June 1, 2007

Eija-Lisa Ahtila: Narratives of Self

Filed under: Identity — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 1:58 pm

In Ahtila’s works we discover a remarkable instance of the conflation of a literary subjectivity with visual creativity. By literary subjectivity I mean one less inclined towards self-obsession than with intersecting self-insight with knowlege of others in  order to formulate narratives about people, which is something art is not very good at in comparison with literature. The object of this account of Ahtila’s work is the large survey exhibition of Ahtila in Tate Modern 2002. In the ante room of this exhibition we were able to read one of the artist’s textson the gallery wall. It informs us that she is interested in stories, how they begin as fragments then combine and interweave. She also mentions plot but it might be better to ignore that because that would place her in the space of film. She is certainly within the space of fiction but to say that she is in the space of film would detract from the fact that her work is most often shown in the context of the art gallery. And if her work is not cinema then it is not painting or photography either. She, like Bill Viola, is one of the most outstanding practitioners of the relatively recently matured genre of video art.

Ahtila is an outstanding pioneer of multi-screen video, dark rooms with their multiple screens in various arrangements are most typical of her work. The Tate Modern retrospective provided five black rooms within which one could walk from one dark fictive space to another in a manner akin to the way one can walk around an exhibition of paintings. The ability to move, to be released from fixed viewpoint of the cinema is extremely important because it introduces an embodied mode of viewing.To be free to walk from one dark room to another allowed a discontinuous interaction with Ahtila’s fictive obsessions that created a hypertextual, viewer-oriented and anti-cinematic mode of viewing that mirrored the the way in which Ahtila weaves both her narratives and her montages of images across multiple screens.

Two key approaches are evident in Ahtila’s work: documenting the everyday and poeticising it. Her oeuvre appears to begin with a rugged realism that turns towards visual poetry to chart the relationship between filmic expression and hallucination. One could understand this as a recapitulation of the nature of human cognition which can swing from pragmatism to poetry and back again, overlapping as it shifts. In the context of video art Ahtila’s work is more narrative oriented than most, but like video arts in general here work is fundamentally antithetical to classic, Hollywood, cinema.

‘Classic’ cinema is a visual extension of literature, providing a story with a plot. In contrast with this approach Ahtila’s work can be considered as a mode of visual poetry. Indeed poetry and video art possess a natural affinity, if poetry is deconstructive literature then video art can be considered to be deconstructive cinema. Poetry has always been a time based form with its meter and rhyme and rhythms so it shouldn’t’t be surprising that it intersects so smoothly with video. And like most of the best video art Ahtila’swork is short, like much poetry.

Eija-Lisa Ahtila, Consolation Service, 1999. Twin screen video installation.
Stills from Consolation Service, 1999 (read in columns).

Consolation Service, 1999, begins as a harrowing documentary about divorce and transmutes into poetry. First we see the couple shouting at each other in the presence of a marriage guidance counsellor. The shouting is heard by the counsellors other clients in the waiting room begin entering the counsellor’s room to form a surreal audience accompanying the deconstructed couple. We cut to the divorce party, the final occasion the couple would do something together, which metamorphoses into a dramatic walk across a frozen river while a woman recounts the danger that lies beneath the ice. In a counsellor-controlled psycho-drama the couple had spoken of the coldness that followed their mutual acrimony and subsequent distance. Now they are walking over a concrete manifestation of the coldness. As they walk across the ice the woman recounts the precariousness of their position citing the fact that if they fell through into the ice cold water it would feel like burning and even the massive adrenaline surge would not be sufficient to propel them upwards away from their fate—three minutes for a man, a little longer for a women. They would breathe in the water as if it were air to cool down the fire and mercifully drown.

After the protagonist’s account the party of people dutifully fall through the ice and we follow their underwater journey across the two screens. The female protagonists survives whereas her husband does not. In the final scene we see her alone looking considerably less harrowed than she was in the counselling room. Suddenly a digital ghost of her husband materialises as if beamed down from another world. He disappears, and reappears on disappears again. In his final appearance he teaches her how to bow, this is their reconciliation, their escape from the coldness that once surrounded them.

