In Focus

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Talo/The House

"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

Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila keenly brings to light difficult, often disturbing aspects of contemporary life, empathetically communicating their effect on "normal," everyday people 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 encapsulate the viewer with tightly observed images that reflect universal thoughts and emotions. Through confessional intimacy and cathartic narrative, Ahtila presents to her viewers a challenging yet undeniably beautiful pairing of dialogue and film that seems to leap the boundaries between art and viewer, taking her audience into a new area of recognition and feeling.

Talo/The House (first seen at Documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany) is based on extensive readings and interviews Ahtila conducted with women who had experienced psychosis yet were finally able to come to terms with such a debilitating illness. The artist uses the medium of film and couples it with the physicality of installation art to communicate themes such as isolation, estrangement, wonder, and delusion. Entering the gallery space, the viewer encounters three screens that provide an unaccustomed sense of intimacy with the work's protagonists: the woman we see, and the woman's mind speaking an interior monologue of poetic grace. The house itself, captured in the brilliant light of a Finnish summer, when the sun sets for only a few hours, can also be considered a character. The house is represented by the three screens set within the four walls of the gallery, creating a complex interplay between light, space, sound, and image. Ahtila transforms the space into a manifestation of the observed mind, reorganizing the properties of two-dimensional art by making the gallery an extension of what is on-screen.

Ahtila creates a metaphor for the isolation experienced by those afflicted with mental instability by incorporating the landscape of her homeland, depicting it as lush green wilderness with seemingly supernatural powers, and by using a simple house as a stage upon which an unsettled but strangely engaging narrative monologue and its images are captured. Whether she is blocking out sunlight or floating in mid-air, tending to her sewing or driving her car in the rain, the woman embodies and surrounds the space—hers and ours—and pushes us beyond the objective realm of observation and closer to the subjective realm of participation.

Talo/The House builds upon ideas that run throughout Ahtila's previous work with moving imagery, much of which concerns itself with breaking away from the traditional structure of the cinematic while paradoxically incorporating a seemingly chronological story. In Talo/The House, 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 ingeniously communicates this phenomenon by projecting onto not one but three screens, each illustrating a different angle or moment. The artist retains a symbolic system of mental breakdown through the repetition of everyday scenes and routine tasks, thereby creating a circular reality that seems inescapable.

As Talo/The House progresses, this reality evolves into a domestic surrealism, but the calm monotone voice of the principle subject 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 incorporation of the fantastic, the jarring, and the delusional into the reassuring patterns of daily life.

Excerpt from

Wood Roberdeau, "Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Talo/The House" (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), n.p.