London

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Tate Modern

An assured grasp of film language together with a merciless questioning of subjective coherence means that none of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s films makes for easy viewing. Cumulatively their effect is one of profound discomfiture. Tate Modern’s “Real Characters, Invented Worlds” (which originated at Helsinki’s Kiasma and was shown concurrently at the Kunsthalle Zürich under the title “Fantasized Persons and Taped Conversations”) was listed in Ahtila’s biography as containing “several works.” In reality it provided a substantial survey of her art of the past decade, including a selection of her photographs and most of the major film installations Ahtila has made since her collaboration with Maria Ruotsala ended in the early ’90s.

In Ahtila and Ruotsala’s Plato’s Son, 1990, an alien comes to Earth from the planet Sogol, a world of Platonic forms that is, as its name implies, the antithesis of earthly knowledge. The protagonists in Ahtila’s subsequent films similarly move between reality and its other, finding themselves mirrored into a space of disturbing estrangement or flipped from there back into a normality that can henceforth feel no more than provisional. With a surprise bordering on terror,we witness the world hovering between dependable solidity and frightening fantasy. Characters seek subjective certainty in emotional honesty, narrative consistency, or historical fact, only to see their individuality fracture or lose its distinctness. The psychotic Aki, seen five times over portrayed by five different actors in Anne, Aki and God, 1998, imagines his ideal partner Anne into reality in response to the prompting of a God who is sometimes male, sometimes female. One of the curious teenage girls in If 6 Was 9, 1995-96, hopes she is sufficiently noticeable that someone will want to write a book about her one day: “Not a killer story of course—but even that would be better than nothing." The world of which she and her friends are becoming increasingly aware is, in Ahtila’s depiction, so protean that when the three adjacent screens on which the work is shown occasionally synchronize to show a single panorama, the unified image feels like a pernicious illusion. The girl seen looking at her crying father on the first screen in Today, 1996-97, could be the much older Vera, who subsequently appears on the second screen, and the old man on the third screen, soon to be hit by a car, might well have deliberately caused his son to run him over.

Variously across these and other works in the exhibition there are repetitions and slippages of time and viewpoint from one screen to another, characters telling of shockingly violent or intimate personal details, actors voiced over by others of the opposite sex, people speaking words that have obviously come from the mouths of those much older or younger than themselves. Everything is stripped of its air of assurance; relationships of all kinds—of people to people, people to things, the normal to the pathological, and of all these to the mental constructs through which we struggle to make sense—are rendered impermanent and ambiguous. For all the tension they produce, though, Ahtila’s films are also very funny in places. Take, for instance, Anni and J-P barking at each other in their divorce counseling session in Consolation Service, 1999, or, later, at J-P’s birthday party, male and female guests retelling those hoary old jokes about the toothless female dwarf and the long-tongued drunk. Their unregenerate sexism makes them all the funnier in the context of a story about dealing with the misunderstandings and unfulfilled expectations that have led to marital breakdown.

Ahtila’s appropriated cultural references are not limited to tasteless jokes; her work is also loaded with sly takes on mainstream film conventions. The puny fan by the window in The Wind, 2002; an inadequate materialization of the female protagonist’s inner turmoil, and the final scene, in which she trashes her apartment, hurling shelves and their contents to the ground, mock all the disaster movies we’ve ever seen along with our relieved laughter as we watch the credits roll and tell ourselves that this is, after all, only a story. A short version of The Wind forms part of The Present, 2001, as does a concise rendition of The House, 2002, which Ahtila showed at Documenta 11. In fact The Present comprises five films,which, like the intense, black-and-white shorts of Me/We, Okay, Gray, 1993, are each shown on a separate monitor. A few chairs placed in front of the screens implies that one could sit and view a chosen film in comfort before moving onto the next. But as the longest of them lasts no more than two minutes, settling in seems hardly worth the bother. Instead, one circles the room, trying in vain to find that one place from which all the films would be visible. Often, only a couple of them play at any one time, though as they are of differing lengths, the pattern is constantly shifting. In the intervals before each film starts over, the screens turn red, blue, or green—colors that are immediately recognizable as the constituent palette of all the imagery throughout the gallery. The films show women engaged in and talking about certain obsessive-compulsive or other neurotic behaviors. One crawls across a bridge, another lies down in a puddle, a third hides under her bed in a mental hospital so that the “killers” cannot find her, a fourth bites her own hand, and a fifth hears sounds detached from their objects of origin. Based on interviews with women who had suffered similar episodes, these are nonetheless fictions, as much Informed by Ahtila’s own imaginative input as by any wish to document particular pathologies. A short text appears at the end of each film: GIVE YOURSELF A PRESENT, FORGIVE YOURSELF. The same words are also stitched into blankets that hang on the gallery walls. Here, as with the bowing ceremony between Anni and the phantom J-P at the end of Consolation Service, there seems to be a promise of equilibrium. But no gift comes without responsibilities attached, least of all gifts we give to ourselves. Feelings of guilt over whether or not they are truly deserved are enough to set the processes of mental dissolution in train all over again.

Michael Archer is a London-based critic and writer.