Niranjan Chatterjee’s Weblog

August 1, 2014

Eija-Liisa Ahtila – Themes, techniques and execution of her short films and video-installations

Filed under: American Literature,Personal Thoughts — niranjanchatterjee @ 11:02 pm


Eija-Liisa Ahtila stepped across the stately portals of Helsinki University in 1980 and spent five long years there before shifting base to London to spend another five years of studies in London College of Printing, Management College and Film and Video Department. After acquiring enough knowledge in the chosen medium of her future creative endeavours, she crossed the Atlantic to spend another year (1994-95) in Advanced Technology Program in American Film Institute at Los Angeles.

Eija-Liisa has right from the very beginning been deeply influenced and motivated by feminism and till date that has been her staple fare though the method of putting forth her ideas has changed quite a lot. Initially she was deeply influenced by art philosophy and took an active part in analysing and evaluating various themes and thoughts that flitted through these hallowed institutions and enlightened minds. She was always interested in the linkage and apparently indestructible bondage between narrative, language, image and space – the four pillars on which any form of pictorial story telling rested. She was always eager to try and experiment at breaking these seemingly inalienable bonds. She felt these limitations of space and image actually constricted the story to only one plane and one specific set of time coordinates while in reality, denouement of a story, any story for that matter, actually took place simultaneously in many different planes and many disparate sets time coordinates. Any form of storytelling that restricted itself to one time-space plane actually failed to perfectly portray the interplay and tensions between various forces that always keep interacting between one another in any real life situation. Being a feminist to the core, she is also a humanist who has tried and is also now trying to capture this wide canvas of emotions and actions that simultaneously get enacted at many different places and also different points in time. She had tried to break away from the conventionality of two-dimensional storytelling since mid-nineties as she delved deeper into the interrelation between an individual’s body and mind and how an individual perceived his or her identity with respect to his or her body.

But Eija-Liisa knew that primarily one needed a strong story that has to be told, and unless the story was really strong and involved multi-hued human emotions working at various levels, the human element in the entire canvas would become too insignificant to merit any sustained attention. Any story that had scant level of human element and emotional interplay was obviously not worth to be worked upon and told to others.

Hallmark of Ahtila’s creations

Her stories almost always have a strong female protagonist who happens to be the central cog around which the entire drama revolves. The role of an individual and formation of an individual identity and its reactions and tensions with external forces of social and communal identity, and, how an individual is able to strike a balance between the two and survive and how another person fails to do so and disintegrate has often become the staple storyline of her creations. Other forms of human relationships, interpersonal tensions arising out of sexuality, inability to communicate effectively and even desperate attempts at striking some semblance of balance and equilibrium amidst complete disintegration and chaos have sometimes become the mainstay of some of her creations.(Eija-Liisa Ahtila Past Exhibitions)

The other hallmark of her creations is that the stories told by Eija-Liisa are essentially based on her personal experiences or real experiences of others who are either known to her or are complete strangers. These experiences are real at some stage and as the protagonists start telling their stories, they liberally paint them with the rainbow of imagination, but the underlying reality oftentimes lend a chilling sensation to the entire episode. The beauty and innovativeness of this film director lies in simultaneously unfolding the story at different planes of reality where individual experiences merge with something larger and more sweeping than petty personal feelings. Nobody before her possibly thought of juxtaposing the micro and the macro at the same place and observing the situation through two completely different eye-pieces. This ability to break the stricture of mono-vision obviously lends a completely new dimension and paradigm to what might be an ordinary episode in the life of an ordinary individual.

Eija-Liisa has consciously attempted to break away from the accepted forms of storytelling and has also tried to shatter all illusions attached to the medium of celluloid by making the narrator and even the movie camera visible in one of her videos. This creates a stunning impact on the minds of the viewers and conveys the sense of urgency in one fell swoop. Eija-Liisa has been able to effectively combine separate mediums and created a completely different medium that she can rightly claim to be entirely her own. She uses video, still photography, film, installations, text and performance to create a unique experience that is very difficult to express in words as the related emotions work simultaneously at so many different planes that it often becomes impossible for the viewer to be able to rationally judge as to where one ends and where the next begins, or what happened to be primary emotion and what grew out of it. A rapidly changing kaleidoscope of strong emotions keep tugging at the base of the hearts of those who see her creations and one becomes wonderstruck at the enormity of the all encompassing canvas.

