Eija-Liisa Ahtila


The Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila has been making a name for herself since the late 80s with a complex oeuvre in the field of photography, film and video works that has influenced a lot of younger artists. Her film episodes handle visual thought and narrative with characteristic astuteness. She operates across the whole range of visual culture in the media and her work creates pictorial worlds that touch upon, and stimulate discussion about, the operation modes and styles of current film genres like shorts, commercials and feature films or documentaries. Eija-Liisa Ahtila interweaves the genres in her photographs, films and videos to form floating new pictorial worlds that make the familiar seem unknown. Her “narratives”, which relate reality, fiction and surreality to each other and establish a new narrative language, deal with the way in which everyday experiences are made up. They touch upon questions about the identity of the individual, about the forms of our life together and the positioning of people in a media-formed world that is increasingly permeated with fictions and simulations.

As well as early and very recent photographic work, the exhibition in the Kunsthalle Zürich also includes a survey of the artist’s film output in the form of monitor installations, video projections and film screenings. Among the selection of video works are: Nature of Things (1987), Me/We, Okay, Gray (1993), Today (1997), Consolation Service (1999), The Wind (2001) and The Present (2001).

Human emotions like love, sexuality, jealousy, rage, vulnerability, personal crises, how human behaviour patterns are structured and possible variations within them are central themes in Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s work. Placation or reconciliation with the insoluble “human drama” of existence have an increasingly important part to play here. Her films always start with an extensive examination of documentary material, which she then carries over into the fictions of her “dramas”. The development of an independent pictorial language (which in the more recent work increasingly builds painterly aspects into the film medium), language (and its ability to create fictions and deviate from the pictorial information, and in its performative aspects), unconventional narrative forms and how the audience can experience her work in time and space are important elements of her extraordinary film and pictorial worlds. And in their presentation of banal normality, her works always reveal the fractures, vulnerabilities and abysses of contemporary identity.

Film, television, the Internet and advertising, in fact the media in general have a very wide-ranging effect on our experience of self and reality. These pictorial worlds are a constitutive part of our reality, and they also intervene in our construction of self, which has to position itself with a view to ambivalent realities: between private and public images of the subject, between real experience and fictional identifications. Eija-Liisa Ahtila works with the conditions of this contemporary visual culture, and the ways it has of making its effects. She presents her films and videos both via media channels like television and the cinema, and also in video installations that are devised especially for each film, creating spaces and situations in which we plunge into ensembles that are designed down to the last detail. Her video installations tell stories on multiple narrative levels that run alongside each other as synchronised or parallel image tracks: places, people, voices, rhythms change from one film level to another, creating a non-linear narrative flow. The interplay of all narrative levels addresses the overtaxing of contemporary perception, the uncertainty of the subject’s position and the complexities of experiencing reality. As a parallel flow of simultaneous projections of several pictorial planes, and as a discontinuous stream of information, her works compel viewers to construct their own narrative and to find their own version of a concept of reality.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s films concern every human being’s stock of memories. They are simultaneously personal and universally valid, because their stories, their events could happen anywhere. Life in cities, schooldays, home, puberty, sexuality, marriage, relationship and personality crises. They lay the fragility of standardised normality open to experience. The banal becomes surreal, normality is alienated. The protagonists of her “dramas” speak with the voice of a fictitious partner or of their own alienated self as a conversation partner; they “play” themselves, comment on their situation, rehearse the strike action or adopt the voices of their partners or other members of their family as their own. Over and over again they appeal to the audience, which should, can or must start to function as a real reference point for their narratives. Linguistic formulae become musical rhythms, communication failures lead to distorted interpretations and role changes. Restrictions imposed by convention and emotional ties are just as threatening as loneliness. The people in Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s films are driven by the heterogeneous aspects of our reality: by life-styles and role-models that have become insecure, by the obscenity of the ceaseless publication of the most intimate matters, as happens in the omnipresent chat-shows, for example, through the worlds of film and advertising, the flood of news and the fact that the media have intensified the inseparability of public and private, real and fictitious, banal and shocking.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila (born in 1959 in Hämeenlinna, Finland) is showing »The House« at Dokumenta XI in Kassel. »The House« is a further video installation based on the film material used in the work she presented in Zurich, »The Present«. Important solo exhibitions in 2002: KIASMA Museum of Modern Art, Helsinki; Tate Modern, London. Eija-Liisa Ahtila, who first appeared in Switzerland in 1998 showing three video installations has won many distinguished awards, including for example the Vincent van Gogh Award for Contemporary Art, the Coutts Contemporary Art Foundation Award, the Venice Biennale Recognition Award and the VIPER– Festival Video Art Award.