A video triptych by Finnish artist Salla Tykkä, The Palace comprises of three short films –Victoria, Airs Above the Ground, and Giant – that de-naturalise their subjects in a series of increasingly overwhelming ways. The contrasts upon which these pieces have been built risk obviousness, but if the slow, immersive quality of Tykkä’s visuals doesn’t quite break down this objection on its own, the steady accumulation and alteration of meaning that accrues through the progression from subject to subject ensures that this is not merely a prolonged statement of the obvious.
An Amazonian plant transported to England and named in honour a British monarch, the Victoria lily is for Tykkä a symbol of the spoiler of colonialism and Empire. Despite textual cues to this extent, Victoria is the most traditionally beautiful of the pieces in The Palace.
Perhaps this is intentional – it is, after all, the entrance to this piece.
For the duration of this video, we watch the lily writhe through a time-lapse ballet of its life cycle, all to the strains of suitably “stirring” classical music. Does the ghostly choreography of the lily’s movements, its abundant grace emphasised by the editing, cause us to question the sequence of events that has brought this beauty to our attention? Perhaps, but as the lily’s colour shifts from white to pink its status as a “natural” spectacle is also subtly reinforced by the piece, the viewer reassured that they are watching something do what it was always meant to do.
From its opening minute onward, Airs Above the Ground is clearly anything but a natural spectacle. Indeed, the crudest contrasts in The Palace exist in this movie, where clips of horses running free at their normal pace are interjected into the slow-motion account of one particular Lipizzaner stallion – itself a holdover from a dead empire/monarchy – going through the steps of its dressage.
These movements may have a rigorous, classical grace to them, but in Tykkä’s film they are held under close scrutiny to the point where their every movement looks somehow torturous and improbable. The effect of her sustained gaze is similar to the sense of alienation that occurs when you write or say a word over and over again to the point where it becomes totally disconnected from whatever it is supposed to signify – streams of white spit droop indefinitely in the air as legs hunch, curl, and spring, bidden on of their human operators towards an unfathomable purpose.
Like the Victoria lily, these horses shift from one colour to another as they age, but in this second film there is no chance of escaping the fact that these are creatures of context – as are their counterparts running free in the fields.
By the time Giant starts to play, the viewer has become well attuned to Tykkä’s concerns and methods in constructing The Palace. The setting here is a training facility for Romanian gymnasts, with the focus split between contemporary gynmasts and those who from the late Soviet era.
The environment of the gym itself is the most alienating part of Giant. Captured in a series of long, slow shots, it becomes a hostile landscape full of bizarre, intersecting beams and bars, a carefully chaotic artificial jungle that had no precedent in either the soft biology of Victoria or the muscular contortion of Airs Above the Ground. The gymnasts, when present, add the necessary vector for human understanding, but it is here that Tykkä is at her most inventive. The artist frames and cuts away from her subjects so that we rarely see the full form of their individual efforts, leaving any sense of their broader purpose to be established by group shots from the past and present: warm-up routines in which the participants show that they know their place, and how to best get there.
The results are genuinely uncanny – stripped of context, a human foot’s ability to disconnect and reconnect with a beam defies plausibility, and the audio interviews with various gymnasts that play over the visuals therefore cannot help but convince when the subjects state that they felt no fear when performing. Fear is not part of this set-up: this entire facility has been built on the presumption that it can be subsumed to purpose.
There there are strange echoes in the clipped, blurry fragments of 70s gymnastic routines in their equally abrupt and disconnected modern day counterparts – these ghosts from the past are not quite the running horses or pre-colour change versions of the modern competitors, but one cannot help but think of those possibilities while watching them.
Like the two movies that preceded it, Giant is a film about and full of beauty, but the “natural” component of this beauty is now completely subsumed in the apparatus that prompts and facilitates it. When the movie ends and Victoria begins again, the sense of unity seems inescapable, or at least, watching it in Newcastle a week ago I could no longer look at the movements of the flower without contemplating the mechanics around it.
The more interesting question, then, is what happens when you step away from the movies altogether, and allow yourself back into the world, full as it is of possibility, and of systems designed to realign it…