The development of humanity and humans has close links to the way in which “beasts of burden” have been used—both cared for and cherished, as well as enslaved and driven. A typically idyllic theme in painting, the image of a horse has traveled through cave paintings, Romantic painting and sculpture until it arrived at photography, installations and immersive art practices. Studies of the horse in motion formed the basis for the beginnings of photography (Muybridge), and have been widely used in film (French Poetic Realism) due to their photogenic and cinematic qualities. Within the autobiography of the horse, its role in greasing the wheels of pop culture and capitalist processes also stands out. One example could be Richard Prince’s 1980s studies of Americana, featuring scenes of animals galloping across the prairie and a Marlboro cigarette smoking ideal man—a cowboy — sitting in the saddle. And finally — calmly and contemplatively — horses have also taken over the white cube of the gallery (Jannis Kounellis’; exhibition in 2015, which turned Gavin Brown’s Harlem gallery space into a horse stable).
Keeping all these activities in mind (carried out in the name of art), at the height of the pandemic Vika Eksta goes to a stable in Kaplava parish, Latgale, to meet the so-called model horses kept there. At the heart of Vika’s practice is the analysis of a specific theme, place or subject/object through a focused and photography-based view of the theme, place or subject / object. Thus far, this has been a series of self-portraits, a documentation of a lake, and recording images of a partner while they are asleep.
This time, the focus of her interest is the horse. The horse as a part of public space, as a status symbol and a measure of usefulness or uselessness (of both the horse and its owner). For centuries, the horse has been an indispensable “tool” in the man-made world, present everywhere from everyday urban public space to warzones and the countryside. Nowadays, when people have lost the practical need for horsepower, the meaning and functions of its image have changed. What remains are extreme opposites—on the one hand, the preservation of so-called high culture—participation in prestigious sports events for the entertainment and economic benefit of aristocrats and the financially gifted. On the other hand—being a distraction or diversion, and relationships with the old, lonely, abandoned and often low-income in post-rural areas.
This is also the reality of Vika’s main character—the mare Zvaigznīte (or Little Star in Latvian). Because there is nothing better to do (including during forced furlough), various jobs are invented and assigned to her, such as taking the owners for a ride in a sleigh, harrowing potato fields etc., simply for the pleasure of the horse and its owners. The result is a photographic work based on studies of Zvaigznīte in the image of a working horse. By photographing Zvaigznīte in a variety of situations and capturing the physical qualities of her body, Vika explores the symbolically charged and photogenic potential of the dissipating image of the workhorse.
A single frame forms the basis of the exhibition—a contemplative mid shot portrait of Zvagznīte in a 3/4 turn, almost reminiscent of a unicorn, played out in 28 versions. Combined in one large-scale work, from the left to the right side of the gallery space, standing figures at eye level are placed close to each other in white frames, holding three-to-five versions of this single shot. From pitch purple to almost faded away—each individual photo is a small leap into a different register of tonality, although the difference between neighbouring images is deliberately minimal, almost elusive. Vika’s work is based on a game of controlled chance. This starts with taking the photos, because while the chosen medium format camera prioritizes working slowly, Zvaigznīte does not agree. The clash of control and unpredictable forces also continues in the colour darkroom in Cēsis, where the artist works with open chemicals and in complete darkness, because, as it turns out, the frame turned into a full-fledged exposition has been exposed to light. At the end of the exhibition, near the last image—the almost faded frame—is a flip-through album with pasted photos and contact prints, documenting Zvaigznīte through seasons, moods, activities and even a change of coat. The album works as a study of the life and figures of the chosen symbol—a functionally-non-functional animal.
Horses—whether galloping or calm—seem to have always been indifferent to their size, posture and strength. However, this time, and under Vika’s direction, it seems that this enigmatic animal — Zvaigznīte — is aware of the bittersweetness of the moment. This exact instant, as she is being watched, could be one of the last fading moments that anyone looks at her at al.
Text: Zane Onckule