Eija-Liisa Ahtila (b. 1959) is the internationally most well-known video artist of Finland. She is also working as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts of Helsinki. She has studied at the London College of Printing, the University of Helsinki, the UCLA and the American Film Institute. Ahtila has also won several prizes and grants both in Finland and in other countries. In 2006 she was awarded the prestigious Artes Mundi -prize (worth £40,000) in Cardiff. The artist's private exhibitions have been seen, for example, in Helsinki's Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, London's Tate Modern and New York's MoMa. The British Film Institue has released a handsome DVD-boxset of Ahtila's works.
Although Ahtila's video installations are narrative films with serious themes such as family relations, teenage sexuality, death and the deterioration of mental stability, they are nonethtless extremely experimental. The works' most notable feature is their way of playing around with time and space. Many of Ahtila's installations are split-screen films which are projected simultaneously on several walls. The screens are thus connected to each other and the movement of the action is allowed to move from one screen to another. As a result, the films' narration have a new and unique dimension. In order to grasp the whole picture the viewer must stand in the middle of the multiple screens, expand his visual field and really feel the film around him. The experience is both hypnotic and strangely soothing.
Ahtila also likes to bend cinematic rules by merging several different styles together. The British Film Institute's introduction for the works of Ahtila writes: "By mixing and subverting the filmic rules of commercials, cinma verit, pop promos, trailers and documentaries with a lyrical dose of Nordic supernaturalism, the films attain an air of contemporary familiarity combined with intense oddness." giving Ahtila's work its distinctive style." Due to subvertion of cinematic rules and the use of multiple screens, Ahtila's films have a strongly distinctive style which is difficult to experience anywhere else.
Ahtila's newest film Where Is Where?, based loosely on the book The Wretched of the Earth by French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon,is an almost hour long video installation in three parts, projected on six different screens. The film's topic is the Algerian War fought from 1954 to 1962 (real documentary footage from the war is also included in the film), and the central themes of the controversial work are the impact of colonialism and the clash of two different cultures. Based on a true story, two young Algerian boys murder their French friend because "Europeans want to kill all Arabs." Years later, the incident interests the Poet who gets visited by Death. Together, they sit by a dinner table and begin to talk to each other. According to Ahtila, "the role of Death is to make time stand still, whereas the Poet is a link between time and spaces."
All the actors in the film are from Finland and speak Finnish. Taha Mudammad Rguibi, Alaeddin Alaeddine and Evan Miller, found through auditions, play the parts of the young Algerian boys and their French friend. Kati Outinen, famous for her roles in Aki Kaurismäki's films Drifting Clouds and Man without a Past, plays the Poet. In the role of Death is Tommi Korpela who was also in Kristian Smeds' play Mental Finland, performed at the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwburg stage in Brussels in February 2009.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila's video installation Where Is Where? can be seen at the Contour Mechelen from 15 August 2009 to 18 October 2009.
Text: Juha Rislakki