The principle player in Salla Tykkä’s film Airs Above the Ground (2010) is a white Lipizzaner stallion. As the film’s opening titles inform us, he’s the product of a selective breeding program begun by the Habsburg Monarchy in the 17th century. His coat is as pure as snow-capped Austrian mountains, his bulging muscles are a vision of might. Indeed, he may be the star of the show, but as his trainers put him through the high dressage paces he’s been rigorously schooled in, the dominant personality in Tykkä’s film is unmistakably human.
Obeying the long arc of a whip, the horse stretches out a foreleg in a ballerina point or trots musically. Again and again he is made to rear back on his hind legs, as if posing for Tykkä’s camera like a modern-day echo of Napoleon’s careening mount in Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait. The comparison is hardly accidental — dressage techniques are descended from cavalry battlefield training and a time when horses were engines of war.
Tykkä begins with the stallion’s backstory. Her film’s opening shots are of an equine idyll: a field misty with early morning haze, green-golden leaves just turning between summer and autumn. Not quite untouched, a long corral snakes its way through the lush landscape, inside which a herd of Lipizzaner colts canter and graze together. Their immature coats are a dark dappled gray, their untrained muscles loose and liquid. Intercut throughout the film with the adult stallion in the dressage arena, they seem the very opposite of the fantastically brawny, dazzling white super-horse. It’s a vision of nature and artifice.
Yet Tykkä’s forceful one-two between unaffected and cultured beauty sends complex reflections spinning. What in her film can be said to be truly au naturel? Young or old, the horse has been bred into its current form over many centuries. Even the paddocks where it roams are cultivated and fenced in. This is Romanticism turned on its head. The hills and beasts are not awesome creations beyond the ken of man. What we see is no innocent brute but a symbol of the Habsburg Empire’s wondrous strength and refinement: nature as the mirror of our own dreams of overwhelming power. As Tykkä has said, “Fascism is very present in the Romantic.”
Yet who could help but be enthralled while watching the white stallion perform his exquisite maneuvers? The opening orchestral strains that precede the choir’s soul-lifting song in Bach’s Mass in B Minor (1749) give the film’s final images a pulse-quickening emotional charge. There’s a riveting sense of things held in abeyance and the anticipatory thrill of what comes next. The violence implied in the horse’s taught trembling muscles as he prances from hoof to hoof, or pulls off a gymnastic bunny-hop perched on his hind legs, is captivating precisely because it is a violence held in the grip of a human hand. Then comes the controlled explosion as the horse leaps into the sky to perform Airs Above the Ground, its deadly legs kicked out in perfect symmetry. Our fascination for terrible beauty seems the most natural thing in the world.
Skye Sherwin is a writer and art critic for The Guardian. She lives and works in London.
Airs Above the Ground was recently shown at EX3 in Florence, at the Hayward Gallery in London and at the 17th Biennale of Sydney.