Thursday, 6 January 2011



Although I've visited the Hayward Gallery many times, I've never noticed the Project Space up a short flight of stairs on the left, designed to mount a changing programme of single installations and small exhibitions of works by emerging artists. And it’s free. 

Airs Above the Ground is the title of a new film by the Finnish artist Salla Tykkä. It features Lipizzaner horses - the oldest pedigree breed in Europe – where foals, like cygnets, are born dark and gradually turn lighter until, like swans, they are entirely white. The stallions are bred to perform haute école or high school classical dressage, including stylised jumps and poses known as ‘airs above the ground’. As you watch the dramatic ‘dance’ it’s hard not to think of ballet and Swan Lake, despite the fact that the subjects of the film are huge, muscular  horses. As well as having the Agnus Dei from Bach's Mass in B Minor on the soundtrack, we also hear the forcing of the horses' breath into their lungs and  the stamping of their hooves on the earth.

            At one level we are watching a beautiful short film. Footage includes young foals running through what looks like wild woodland as well as adult stallions completing gravity-defying feats of dressage. At first I was distracted by the fact that the film was shown not in a continuous flow of movement but in very swift jumps from frame to frame. The advantage is that for one frozen moment your eyes see the ‘impossible’ – a large stallion jumping straight up until it is poised and hanging in the air in a pose of exquisite beauty.

            In the accompanying notes Tykkä muses on her purpose in making the film. She talks of reading about Ruskin's belief that the beauty of nature can make people good. She’s challenging Ruskin. ‘Loving beauty can make people very intolerant’. Can the search for perfection even lead to fascism?  The film is challenging us to think about human control over nature. For aesthetic or economic reasons we have been manipulating many of the animals we love and care for -  dogs, cats, race horses - for centuries. Is the Lipizzaner an extreme example? What will genetic manipulation bring?

 Which made me think of what we (women especially) do to ourselves in pursuit of a culturally determined ‘perfection'. At an early age we learn to link good and beautiful versus ugly and bad.  We mutilate ourselves by wearing shoes which damage our bones, use dyes which damage our hair, risk death to get a tan and risk starvation to keep slim. 

P.S. Another discovery at the Haywood:  the Waterloo Sunset Pavilion, a 'drop in centre for children and old people and a space for viewing cartoons', which overlooks the Thames and is open during and between exhibitions - again all free.

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