Renowned Finnish film and video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila has been inspired by an eclectic collection of writers and artists when making her multi-screen, multi-perspectival meditations on animal and man – these include German biologist and philosopher Jakob Johann von Uexküll, Giorgio Agamben, Ingmar Bergman, the Dogme 95 collective, as well as Giotto and Fra Angelico. Absorbed in the modern enquiries of post-humanism and intra-subjectivity, Ahtila nonetheless follows a conceptual pathway that winds back through the dark corners of medieval Gnosticism and Enlightenment-era Immanentism, where the subject, far from suffering deconstruction, is upheld as an agent of divinity.
‘Parallel Worlds’, organized by Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Kiasma in Helsinki, is a comprehensive retrospective of Ahtila’s film and video installations, drawings and sculptures, all of which inhabit a distinctively un-Pop, Scandinavian umwelt. In an interview in the exhibition’s catalogue, Ahtila ponders: ‘Can a spruce be a mimetic creature? For me, this carries the question: “What do we really see?” Do we simply see what we want to see or where, at what point of looking, do we meet the spruce, if at all?’ This extrapolation on autopoiesis is reified in the filmmaker’s consistent use of multiple screens, a formal device that directs (or divides) the eye from a tightly packed, informatic subjectivity into a landscape of non-human and non-narrative multiplicities.
We are presented with such a landscape in the six-channel installation, Horizontal (2011), a wall-length image of a giant Scandinavian spruce filmed in vertical sections, then shifted onto a horizontal axis. In its sheer simplicity, Horizontal is almost disarmingly beautiful, a high-resolution graphic of a single tree shifting in the wind to the sounds of swooshing and chirping. Presented piecemeal, however, the meditative quality of the subject is interrupted by the optical format itself, so that it’s difficult to disentangle the experience of this natural tableau from the way it is presented. The aporia at the heart of Ahtila’s project becomes quite explicit.
In addition to her focus on nature – or perhaps in conjunction with it – Ahtila trusses most of her films’ subject matter to the female or the feminine perspective, though little of her work would fall under the traditional rubric of feminism. For example, in the three-screen video The House (2002), an agoraphobe named Elisa, no doubt a cipher of the artist herself, is seen cloistered inside her house, as her routine existence gradually gives way to spatial and aural delusions that drive her toward psychosis. Objects and creatures from outside, including a cow and a Volkswagen, casually intrude on the building’s interior, despite the woman’s valiant efforts to blot them out. Rather than a feminist disquisition on domestic power relations à la Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929), or the gendered case-histories of hysteria of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) (which The House often resembles), Ahtila’s work is a more general interrogation of autopoiesis: what happens when we question our frames of perception and how do we come to terms with the world of the Other? This mental fragmentation is further heightened by the configuration of the three screens, which creates a 270-degree surface that surrounds the viewer with both Elisa’s movements and her simultaneous hallucinations.
In The Annunciation (2010), Ahtila’s filmic adaptation of the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary as narrated in the Gospel of Luke, the tone shifts from one of mental enclosure to spiritual awakening, or an ‘opening up’ to the multiplicity of subjective worlds – both animal and human. Separated over three screens, the tableau is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s ‘classical painting’ films. But while The Annunciation feels less like a scholastic lesson in hermeneutics and art history than Greenaway’s work, Ahtila’s film is equally concerned with perspective as an artificial optic of still painting and the moving image. As in much of her work, the focus here is on uncovering the sacred in the mundane or, rather, in what appears to be the inhuman – whether it be in the manifestation of animals and landscapes or quotidian dialogue and negligible gestures.
Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.
First published in Issue 148