think about. If, for example, I were to ask them to think about molecular biology, for the majority of people this is such an abstract concept that they’d be bound to have no idea what to think, because they didn’t do it at school. And they didn’t do art, either. It seems to me that the majority of people who have no connection with art don’t know, what to think. They might think of the very concept, that this is a strange idea. This is why often my request causes them to look stunned. And I show this astonishment in my photos.
AS: We were talking about Thomas Ruff… that, in a sense, this project draws on his work, although Ruff was looking in the faces of his models for emotional neutrality.
ŁS: That’s right, that was his premise and this can be seen in his portraits, which is something that I like about them. I had been wondering how to approach this shoot. I usually take three photos or a few more, depending on how the model is acting. When I have the first shots, I think that I will choose the expressive ones, for example the ones that show an expression of bewilderment, or the ones in which they close their eyes – the better to concentrate on art. This happens and I have come to the conclusion that what makes other photos, for example, Ruff’s ones, different from mine, is precisely the different facial expressions. It would have been silly to ignore the first impressions, the surprise or shock visible in their faces, brought on by my simple request ‘and now please think about contemporary art.’ On the other hand, I kind of exploit the viewer’s ignorance, showing people’s actual attitude to art. The models often control their expression, not everyone, but some do – but if they don’t bother, you can see their state of consciousness in the photo. Going back to Ruff, this is the essential difference, sufficient to be able to say that my photographs have little in common with Ruff’s photographs.
You were asking about the technical aspects. I managed to set up the lighting almost ideally so as to avoid the effect of light reflected in the eyes; this required re-organising almost entirely the studio that I had planned earlier.
I think that the quality of these photographs will not show at first glance. It goes deeper than that.
AS: If there is no light reflected in the eyes, then we have a very unnatural situation here, because we can always see the reflection of light in eyes. At the same time, the thinking process can be most often noticed in the eyes, so is it not the case, that removing the light from the eyes…
ŁS: Removing from the eyes the light reflected in them, we show the inner light, because, as you say, usually the light visible in the eyes is reflected. I am talking precisely about the same thing. The absence of reflected light in the eyes results in being able to see the eyes themselves, and I make this possible through using diffused light, so, the kind of light that we get, for example, on a cloudy day.
We would get ideally diffused light if we were in the centre of a shining sphere, one that shines from below, from above and from the sides, but not too much – this is a situation where you get no shadow.
AS: Could this project take place in any town in Poland?
ŁS: Yes, I think so. But I will most certainly not repeat it in any other place. I can repeat the exhibition, but I will not be repeating the actual photographic project. Still, one should never say never…
AS: The project is based on two stages. The first one is the photographic process – invisible to the public. The second is the exhibition. In the first stage, there is an almost intimate situation created between you and the model; there is a truth there – something that you are both aware of, something that forms on the level of a personal relationship. The reception of the exhibition will be based solely on the expectations created by the title.
ŁS: That is quite natural, because in the first case we are dealing with people that I am talking to, that I set up, and in the second – we have copies, so the relationship will never be just as intense. There can, however, appear other factors, to do with how the exhibition is received. I have no idea how the whole thing will come out, because I cannot possibly predict it. A lot depends on the choice of the photographs, on what the whole set will look like and how individual photos relate to one another.
AS: Simultaneously, two situations can be pinpointed: an individual and a collective one.
ŁS: When it comes to creating a collection, it's always about a set of individual objects. If we collect teapots, we collect them primarily because the objects that we collect belong to the set of teapots, in other words, they are all objects that can be described as a ‘teapot’. But we don’t just collect any old teapot. We don’t go to a shop and order a thousand identical teapots. We collect teapots that are different from other teapots, and the more different they are, the more they gladden the heart of the teapot collector. So, we have precisely the contrast of opposites – as you say, the individual versus the collective. We create a collection, which we treat as an entity that dissolves the individuality of its components in the single concept: ‘teapots’. Each of them, individually, is an exhibit. However, an exhibit outside the collection does not have the same value as when it is a part of the collection, because it exists outside comparison.
AS: Is this project cynical?
ŁS: Perhaps a little bit… on the other hand, though, a street photographer often has to be cynical, brazen, devoid of human feelings, or otherwise he will never get a shot considered good. There is a saying that goes, ‘If the photograph is no good, it means you weren’t close enough’. This means such a photographer has to be right in people’s faces, people who are – for example – ugly, disabled, naked or anybody looking out of the ordinary. Contemporary photographs have made us accustomed to expect in each photograph something shocking, extraordinary, unusual or disturbing. The power of the photograph has to a large extent depend on the fact that it shows human ugliness in a close-up. The more ugly, the better. So, in comparison with these popular photographic phenomena, my project is really full of respect for people and their values.
AS: You used the word ‘naked’, so I thought that I would ask you this last question: what does this project expose?
ŁS: If it does expose anything, it is the helplessness of Poles when faced with contemporary art. This helplessness is not something that one can hold against individuals, this is a profound trait of our culture in general. What is at fault is the chain of historical circumstance and the economic situation that has prevailed in Poland since the 15th century, so this is not a new situation, or a recently discovered one. This trait of Polish reluctance towards art must be favoured by the officials from the Ministry of National Education, because for years now, art have been successfully pushed out of the school curriculum.
Łukasz Skąpski – a multimedia artist. Graduate of the Faculty of Painting of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. During 2002–2009, a lecturer at the Academy. In 2012, awarded PhD at the University of Arts in Poznań. Since 2010, running his own studio at the Szczecin Art Academy. Creates installations, objects, video films, photographs. His works can be found in collections including the Museum of Art in Łόdź, the Silesian Museum in Katowice, the Museum of Photography in Krakow, Arsenał Gallery in Białystok, Bunkier Sztuki Gallery in Krakow and in private collections. Since 2001, he has been a member of Supergrupa Azorro.