Eija-Liisa Ahtila | There Comes a Time in a Young Fantasy’s Life…
Over the course of her 30-year career, Finland-based artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila has emerged as a principle figure of the film installation movement. Her ambitious multi-screen installations are driven by narrative storytelling in ways that most white cube art shows rarely attempt. She often exploits the conventions of melodrama, putting a glaring spotlight on media representations of sexuality, trauma, and mental illness.
Building upon the themes of earlier films such as The House (2002), which uses fantastic, dreamlike imagery to convey the breakdown in perception experienced by sufferers of psychotic disorders, Ahtila’s more recent work delves deeper into the internal realms of shared human perception and the largely uncharted territory of post-humanism. Her newest exhibition, Potentiality for Love, (now on view at the Serlachius Museums in Finland and at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, followed by a “world tour” of sorts lasting into 2019) offers a radically new perspective on the human relationship to animals and nature, while posing broader questions about the origins of love.
The aim is to figure out how we might continue to expand our circles of empathy to include not only more of our fellow humans, but our fellow creatures as well. The installation is comprised of a modular video sculpture, two tablets, and a vertical projection. In the first video component, which depicts a woman floating through a field of stars wearing a sweatshirt bearing the word “LOVE,” Ahtila uses “outdated LED modules” to recreate “an image of a distant memory, of mother and the primal unity.”
At the same time, she evokes “the moment when the possibility for love that rests as potentiality, first emerges,” according to the artist. The second video element consists of a looped video of a chimpanzee with its back towards the audience. The action is alienating while also inspiring the desire to connect with the animal. Ahtila again manipulates her audience’s emotions to provoke an expansion of empathy for subjects that might be normally considered “other.”
The third element of the installation invites audience participation, transcending the typical bench & video set-up. Ahtila has digitally reimagined the psychological device of the “mirror box” that was invented to treat patients with phantom limb syndrome. Where the human arm is usually reflected in a mirror, Ahtila places an LED monitor showing the arms of a primate. As the viewer places one arm in front of the monitor, it is met with the exact mirror image of chimpanzee’s arm. The mirrored action with the arm on-screen produces a visceral response—you feel the primate’s arm as you would your own, sparking “radical empathy” that disputes historical hierarchies between humans and non-humans.
Ahtila transcends the label of “filmmaker” or “installation artist”: her primary medium is direct experience and emotional connection. Her films produce an uncanny familiarity, the feeling of a memory that is activated in the mind of the audience. The goal is a fantasy well worth realizing: to inspire an expansion of two human attributes currently in short supply—empathy and love.
Written by Mariana Fernandez