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Master of video art returns to Finland

By Amanda Soila, April 2013

Photo: Amanda Soila
Eija-Liisa Ahtila, film, art, Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, Helsinki, Finland, Moderna Museet, Museum of Modern Art, Tate ModernScenes from Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s “Where is where?” at Kiasma in Helsinki: The film utilises six screens simultaneously, four of which are located on the walls of a square-shaped viewing room.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Finland’s best-known contemporary artist, has been breaking the boundaries of video art for 20 years. A new exhibition at Helsinki’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art marks her return after years in the international limelight.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila is probably better known abroad than in her home country. No stranger to the giants of the art world, she has exhibited her work in London’s Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, participated in numerous film festivals and won plenty of awards. She has been applauded, criticised and questioned, but her art never fails to make a lasting impact.

Ahtila’s monumental video pieces take over Kiasma in Parallel Worlds, an exhibition produced in cooperation with Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. This is the largest collection of Ahtila’s works ever seen in Finland.

Controversial visions

Photo: Pirje Mykkänen/Central Art Archives/Finnish National Gallery
Click to enlarge
Artist on one hand, filmmaker on the other, Eija-Liisa Ahtila brings together two worlds.

Her career received a kick-start when a 1995 exhibition in Stockholm garnered rave reviews. Since then she has been looking for ways of using the moving image while surpassing traditional narratives and exploring how unorthodox presentation affects viewers.

One of the works now in Kiasma for the first time is the monumental, hour-long piece Where is where (2009). Presented on four screens, one on each wall of a square room, it challenges the viewer to accept the impossibility of seeing all of it at once.

The content, as well as the way it is shown, is controversial. The film is based on real events that took place nearly 50 years ago, when two young Arab boys killed their French friend during the Algerian War of Independence. As the war still forms a sensitive topic in France, Ahtila found herself in the middle of a heated debate when the film premiered. Some critics thought that Ahtila, as a foreigner, had no place commenting on such issues.

The meeting of cultures and the relationships between humanity, animals and nature represent central themes in Ahtila’s work. A piece called Vertical (2011) offers a humorous examination of the human perception of nature. This life-sized portrait of a spruce tree stretches over six screens in two rooms at the museum.

Breaking the boundaries

Photo: Pirje Mykkänen/CAA/FNG
Click to enlarge
“Vertical,” a life-sized portrait of a spruce, stretches across six screens in order to include the whole tree.

In many ways Ahtila herself is living in parallel worlds, just as the exhibition title suggests. Artist on one hand, filmmaker on the other, she brings together aspects of fine art and feature films. She has studied at two different film schools, yet in many of her films she attempts to break free from the dictatorship of narrative.

“I’m trying to stretch the idea of what a moving image should be like or how stories should be told,” Ahtila explains. She also explores ways to present images in such a way that they are not subordinate to the story. This is seen in Fishermen (2007), in which group of West African fishermen try and fail, over and over again, to launch their fragile boats from the shore out onto a stormy sea. Though the scene is dramatic, very little happens in terms of plot.

Ahtila steers away from expectations of what a good film means, or what good acting means. “We are so used to certain kinds of acting that we are quick to judge,” she says. Instead, she wishes that each piece would serve as the inspiration for acting. In The Annunciation (2011), an examination of the modern miracle, there is no ready-made script. The actors were invited to participate in the creation of the plot under the guidance of one professional actor, Kati Outinen, who is best known for her work in numerous melancholy Aki Kaurismäki films, and who appears in several of Ahtila’s works as well.

Amidst the often heavy topics there is a happy little work quite different from the rest of the pieces. Called Companions (2011), the three-screen piece with upbeat music follows two boys as they explore Finnish nature with the glee of childhood. The film has toured West Africa and France in Mobile Museum, a gallery truck that brings contemporary art to villages, schools and other places where it isn’t usually shown.

Want to see more? Check out this interview interspersed with clips from Ahtila’s videos (from the exhibition’s co-organiser, Moderna Museet).


Parallel Worlds at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art until Sept 1, 2013

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