All this is accentuated by the delicately nuanced breaking down of the barriers of time and place that is so very typical of all creations of this amazing artist. She has also tried to breakdown the apparently unbreakable bond between language and visual fiction. She has introduced those high pitched intonations that are so very common in TV commercials in her 90 second films where the characters do not speak to each other through conventional dialogues but use the shrill monologues accompanied by equally high pitched music with heavy beats to speak out their mind. This, some critics was a very intelligent and subtle way to highlight the alienation and inherent solitude of the characters of the story, but whatever might have been the intention of the film director, the impact has been stupendous.(More on Ahtila’s Works)

An Overview of Ahtila’s Works

Eija-Liisa Ahtila has consciously tried to merge time, space and create a blur the distinctions between past, present and future and also between illusion and reality by merging documentary and narrative styles of storytelling. She has also tried to weave seamlessly acting, performance and straightforward narrations of real experiences of genuine persons and endeavoured to create a continuous flow of uninterrupted emotions that join together and form a unique experience which hovers between real and surreal and creates a profoundly disturbing experience that forces the viewers to think and most obviously re-evaluate the paradigms of existence and reality. Her creations almost always carry a subtly nuanced, almost inaudible message that somehow become excruciatingly loud and force us to reconsider so many things we thought as inviolable laws of nature. Her choice of subjects almost invariable relate to broken or strained relationships, failing families and gradual drifting away of individuals into their own private islands of almost dysfunctional existence.

In Consolation Service, for example, Ahtila has not only tried to blur the distinction between fiction and narrative by making both the narrator and the camera visible, but also creates a very eerie situation where a shiver almost imperceptibly flows down our spine as we see a young husband along with a few of his friends slip through a crack and drown in a frozen lake as they were walking across its frozen surface after finalising an acrimonious divorce settlement with his wife. The frozen expanse and the sudden disappearance through ice somehow act as a sledgehammer to convey the death of a relationship and the futility of their years of togetherness that has resulted in the birth of the child. This particular creation by Ahtila is available in two forms – a 35 mm film or a two screen DVD installation. According to Ahtila, while the right hand screen drives the narrative, the left hand screen provides the landscape and other emotional subtexts which build up to crescendo of emotions which is peaked by an imaginary visitation of the disembodied husband to bid a final farewell.(Searle)

The other equally phenomenal work of this master creator is The Wind where she displayed the troubled mental condition of the protagonist without ever degenerating into mindless and unbridled hysteria. The film spans 14 minutes and is an excerpted version of a 55 minute long single screen film called Love Is a Treasure where the wind serves as a chilling metaphor for mental illness that is not visible like say a cut or a burn or a swelling or any other physical ailment but whose impact can be felt by both the afflicted and those around that person. Indeed it is highlighted when the protagonist queries where is the coming from only to get a reply from a disembodied voice that it is coming from her imagination. It is a three screen presentation where the mental trauma and turmoil of the young protagonist is portrayed simultaneously on three screens by filming the same scene from three different angles. The viewer gets a chance to view each scene from the perspective of his or her choice and the underlying fluidity of perspectives that is so very common in all forms of art and communication is subtly communicated. Mental illness too, after all, is nothing but a situation of twisted perspectives and this message has been very effectively conveyed through this short film. The situation is further crystallised through the superbly nuanced collage of presumably true incidents and fantasy where a young and handsome man arrives to iron the newspapers of Susanna, the mentally troubled protagonist, but refuses any advances made by her. One also recalls how a dozen or so skinny girls invade her apartment to show off their bodies almost instantly after she complains about her generous proportions. The humorous side of Ahtila cannot be overlooked as repeated cuts of a photograph of puffer fish (it inflates its body to scare away predators) flash on the screens as Susanna whines about her rotund shape.

The other creation that must be mentioned while having an overview of Ahtila’s creations is If 6 was 9. The title incidentally is taken from a Jimmy Hendrix song and the creation happens to be collated from real life interviews of five teenage girls of Helsinki. They have precious little to do at home and generally while away their time by discovering their sexuality and exchanging personal experiences (mostly sexual where some are real and rest imaginary) and generally creating a personal fantasy world sheltered from harsh reality. The desire to be sheltered from reality is highlighted by one of the characters claiming that she is 38 years old while looking not even a day older than her friends.(Featurette: EIJA-LIISA AHTILA)

Projected simultaneously on three screens, it catches multiple perspectives of a single scene and by occasionally blacking out of one or two screens to increase focus or projecting a panoramic scene spanning three screens Ahtila could create an environment where the multidimensional aspect of reality is well and truly conveyed to the audience. This has been brought into even sharper perspective in Today where three screens are positioned in an open ended enclosure and activated one after the other showing three different truths spaced by intervals of time. The discontinuity of sequence by bringing past present and future in one extended collage Ahtila weaves a web of illusion that is totally surreal but fully entrenched in reality since narratives purely depend on the perspective of the narrator.

