Eija-Liisa Ahtila has arrived at the right time. History got tired of definitions and boundaries. What society wants now is some confusion. We love the question because we love figuring out what the question is. Ahtila has her own questions, and this era is hungry for them. What Ahtila has in store for us in her latest video art installation, called INT. STAGE-DAY, is visual art, but it’s also cinema. She describes herself as a visual artist in the way that she works – she’s not trying to make a Hollywood showcase. Instead, she is an artist trying to express herself with the right paint, but the paint she happened to stumble upon is the moving image. What makes Ahtila’s work cinematic is not necessarily the moving image, but rather the involvement of the narrative and the role that it plays in the construction of her story and the communication of her message.
Ahtila inadvertently diffuses the boundary between visual art and cinema in order to synergize the two. The form that results is hard to categorize – it’s something of its own. What’s important is where it takes you, and how it takes you there.
INT. STAGE-DAY makes full use of this blending of mediums. The work is comprised of a series of multi-screen narratives that dramatize the ordinary lives of her protagonists. She describes her works as “human dramas,” whereby common human emotions are accentuated and darkened by the protagonists’ fragile inner voices, to the point that they resemble psychosis. Such a style of narrative engages the viewer’s own emotions and places them inside the art, as part of the art. There are, in addition, two photographic series within the installation which, though they are static, retain the same aesthetic of movement that she undertakes in her film works.
Ahtila is careful about the space in which she presents her narratives. The placement of every screen, as well as their relationships to and synchronicity with each other, are deliberately constructed so that the viewer can navigate her way through the piece individually. Ahtila’s work is not one-sided, and it is important for the viewer to actively absorb as much as they can in a way that works for them.
Even the location of Ahtila’s exhibitions within the city plays into the physical construction of her work. INT. STAGE-DAY is spread throughout 3 different sites in Old Montreal. Two of the locations, both at the DHC/ART Foundation, cluster together all of her shorter narratives, which she has been putting together since 1992. Her most recent and arguably most ambitious work to date, “Where is Where?” (2008), is an hour-long narrative about how children interpret the absurdities of war. Engulfing you from every wall in a dark rectangular room, it is located a few blocks away at the Darling Foundry, the third and final site of Ahtila’s exhibition. By grouping her shorter works in close proximity to each other, Ahtila has prepared you for the captivating yet demanding experience of her longer, central piece. There is much to see, and much to miss. Each person works as a collective to make the art happen. Some people are looking at the left screen, others at the right. Others are closing their eyes and listening. Others won’t be here until later today. It is impossible to attend the installation and see everything. However, the missing is just as important as what is seen, because the installation is truly about you, me, and us. The art is everyone at the three sites experiencing it at once, and this aspect of INT. STAGE-DAY is what differentiates it from many other works of art. You won’t understand until you are here.
So be a part of it. Be here, with us.
INT. STAGE-DAY is up through May 9. For more information, visit dhc-art.org.