Eija-Liisa Ahtila
Eija-Liisa Ahtilalla on takanaan monta viikkoa kestänyt, intensiivinen Marian ilmestyksen kuvaustyö. Lavasteita purettaessa väsymys alkoi jo helpottaa.

Shared Pictures, Shared Emotions

The Finnish premiere of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation ‘Where is Where?’ makes her one of the key artists for the Capital of Culture Year. The installation is part of the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma collection and will be exhibited in Logomo during the spring of 2011.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s new studio is still disorganised following a recent move. On the day of the interview, Ahtila is a happy woman: changing the location of her studio has significantly reduced the distance to work and, most importantly, the shoot for the artist’s next work had just been completed.

- I worked with a group of amateur actors. That meant a certain amount of unpredictability and spontaneity, you never know how the day is going to pan out, says Ahtila.

The new work is not fully completed, but Ahtila is happy to discuss it. The three-screen video installation, is based on a Christian theme which has been popular with a number of past Masters. For a while now, Ahtila has been working on a series of photographs that depict Christian iconography in a contemporary setting, but ‘The Annunciation’ warranted a story told through video.

Originally, the story was going to be small-scale, but Ahtila’s works tend to expand.

- This work was intended to be a part of a series of smaller works titled ‘Ètudes,’ which includes ‘The Fishermen’ that I did a few years ago. While writing the script, I realised that this work is no étude.

Where is Where?’, in particular, is not a small piece. The installation is made up of six video screens, one of which leads the viewer into the story, one leads out of the story and the remaining screens tell the story.

Kiasma bought the world-renowned piece during the spring of 2009, but couldn’t find a suitable venue until now. In Turku, Ahtila’s installation will precede another Finnish premiere from Kiasma’s collection: ‘Small Boats’ by the British artist Isaac Julien. Both works are part of the Africa theme for the ARS2011 exhibition.

Ahtila’s and Julien’s works are linked by the theme of colonialism. ‘Where is Where?’ is based on actual events which took place during the Algerian independence battles in late 1950s: two Algerian school boys react to oppression and violence by killing their French friend.

This shocking story may seem distant and irrelevant at first, but through the tragedy Ahtila draws a parallel to colonialism and Pan-European cultural tradition, of which Finland is a part.

- The story includes several contemporary issues, such as the coming together of the Arab and Western cultures, the resultant cultural colonialism and the situation when one culture holds power over the other. We can also reflect on where we stand today: we are European but what are our boundaries and how do we interpret historical events?

True to its name, ‘Where is Where?’ raises questions and challenges interpretations. The viewer is surrounded by four screens, each showing a different view of the same event. The viewer will not be able to take it all in at once. The installation requires the viewer to be proactive and make decisions – just like in real life.

- In the beginning, the poet character brings the historical event into our time. The poet then steps aside, and the viewer must interpret what he or she has witnessed,” explains Ahtila.

Ahtila produces both film and installation versions of her works, each with a different story.

- Using multiple images creates a different story than using a single image. Multiple images allow several points of view; it is visually more challenging, but opens new kinds of possibilities for seeing and doing.

For her films, Ahtila explores themes that touch large audiences: emotions and human drama on separation; death and sexuality; and other important subjects. Although Ahtila’s movies attract fairly large audiences, they do not compare to commercial productions.

Going commercial is not an option for Ahtila.

- There would be no point in recreating an American entertainment movie. That subject matter is perfect for a long movie presented through a single screen.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila is openly European. In her opinion, Europe represents the best that Western culture has to offer. Her movies are in Finnish, with the exception of ’The Hour of Prayer’, which was originally intended to be a soundwork.

- I have learned my profession in English and I enjoyed studying in Los Angeles. However, as you grow older, your cynicism about mainstream culture over there increases. The multitude of cultures in Europe is more interesting.

Her unusual language can be a burden, but Ahtila wants to hold on to using Finnish.

- Large cultures are only moderately interested in other cultures. In a way, I live on the borderline; travelling the world offers perspective and makes me want to retain my identity.

During the Spring, Ahtila resigned from her position as a Professor at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. Currently she is focusing on her art, with an upcoming exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and her doctoral dissertation, which discusses the issues of multi-image narration.

- Even though creating art takes up most of my time, it is important to raise awareness and debate on these topics, says Ahtila.

Text Elina Teerijoki