But Ahtila is not only a videographer; she has creations of still photos too that have created similar waves in the world of both connoisseurs and lay viewers. The first series to create waves was Dog Bites that spanned over a five year period (1992-97) and consisted of a suit of eight colour photographs of a nude female in canine postures. The stylish copper coloured hair and the canine pose somehow brought to sharp focus how helpless an individual is when faced with a continuous barrage of advertisement and publicity about what we should wear eat and even what we should think and how we should think. In spite of all tall claims of individuality and individual freedom to make choices, a modern day citizen is in effect nothing but a chained dog in the hands of state and multinational corporate houses.

She also tried her hand at advertisements and cartoons in print media that ran for a week. The advertisements dealt with pressing environmental issues and attempted to make the readers more aware of the impending environmental catastrophe that simply cannot be avoided by ignoring the reality or sweeping away the stark facts from eyesight. The cartoons were aimed at children and dealt with skin care items for them. Her seemingly limitless ability to convey a serious and contemporary message in the garb of light hearted and almost inconsequential banter spilled over into three ultra short (90 seconds each) black and white vignettes – Me/We, Okay and Gray where the artist, it seemed, has finally been able to master the art of juxtaposing the micro and the macro in the same canvas. In Gray, she showed how three women kept discussing the personal trivial woes even while discussing a mammoth nuclear accident that has occurred just across the border.(Vetrocq)

Technique of Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Early video artists as Nam June Paik and Dan Graham preferred video for its immediacy and their work was more renowned for their news value rather than artistic elegance which, nonetheless, was present in ample doses but the finished product surely lacked the plush feeling of a film. During 90s of the last century, artists as Matthew Barney and Shirin Neshat tried to work in a medium that is a hybrid of both and started calling it video installation. Eija-Liisa Ahtila is the best known proponent of this medium and she actually shoots on film and then converts the footage to video for DVD projection and the final product is neither film nor video, it could at best be called filmic digital art.

In Consolation Service, Ahtila projects two images one beside the other on a white wall and what in cinematic language is termed as reaction shots is projected on a separate screen while action continues in the other. So, while main action continues in ne screen, another perspective of the reality is provided in another screen in the form of close ups of faces, furniture or anything that the directors finds suitable or interesting.

However, one must also mention other artists that have used multi-screen projection as a distinct form of art and a separate genre of expression. Notable among these artists are Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider who presented way back in 1969 their nine-screen video projection Wipe Cycle. More recently, Mike Figgis has made a full-fledged film Time Code that requires a four screen projection system. Ahtila has moved closer to the basic intent of video art in Me/We, Okay and Gray where black and white presentations more in line with television commercials tend to give an urgency and immediacy to the tales of three disparate groups separated by a few decades. (Rush)

Ahtila (as well as another Finnish artist Salla Tykka) has used multiple screens to usher in a multiplicity of dimensions as action takes place all around the viewer and sometimes a viewer has to move around a bit to catch a glimpse of the latest bit on a monitor placed a little on the other side. Sometimes the viewer is provided a sofa to lounge on and catch all the action just by glancing from one direction to the other with a slight shift of the head.

Ahtila takes full advantage of multi screen projection by involving the viewers physically in viewing the film and almost always the viewers get caught somewhere in the middle while traversing from one screen to the other and always suffer from the anxiety of lagging behind. The viewers always remain confused about what, where and when and in a way experience the alienation and confusion faced by most of Ahtila’s protagonists.

The other specialty of Ahtila’s creations are that with the exception of Consolation Service, admission in any other screening is not timed meaning anybody can enter anytime and the experience can never be compared to watching TV or going to a cinema. One enters the gallery not knowing at what point in the narrative one is and is also not aware whether what is unfolding right now is a part of a solution or a part of a problem. The experience is very much akin to real life where we are almost perpetually caught in the eddy of time that swirls viciously to make our life take on multiple hues. (Archer)


But it must be said that very few artists have been able to exploit this aspect video installations and among those that have, the very best is undoubtedly Eija-Liisa Ahtila.



Archer, Michael. “ArtForum.” 2002. Eija-Liisa Ahtila – Reviews. <;.

“Eija-Liisa Ahtila Past Exhibitions.” 2001. Arte Contemporanea. <;.

“Featurette: EIJA-LIISA AHTILA.” 2008. SiouxWIRE. <;.

“More on Ahtila’s Works.” 2001. Arte Contemporanea. <;.

Rush, Michael. “Art in America.” 2000. <;.

Searle, Adrian. “The never-ending story.” 2002. <;.

Vetrocq, Marcia E. “Art in America.” 2002. <;.


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