Entering the level three gallery at Baltic, it’s initially pitch black. Then the first of three big screen videos by Salla Tykkä flickers into life.
I’m having an early preview of the Finnish artist’s short documentaries – one a new commission by the Gateshead gallery – ahead of the opening of her exhibition, The Palace, which for the first time features all three works together.
Salla, who lives in Helsinki, is here to oversee the opening. She’s been to the region before, about nine years ago when the Tyneside Cinema screened a programme of artists’ films.
But then she’s been pretty much everywhere in recent years as her growing reputation has made her video shorts a feature of film festivals and solo shows from New York to London and Istanbul.
The first the viewer sees in the trilogy is Giant, a Baltic commission; the funding enabling completion this year of a work Salla had in mind before breaking off for a teaching job.
To a backdrop of dull thuds and harsh-sounding slaps of flesh against beams and floor, the film – making its premiere – shows the leading Romanian junior gymnastics team being put through its paces alongside scenes of the empty gymnasiums.
Under communism, the country was famous for its Olympic gymnastics success. The team always performed in white and was a symbol of discipline, strength and beauty.
Salla’s soundtrack also carries interviews with the gymnasts, while some archive footage shows the same locations in the 1970s. Each film looks at a different notion of beauty and perfection, with white being a central theme.
Next up is Airs Above the Ground, made by Salla in 2010.
It features the famous Lipizzaner horses performing haute école – a form of dressage featuring stylised and highly-controlled jumps and poses, including the “airs above the ground” where the horse has all its hooves off the floor.
Here, Salla contrasts footage of young Lipizzaner galloping freely through autumnal countryside (their coats dark before turning white as they mature) with scenes of stallions performing their controlled moves for their trainers.
The breed, developed in the 16th century, is most famously connected with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, but Salla made her film in Slovenia and sets it against a changing soundscape of the horses’ hooves and heavy breathing, plus Bach’s Mass in B Minor.
It’s the last film, Victoria, from 2008, that appeals most to me and a second viewing probably would have sent me to sleep, such is the almost mesmerising effect of watching a flower’s life cycle on a 10-minute time-lapse.
This is the Victoria, a giant waterlily which blooms only in the dark over two nights. On the first night, when it opens, it is white. Then, on the second night, the petals unfurl to reveal a rich red. The plants, the Victoria Amazonica and Victoria Cruziana, were brought to England by Victorian explorers who found them in South America and named them after the Queen.
It’s a nod to colonialism, according to the artist, but at face value it’s simply beautiful to watch, with the lily appearing to perform a classical ballet.
For the 40-year-old artist, it’s not about beauty, although each of her films was inspired by memories of a time when things did have a simple, idealistic beauty. And she did gymnastics.
Parallels have been drawn between Salla’s work and Hollywood films and she says she recalls the image of the giant lily in a scene from a Tarzan film. “And I’d been to the botanical gardens many times with my grandfather.”
She suggests the whole of culture is influenced by Hollywood films and adds that she is interested in how the moving image is used in expression.
“I don’t know why – I’m surrounding by images and something brings them into my mind!” But sometimes, she adds, it’s hard to separate our own memories from shared memories.
Her videos took shape following research into ideas she had while reading the work of Victorian art critic John Ruskin, who was taken with the notion of the romantic ideal.
“I started re-thinking them when I was reading the essays of Ruskin, whose ideas about beauty changed.
“I got really interested in this idea of defining beauty and started thinking about a perfect image.”
As for her lily, she says: “I don’t see it as beautiful. I see the idea of beauty but I don’t see it as I did when I was younger.”
That rosy childhood outlook has given way to a clearer, more realistic view. The unnatural movements of the horses and gymnasts still have an impact, but of a different kind.
A fine art graduate, Salla painted before finding film was the right vehicle for her ideas. “I make it for people – also for myself in the first place. I think when I chose to work in film, I felt so capable working in it.
“I felt I could see things in the way I wanted.”
Salla Tykkä’s The Palace runs at Baltic, Gateshead, until March 2.