I meet people. One at a time they step inside me and live inside me. Some of them only for a moment, some stay. They set up wherever they want to and take my facial expressions or my leg’s resting position and put their own in their place. They lie on my back and press their toes into my Achilles tendons. They appear in every pause and come out when I am in doubt and fill all the empty space. I shake and say to myself for a long time: good, really good. (From Talo/The House, 2002)
Eija-Liisa Ahtila brings to light difficult, often disturbing aspects of contemporary life, empathetically communicating their affect on normative experience through today’s evolving technologies of film and video. Ahtila’s groundbreaking work evokes questions of identity, loss, human relationships, and other interior-driven subjects, all of which are presented with imagery that reflects common thoughts and emotions. With confessional intimacy and cathartic narrative, she produces a challenging yet undeniably beautiful pairing of dialogue and film that seems to traverse the boundaries between viewer and work, leading her audience into an unexpected and intuitive zone.
Talo/The House (first seen at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany) is based on extensive readings and interviews the artist conducted with women who had experienced psychosis yet were finally able to come to terms with such a debilitating illness. Ahtila couples her filmic medium with the physicality of installation art in order to communicate themes such as isolation, estrangement, wonder, and mirage. Entering the gallery space, the viewer encounters a tripartite projection that provides an unaccustomed sense of intimacy with the work’s protagonists: the woman we see, and the woman’s mind as poetic interior monologue. The house itself, captured in the brilliant light of a Finnish summer when the sun sets for only a few hours, is also personified to an extent. It is represented by three connected structures within the four walls of the gallery, creating a complex interplay between light, sound, and image. Ahtila transforms the space into a psychoanalytical manifestation, reorganizing the properties of two-dimensional art by making the gallery an extension of what is on screen.
A metaphor is also established for the isolation experienced by those afflicted with mental instability through a focus on landscape; a lush green wilderness with what appear to be supernatural powers is depicted, along with the simple house as a stage upon which an unsettled but strangely engaging narrative unfolds. Whether she is blocking out sunlight or floating in mid-air, tending to her sewing or driving her car in the rain, the female subject embodies and surrounds the space – hers and ours – and pushes us beyond the role of observer and towards that of participant.
Talo/The House builds on ideas that run throughout Ahtila’s previous work with time-based media, much of which concerns itself with breaking away from the traditional structure of the cinematic while paradoxically incorporating a seemingly chronological story. In this work, the mind of the woman on screen deteriorates as she begins to hear voices other than her own; her world unravels as she tells her tale, and her voice acts as the only linear directive. Ahtila cleverly conveys this phenomenon by projecting onto not one but three screens, each illustrating a different angle and moment. The artist maintains a symbolic system of mental breakdown through the repetition of everyday scenes and routine tasks, thereby creating a circular reality that seems inescapable.
As the work progresses, this reality evolves into a domestic surrealism, but the calm monotone of the principle character and the honesty of her story act as anchors, alleviating the work of melodrama and suggesting a way out of madness based on a resigned integration of the fantastic, the jarring, and the delusional into the reassuring patterns of daily life.
[exhibition guide text: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002]
How to cite:
Wood Roberdeau, ‘Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Talo/The House‘, http://www.conceptualecologies.org [date of access].