A Brush With The Moving Image

Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Parallel Worlds
Moderna Museet, Stockholm
11 February - 6 May 2012

A compelling psychological intrigue unfolds in the dark enclosure of screens when suddenly the narrative presents itself as object; a spatial and temporal thing, or physical tool, that splits, disappears and spirals back on itself. Images and events fade in and out of sync from every side; sharp sudden noises startle from behind; spreading waves of sound vibrations are real physical contact. Exquisite vignettes of people, animals and nature regulate, or perhaps ir-regulate, attention, alternating the stimulation of distraction with a duration of pleasure.

The eye wants to dwell, but curiosity wants to keep up.

Painting and film.

In themselves, none of these filmic devices are new to the genre of multiple-screen installation art, but there are very few artists who can match Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s ability to treat narrative as a visual and spatial object; and to synthesise the mediums of film and painting. She is perhaps the Gerhard Richter of the moving image. Narrative is acutely visual in her work—it has a palette, texture and viscosity. The extraordinary freshness of her native Finnish landscape inspires the scintillating quality of light we expect in Monet, Turner or even Australia’s own Elioth Gruner (1882-1939). Colour is Titian meets Rothko. Narrative literally moves as it spreads, cuts and reverses around the viewer and demands a physical as well as mental following. The screens, script, colour, sound and light all work together to engulf senses and intellect in moving images that perform as paintings and mix film’s enthralling suspension of disbelief and disembodied spectatorship with Albertian single point perspective. Different ways of seeing spark off each other, not blending but re-mixing and revitalising the cognitive filters.

Ahtila’s most recent survey exhibition of works from the past decade is titled Parallel Worlds and produced by Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, in cooperation with Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Parallel Worlds could equally refer to the essence of Ahtila’s entire oeuvre as it does to the theme of separate but simultaneous subjectivities of humanity, animals and nature in a world construed by biopolitics and posthumanism. The exhibition is nothing short of an extraordinary journey through time, space and narrative that expands and exercises awareness of different ways of knowing and modes of thought. In an interview for Artpulse magazine Stephen Knudsen suggested that Ahtila belonged to an experimental group of artists working in ‘expanded cinema’. However the artist did not identify with this, preferring to describe her avant garde practice more specifically in terms of ‘questioning the traditional rules of storytelling and ways of expressing with the means of the moving image’.1 One could say that Ahtila often uses the traditions of painting to disturb traditions of cinematic storytelling.

Unorthodox approaches to narrative are always a delicate strategy because there is nothing more annoying than a story that is simply confusing. Ahtila’s strategy of integrating the enjoyable duration of the gaze in painting within the film’s narrative development helps to transform ambiguity into insight. The epic sense of a ‘picture speaks a thousand words’ presents itself at irregular but timely intervals of the story. West African fishermen struggling to steer their boats through breaking waves, or a January storm in New York, cultivate the eye of sublime landscape painting and enhance the narrative’s contours and scope.

Parallel Worlds consists of eight moving image works and a series each of sculptures and drawings. The sculptures relate specifically to the multiple screen projections titled The House (2002) and the drawings link with the enormous six channel projection of a spruce tree in Horizontal (2011). In artworks such as The House and The Annunciation (2010) the artist works closely with actors but does not direct them so much as use their performative talent as a palette that evolves as it enters and becomes involved in the imagery/story. The House is particularly effective in conveying the inside/outside experience of shifting and multiple perspectives, and juxtaposing the illusion of being involved with the distance of being a spectator. The narrative of The House revolves around a woman who hears voices and tries to seclude and hide herself in an isolated cottage in the woods; but the woods try to invade the house and the security of ‘being inside’ (the house and oneself) erodes. Three huge enclosing screens present a broken narrative of the sliding loss of psychological control, as the space of cinematic illusion collides with real sheets of building materials leaning against walls. The House moving image installation leads into another installation of four small House sculptures where viewers can partially install themselves within the building—simultaneously inside and outside. The sculptures underscore the thematic undercurrent of all Ahtila’s practice, as the sliding scale of subjectivity and objectivity is involved in every work of art.

Ahtila’s approach to narrative as a visual and spatial object apparently derives from her art education in both painting and film. The artist studied painting at the Free Art School in Helsinki for four years and then from 1990 to 1995 completed film studies at the London College of Printing, UCLA, and the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Earlier studies with the Faculty of Law at the University of Helsinki may have consolidated the concept of truth as a broken and multi-dimensional narrative (!). Ahtila’s record of international achievements documents her transgression of disciplinary categories. Her work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale (1999); MoMA Media Lounge (2006); K21 Dusseldorf, and São Paulo and Cairo Biennales (2008); and Centre Pompidou, Paris, Dallas Museum of Art and Contour Biennial of Belgium (2009). Along with this recognition as a visual artist Ahtila was appointed jury member for the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival (2011) and her work The Annunciation won best European short film at Germany’s Oberhausen Film Festival in 2011. Ahtila does not produce separate works that accede to film or visual art categories, but instead makes art that is inherently interdisciplinary and canonically transgressive.

Innovative purpose-built contemporary art spaces are crucial to the different ways of looking at art afforded by experimental works such as those by Ahtila. Parallel Worlds’ installation in the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki particularly facilitates the required experience of spatial and temporal plasticity. The building (designed by Steven Holl and opened in 1998) entails five elongated horn shape floors with a series of irregular winding ramps and wedge-shaped windows that create a changing flow of light and space throughout the gallery. The overall irregularity of the gallery and its very few square exhibiting spaces deliberately compromise concepts of the white cube and allow gallery space itself to become much more intrinsic to the aesthetic and narrative modelling of artworks. Australia has few examples of contemporary art spaces that counter the white cube. Perhaps the closest is Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) or Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), although both lack Kiasma’s use of natural light and spatial scale as a modelling device.

A substantial exhibition catalogue accompanies Parallel Worlds with essays by several authors and an interview with the artist.

Eija Liisa Ahtila, The House, 2002. 3-channel projected installation. Kieli suomi, tekstitys englanniksi, 14:00min. © 2002 Crystal Eye - Kristallisilmä Oy, Helsinki. Photograph Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Pirje Mykkänen.

Eija Liisa Ahtila, The Annunciation, 2010. 3-channel projected installation. 28:20min. © 2002 Crystal Eye - Kristallisilmä Oy, Helsinki. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. Photograph Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Pirje Mykkänen.

Eija Liisa Ahtila, Horizontal, 2011. 6min. 6-channel projected installation. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. © 2011 Crystal Eye - Kristallisilmä Oy, Helsinki. Photograph Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Pirje Mykkänen.

Eija Liisa Ahtila, Horizontal, 2011. 6min. 6-channel projected installation. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. © 2011 Crystal Eye - Kristallisilmä Oy, Helsinki. Photograph Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Pirje Mykkänen.

notes: 

1. Stephen Knudsen, ‘Face to Face, Breaking the Rules of Storytelling. A conversation with Eija-Liisa Ahtila’, Artpulse Magazine, http://artpulsemagazine.com/breaking-the-rules-of-storytelling-a-conversation-with-eija-liisa-ahtila, accessed 9 August 2013.