New York

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Tanja Grunert Gallery

Featured at Documenta 11, Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installation The House, 2002, made its New York debut alongside four architectural models of houses (all 2004). In their clean lines and elegant mix of materials—including wood, stainless steel, asphalt sheeting, and plaster—the rigorously spare constructions propose the idea of a house as a machine for living and point in the direction of the good life. Efficient, open, tactile, and featuring an optimum of distraction-free space, they give a bare-bones preview of intelligent domestic structures (like states of mind) that have yet to be realized, lived in, or personalized. They also couldn’t be further from the domains we encounter in Ahtila’s cinematic videos—real houses that reek of the past and echo the troubled personas of their occupants.

The House, a fourteen-minute, three-channel video installation, prescribes a very active role for the viewer. Tracking the story line through constantly shifting imagery and text that skips from one large screen to the next, we are drawn into an extended take on a contemporary young woman’s altered reality. Elisa, the protagonist and sole character, lives in a quaint wooden cottage situated more or less in a forest. Feminine qualities are softly pronounced in the home’s decor—the wallpaper, the furniture, the bedroom with a sewing machine, the arrangement of things—but the house has begun to show signs of neglect, and though the road is nearby, the place feels quite remote.

The same might be said for the young woman. Her daily activities—coming home, looking out the window, moving from one room to another, eating, sewing—are continually interrupted by delusional episodes. We see her flying among the spruces in the forest or frozen in the middle of a room whose walls have become a racetrack for a tiny animated car. “I think the living room of my house is breaking down,” she says. “It can’t keep things out anymore, can’t preserve its own space. My garden is coming into my living room.” As she describes and we witness the symptoms of her breakdown, she’s busy making black cloth into curtains and fitting them to the windows to block out the light and noise. In the eventual utter darkness of the house her psychological meltdown seems all but complete.

Elisa is the embodiment of Ahtila’s fated woman—an ordinary character who’s gone over the edge—and yet her ramblings reveal a fugitive kind of brilliance. (Is she a fool? A psychic? A sage?) “I meet people. One at a time they step inside me and live inside me,” she tells us. “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.” Grotesque temperaments; extreme experiences, whether imagined or real; a host of obsessions leap to life in Ahtila’s art. Though distinctly melancholic in a Scandinavian sort of way, this tale feels right at home in the city that spawned Jenny Holzer’s gothic fictions and rants, Cindy Sherman’s celluloid femmes disheveling into monsters, and the measured hysteria that erupts from female narrators in Barbara Kruger’s collages—all nameless female characters with their encapsulated pronouncements and prophecies on a world gone weird. Given the overwhelming recent success of Ahtila in the footsteps of her American peers, it’s interesting to consider how functional models of female hysteria have become, and for a wider spectrum of viewers than would ever have gravitated to what once was called “feminist art.”

Jan Avgikos