The more one walked from one darkened room to another in the Tate Modern survey exhibition the more we find that Ahtila’s fiction functions as a species of hallucination in a manner that distinguishes itself radically from the American dreams that Hollywood predominantly purveys.

Anne, Aki and God
In the strangest of darkened rooms we encounter Anne, Aki and God, 1998, which tells the story of Akia psychotic man who worked for Nokia’s virtuality (virtual reality) department.The Anne, Aki and God installation especially interesting because it was a successful break from the big triple screens. It was darkened rather than blacked out and contained several different forms of display: a large angled and suspended screen flanked by five television monitors with a couch beneath the large screen. On the six screens different men audition for the part of Aki.The large screen must have been the winner, his voice had a Russian-like rhythm that reminded one of the poet Yevtuchenko. And all six candidates spoke the lines not quite simultaneously creating an appealing cacophony that fitted nicely into the theme of madness.

The cacophony was amplified by the fact that Anne, Aki and God was adjacent to an accompanying installation consisting of a six by three foot vertical screen facing an armchair with a standard lamp. This showed women auditioning for the female part of Anne, telling us what kind of personality this figment of Aki’s feveredimagination would have. The women answered an advertisement placed on a university notice board.

An information plaque tells us that Aki was told by God that a man’s destiny is to marry and that this was the ultimate test in life (which seems reasonable) but his wife had already been chosen and he simply needed to find her. Next God sends Aki to execute a man on the Finnish-Russian border after which the hallucinogenic Anna put a fur coat over him in an appropriately supportive fashion. After this mission God decreed that Aki take over Hollywood because it was the factory that projected the American Dream across the face of the earth.

Clearly we have something quite different from classical cinema here, which self-consciously references classical cinema. The story is unfinished and all we see are the auditions but the cacophony the multiplicity and the freedom to wander from one version to another is a wonderful expression of a disintegrated state of mind making Anne,Aki and God both one of the most successful of Ahtila’s works and also one of the most experimental in terms of stepping away from the static viewer position into what might be termed, with due deference to Deleuze (and Guattari), schizocinema.

Living, moving people are key to any cinematic narrative but, of course, cinematic people are not actually in life, they are actors inhabiting mises-en-scène. In addition, they are not embodied, they consist of light and shadows, they are hallucinations. This somewhat clichéd observation is very relevant to the hallucinogenic element in many of Ahtila’sworks.

And the hallucinatory aspect of Ahtila’s work melds with its narrative/counter-narrative play. By making the audition the work of art Anne, Aki and God allows the constructed nature of Ahtila storytelling to be totally exposed.

Think about it: how can a set of auditions actually work as a coherent whole? Yet they did, they were gripping and possessed presence, especially the women on the vertical screen: the perfect format for framing a single person, especially when life-size. And when and the auditioning women were instructed to stand up walk towards the camera and back to the chair turn and walk back again their illusory corporeality was considerably heightened.

This survey exhibition drew attention to the advantage of not following the rules of the cinema game and having specific start times and insisting upon the viewers sitting down. Trading the videos like an exhibition of paintings means that the viewer is significantly liberated, and this condition is a key feature of video art. It is also potentially more embodied, for example, if one looked from the side quite close to the screen one had the illusion of entering the illusion. Field painting such as the work of Barnett Newman was intended as a means of immersing the viewer and what one might refer to as the “field effect” is all the more potent when the field moves.

1 Comment »

  1. Yes I particularly like the last paragraph – that feeling that video art can have narrative but perhaps it is more powerful for being unfinished or at least unconcluded. The feeling that multi-screens can allow people to break into the timeline of cinema and fragment it, giving the opportunity for the viewer to enter the work without it being at a conventional “start” or in a conventional “seat” makes a very good distinction for me between conventional cinema and video art.

    Comment by charlie walker — June 8, 2007 @ 10:37 am

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