Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
22 November 2013 – 2 March 2014
By DARRAN ANDERSON
Those moments when the sublime is exposed or experienced, what the Bavarian film director Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth”, are not merely cinematic or artistic phenomena; they exist in the everyday. Life is cinematic. This is by no means simply a transcendent process; it is as capable of desolation as joy, of deception as revelation.
The Finnish artist, filmmaker and photographer Salla Tykkä is an exemplary explorer of the hidden currents and maelstroms that lurk beneath the serene surfaces. Her work locates the cinema in the deceptively commonplace; highlighting those uncanny moments we experience when receptive. Yet her work goes beyond this, implying that first appearances are rarely what they seem. Her initially innocent scenes begin to change with the addition of stirring soundtracks, the manipulation of editing and simply looking at a subject closer and for longer than we might normally. Her visuals and sound are recorded with striking vividness. Through Tykkä’s work, we might be led to question not just the seductive somnambulism of film, as we would with a Brechtian distancing effect, but also the suspension of disbelief we employ in life itself.
The Palace is a triptych of films bringing together Victoria (2008) and Airs Above the Ground (2010) with a new work, co-commissioned by the Baltic, entitled Giant (2013). Initially, the three films, depicting a slow-motion flowering of a water lily, and the training of horses and gymnasts respectively, might seem to have little in common; that is until you consider Tykkä’s overarching theme of manufactured perfection and the machinations therein. They invite consideration of the before and after, as well as the nature of the viewer’s gaze, how each subject has been used, for what purposes, and by whom. “Look closer,” Tykkä beckons us, “and you might see all society here.” The symbolic “Palace” of the title may be impressive, but it could just be a refined and opulent Potemkin village.
In Victoria, the combination of hypnotic, exquisitely lit time-lapse footage with a grandiose orchestral score makes the piece mesmerising, absurd and moving in equal measure. Shot with the lily coming into bloom at night, the portrait has a sensual balletic feel. With the vaguest hint of wilting and a change in musical tone, it maintains some of the menace and psychological nuances of Tykkä’s earlier voyeuristic work. The first sign of a political aspect to the film comes with the title and the back story of the plant. It was “discovered” in 1837 by a British-sponsored explorer, Sir Robert Hermann Schomburgk, and named in honour of the then queen. Schomburgk was also involved with mapping and carving out the South American territory that had been annexed and named British Guiana (now Guyana). A flower, insentient if not quite inanimate, was made into a symbol of empire and all that comes with it. Tykkä first came across the plant when she was watching a 1920 film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Son of Tarzan. She suggests not just that the water lily has been branded and appropriated in Victorian gardens or “naturalistic” Impressionist paintings but that it remains a cipher on to which we project our own pre-existing views. As the camera retreats, we are again made aware of our presence as intruders in, and perhaps despoilers of, a secret, fragile arcadian scene. The delicate ripples in the pond that the blossoming lily creates are much smaller and less harmful than the unseen ones our presence sets into motion.
In Airs Above the Ground, Tykkä presents a Lipizzaner horse being schooled in Viennese dressage. The animal is stunning both in form and refinement, raising its hooves on command and finally adopting the pose of the title. Again, it is the inherent contradictions on which Tykkä wordlessly lingers and the underlying history that make her work so powerful. The horse is a magnificent creature yet it is cowed and powerless. Often used in heroic martial statues, the all-conquering pose of a horse rising up on its hind legs was militarily useless and dangerous on the battlefield as it exposed the horse’s flank and endangered the rider. The “civilising” impulse is an invitation to disaster. In contrast to the shots of foals galloping freely through woodland, the performing Lipizzaner is stilted and even despondent. Just as the lily turns with a hint of red to pink, the horse has changed colour in its lifespan from dark to white. Like the aforementioned British empire, the Hapsburg imperial court, which so prized this breed and their performances, is no more. Yet the tradition remains as a relic, an echo of earlier more elegant and barbaric times. As with the brief extract of Bach’s tragic and majestic Mass in B minor, it may be a rousing spectacle, but it is an imposition nonetheless. Something has been lost, or rather excised, in the taming and breeding of such a creature, Tykkä proposes. What that may be is left to our imagination.
The third and most recent film glimpses would-be Olympic gymnasts in Romanian training halls and boarding schools. While the building in which Giant is set suggests late-Soviet modernism, the large sporting icons on the wall are fixed in appropriately cruciform poses. The young girls perform leaps, flips and balances in rows and symmetrically. While their movements suggest vitality, they take place in a regimented environment and under the stern gaze of the instructor. There are flashbacks to the same places and actions in 1970s footage, when the country was under a Communist dictatorship. We are invited to consider what has changed. As with the two preceding works, there is little doubt about the aesthetic quality and athletic prowess of the gymnasts. Yet there is an unspoken conflict between the constraints the form demands and the self-mastery of its participants. The tension between the two is a fraught. It comes down to a question of control and who really possesses it. Tykkä leaves this, too, for us to decide.
Independence, in all three of these films, is a fleeting precious thing that exists almost in spite of everything else, even beauty. Without agency, the subjects are moulded by outside forces, which include us, the viewers. Tykkä has commented on the importance of the writings of the art critic John Ruskin on these films, in terms of seeing the latent sadism – even fascism – that might exist in striving for perfection and in placing aesthetics above all other concerns. In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin wrote a line that connects with this exhibition: “To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality.” With The Palace, Tykkä does not polemicise or lament. The British, Austro-Hungarian and Eastern Bloc empires that manipulated these subjects for their own gain are gone. The subjects may yet find another, if not their own, form of meaning. Crucially, the girls in Giant are differentiated by having voices, and thus hope, in whichever direction it may take them. While Tykkä has moved beyond the self-portraits of her earliest work and portrays her subjects with great empathy, in a sense these films are still partially representations of her. Each of the films has personal resonance; she was a gymnast herself as a teenager, for example. They are both portraits of her past and our collective civilisations, as well as a testament to her artistic talent with all its glorious imperfection in the present.