Eija-Liisa Ahtila real characters, invented worlds

November 2002

Publication: The Sunday Herald

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

real characters, invented worlds

Dundee Contemporary Arts


Born in 1959 Finland - where she continues to live and work - Eija-Liisa Ahtila has established an international reputation as a video artist with a difference.  This exhibition, shown earlier this year at Tate Modern, gives a Scottish audience an opportunity to sample Attila’s ‘invented worlds’ of fragmented narratives, dreamlike delusional images, and disturbing social commentary.


Whereas most artists who work with time-based media and video imagery use one or two screens onto which images are projected, Ahtila will use more – here up to five – to display linked narratives.  In ‘The Present’, made last year, a series of five short films document fictionalised accounts of various women’s experiences of mental illness.  Ahtila’s take on this is both compelling and deliberately disorienting – she uses techniques associated with one type of media (in this case, advertising and TV thrillers) to explore the serious and painful business of psychiatric treatment.  Often, there is more than a hint of irony - humorous and, it seems, ludicrously misplaced: here a female nurse ‘shrinks’ like a character in a cheap sci-fi pot-boiler to look for the patient hiding beneath a bed.  In true comic-book style a massive fist lands a punch on the unsuspecting nurse.


Such humour is noticeably absent from the darker, ponderous and truly unsettling ‘Consolation Service’ (exhibited in 1999 at the Venice Biennale).  The narrative explores the emotional turmoil experienced by a couple attempting to face (with the help of a psycho-therapist) the irretrievable breakdown of their relationship.  Two screens offer differing perspectives on this situation: one more intimate, the other attempting a kind of objectivity.  A candle is lit in a informal ceremony where each party is invited to thank the other for all that was good in their union: bleakly, each can only point to their baby as offering some kind of solace.


Later, the father, celebrating his birthday walks on the frozen sea with his now ex-partner and friends.  The ice breaks they fall below the surface; icy, frightening imagery conveys the horror of entrapment, offering a metaphor for the doomed relationship. The woman asks: “Can we still say that this won’t do?  Can we put a stop to it, quit, leave? What kind of fingers undress us here?”


It’s intense, gloomy stuff, without much to leaven it.  But it is the work of a serious and talented artist asking, like Chekhov or Ibsen, some pressing questions on the nature of human relationships.