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Airs Above the Ground (2010)Salla Tykkä / Alan Kucar

A dream of beauty

From gymnasts to showponies, Finnish artist Salla Tykkä creates images of illusive power

It’s been nearly fifteen years since Finnish artist Salla Tykkä first entered the public consciousness with her achingly beautiful short film Lasso. Since then, her films have evolved from Hitchcockian style affairs combining female leads and iconic cinematic soundtracks, to more polished symbolic studies into perfection, beauty and control, losing none of their visual allure, sonic impact and ability to captivate along the way. As her latest UK solo exhibition opens at the BALTIC in Gateshead alongside the international premiere of new commission Giant; Tykkä talks gymnastics, music and power structures.

Dazed Digital: Can you say a little about the The Palace trilogy you're showing at BALTIC, Gateshead?

Salla Tykkä: The three films on show at Baltic are made from 2008 – 2013. They are all describing one subject from my own memory. These are subjects that I considered beautiful in my youth. To me they represented something complete, a dreamlike perfection, and were reflecting the mentality of western humankind. 

After reading essays by John Ruskin I started rethinking these images.  I understood how the search for beauty and perfection has always been connected to political power and how certain aesthetics advance the growth of fascism. I felt how strongly these kind of images are affecting our minds and shaping not only our aesthetics but also our ethics, our understanding of “us” and “the others”.

DD: The most recent film Giant is being shown for the first time and focuses on Romanian gymnastics. How did your interest in this subject come about and how did the project develop?

Salla Tykkä: I had been doing artistic gymnastics myself until I was 15 years old. It is a very tough sport and I feel it has shaped a lot of my way of seeing myself. As a young gymnast I was admiring Romanian gymnasts, as they were the best in the world.  During that time gymnastics was a very important part of the façade that the closed totalitarian society was showing.

When I was watching the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, I saw another perfect gymnast from Romania. I was astonished how the sport was still so strong in this country despite the dissolution of the previous political system. In this work I explore Romanian gymnastics as a cultural relic, an icon that remains through images and creates new ones. 

DD: Your earlier works all featured female protagonists, was this an echoing of the notion of cinematic male ‘gaze’ often cited in feminist writings?

Salla Tykkä: For me making self-portraits was a beginning and base of my art. Later on when I decided that I did not need to perform myself in front of the camera, it was a natural decision to use actresses in my photos and films as protagonists. I was also studying feminist theories during my time at the Art Academy and I am sure that these writings influenced me and gave me courage to start working with film - a quite male dominated medium in many senses.

DD: Your earlier work borrowed heavily from Hollywood cinema, especially the thriller and horror genres, is this something you have moved away from completely?

Salla Tykkä: Using references from different films and genres was a way for me to process the female image in cinema and mass culture as a whole. I wanted to create a cinematic experience and play with the contradiction between the medium and the content. In these films there is hardly any logical narrative but the style in which it is told makes it feel as if there was.

DD: The soundtracks used in the three newer works are quite different to those you’ve chosen before, which had a strong and recognisable link with Hollywood cinema. How do you go about choosing the musical accompaniments to your films?

Salla Tykkä: Music has been one part of the sound in my films. Of course music has a very important role as it affects the viewer a lot. I’ve used music to provoke, to distance but also to smoothen the viewing situation. Finding music for each film has been a different process – for some it was almost clear from the planning stages, for others more like a coincidence. The song you will hear in the latest film [Giant] is originally from a film soundtrack, but you hear it as the floor exercise music of one gymnast.

DD: You currently live and work in Helsinki, are you inspired by any other Finnish filmmakers?

Salla Tykkä: I am looking at more visual art exhibitions than going to the cinema. I think moving image is a powerful medium, but traditional cinema is not so interesting to me anymore. 

THE PALACE, November 22nd – March 2nd, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead.