The border between private and shared experience is a recurring subject of Finnish video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s absorbing fictional dramas. The House (2002), for example, shifts between third- and first-person viewpoints as it traces a woman’s slow unraveling through her daily activities and her increasingly florid imaginings. Where is Where? (2008) examines a real 1950s murder through the words of the perpetrators and the eyes of a contemporary poet obsessed with their motives.
The starting point for Ahtila’s most recent exhibition was the work of German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, and his interest in what he called the Umwelt, or subjective realities, of creatures with different sensoria from our own. Enlarging on Uexküll’s ideas, Ahtila considered whether by moving closer to another’s perspective—however alien to one’s own—one might, if only for an instant, enter into it.
At the center of the show was the 33-minute, three-channel video projection The Annunciation (2010), which played on three walls of a darkened gallery. In the video, a group of women is cast, costumed and rehearsed for a staging of the biblical scene in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her of her virgin conception.
The installation involves multiple points of view, both human and nonhuman. Scenes of the women practicing their parts alternate with sequences devoted to the activities of various animals: a cageful of carrier pigeons (and others loose on the set), a couple of friendly donkeys and a large, intelligent-looking raven, who—in one of the work’s many surreal moments—intently watches from a branch as a man in a Santa suit trudges through a snowy forest.
Mary is played by a young woman with blond dreadlocks and pretty, diamond-shaped eyes, and the angel Gabriel by a stolid redhead in a boldly patterned dress. Cinematic mechanisms are exposed as the angel is fitted with a pair of large black wings and trained in the art of wire-flying. Toward the end of the film, a miracle seems to occur—the angel floats through a glass window separating her from the other actors before alighting in front of Mary.
Magic also happens in a second video installation, Horizontal (2011)—this time, though, as a result of patient problem-solving rather than special effects. Using cameras elevated to different heights, Ahtila attempted to create an undistorted, close-up portrait of a massive spruce tree. The resulting six-screen projection accomplishes her aim, but at the cost of turning the image sideways so it fits in the gallery.
Disorienting and hypnotic, the work presents a segmented view of the tree—which sways and tosses ceaselessly along a 35-foot expanse of wall—as it might be sensed by the forest around it rather than by a human observer. Like the first video, it asks, What if one could truly experience the world as it is experienced by another being? Might that not constitute a miracle?
Photo: Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Horizontal, 2011, 6-channel video installation, 6 minutes; at Marian Goodman.