Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Cinematic Worlds
Sometimes we may encounter a fantasy, an
image or a piece of writing through which we can
momentarily step inside the particular worlds
of time and space that [other] beings inhabit.
These words, spoken by a character in The Annunciation [Marian ilmestys, 2010], encapsulate the spectator’s experience of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s cinematic installations. Encountered in darkened rooms, her work transports us to strange worlds in which the power of the imagination holds as much sway as the laws of nature, in which words, images, colours and sounds govern the shapes of time and space. As this immersive quality is a defining characteristic of both moving images and installation art, it is hardly surprising to find it intensified in screen-based installations. However, in Ahtila’s work it is paradoxically combined with a reflexive aesthetic and a keen critical interest in the conditions of representation, and it is this combination of absorption and criticality that distinguishes her work.
The philosopher, Stanley Cavell, defines film as “a succession of automatic world projections.” For Cavell, film is made of incisions, ingestions and projections of reality; the film frame, unlike the frame of a painting, surrounds a fragment of the world that exists beyond it: “A painting is a world; a photograph [or a film frame] is of the world.” This potential extension beyond the frame is what distinguishes the imaginary worlds created by photography and film from those created by painting and literature. The fictional world of a film is created by the movement of objects into and out of the frame, and by the mobility of the frame itself, across a space that always exceeds its grasp. As Leo Braudy argues, films “interrogate reality not by recording objects, but by establishing a frame in time within which objects can achieve momentary meaning.” This idea is developed by V. F. Perkins: “As a zone of fact abutting on zones of possibility, the fictional world poses a relationship between all that we can assume and all that we cannot, or cannot yet know.”
Moving images in the gallery, especially those that play across multiple screens, deploy the illusion of a world that extends beyond the confines of the frame in order to create an immersive experience. The spectator watches from within the zone of possibility between images. But, rather than exploiting this effect to generate simulations (as virtual reality technologies do), Ahtila’s work investigates the conditions of immersive illusion in cinema and other mediums. An avid reader, she describes the literary sources that inform her work in terms that remind us that many art forms have the capacity to immerse us in fictional worlds: “When you go to a bookstore and open a book you have not seen before and read a little bit, the place and atmosphere and characters of the book start forming a world around you that did not exist before.” Working in a hybrid form between cinema and the gallery, Ahtila investigates the effects of layering and juxtaposing storytelling conventions from literature, theatre, painting, cinema and television to create fictions that sometimes reinforce each other and sometimes contradict each other. Her work explores historically specific encounters between one medium and another, one fictional world and another. What the viewer of Ahtila’s work shares is not a selfeffacing illusion, but a self-acknowledging illusion, which, nevertheless, may form a world. As Perkins argues, the coherence of cinematic worlds depends, ultimately, on the viewer: “We are offered an assembly of bits and pieces from which to compose a world. Fragmentary representation yields an imagined solidity and extensiveness. The malleability of the image is in a reciprocal relationship with the seamlessness and continuity that the image can evoke in our minds. Our imagination of the world is impressively independent of the means of representation.”
From her earliest works, Ahtila’s investigation of literary, theatrical and audio-visual storytelling conventions has been accompanied by an interest in the construction of fictional worlds. Beatrix Ruf uses the term “hybrid realities” to describe the combination of different representational regimes in her work, though it may be more accurate to talk about hybrid fictions. The short Me/We (1993) – one of three 90-second black-andwhite films made to be shown during advertising breaks on television and on monitors in galleries – offers a glimpse into a strange world whose characters seem to have wandered out of a Bergman film and into an advert for soap powder, bringing their identity crises with them. A man and woman and their two teenage children are hanging wet sheets out to dry on washing lines in a garden. Addressing the camera in a confiding manner, the man talks about the family’s relationship problems. He speaks for the others, literally when his voice is synchronised with the movements of his daughter’s lips as well as his own. When he tickles someone through a sheet, it turns out to be himself. The double tells him a story: “Someone looks over my shoulder (maybe me) and says: ‘You return to the day when you took your university entrance exams.’ Yes, but this time I intend to fail.” The anecdote is adapted from Maurice Blanchot’s short text, “Who?” which he wrote in response to the question, “What comes after the subject?” Ahtila draws attention to the importance of continuity and synchronisation in the construction of selfhood in narrative film, and shows how the conventions involved can be put to other uses, splitting and doubling subjectivity instead of individuating it. The film’s tight focalisation through the protagonist may distract us from its many spatial and temporal discontinuities. These are sometimes covered by false continuities, such as the graphic match between a white sheet in the garden and the white sheet covering the man’s double, as he lies on a bed. Several slow-motion shots suggest magical or subjective temporal transitions in the style of Tarkovsky: a cup of tea being spilled on a tablecloth is followed by a shot of the mother and daughter shaking a sheet as they fold it, the action repeated three times through step-printing. Most enigmatic of all – although easy to miss as we attend to the spoken text – are the two final shots of the film, showing very similar views of the garden at night, one from a slightly higher angle than the other, joined by a jump cut. There is nothing out of the ordinary about the mise-en-scène – both shots show a bench by the exterior wall of a house, garden foliage and the edge of one of the sheets hanging on the line. But the infringement of the 30º rule (which dictates that cuts in a sequence should be justified by at least this degree of spatial reorientation) has a disturbing, uncanny quality, as if this little disarticulation were a crack in space and time. What has changed in the world of the film with this cut, how much time has passed (if any) and what does the slight repositioning of the frame imply? The temporal and spatial uncertainties of the film make the smallest discrepancy potentially significant.
The fictional world of this film is constructed in two contrasting representational modes – one drawn from television advertising, with its domestic setting and insistent direct address; the other from arthouse cinema, with its expressive mise-en-scène and reflexive narration. Both modes break through the fourth wall of conventional illusionism, although the strategies they deploy in the process are almost diametrically opposed: in advertising, the characters address viewers from within the fictional world in front of the camera; in arthouse cinema, the author makes explicit interventions from the other side of the camera, turning stylistic or rhetorical devices, such as slow motion or repetition, into events that reverberate within the fictional world. In both genres, the presentness of the fictional world is held in dialectical tension with the presence of the work of art, contrary to conventional expectations of a resolution in favour of one or the other, depending on whether the work is realist or modernist. The hybrid, intermedial form of Me/We seems less strange if one considers the fact that, for contemporary artists and filmmakers, sophisticated visual literacy is almost always intermedial from the outset. In Ahtila’s case, this is evinced by an interview in which she talks about the importance of arthouse cinema as an influence on her work, mentioning in passing that she became familiar with Bergman’s work via Finnish television. The copresence of multiple worlds is, as Margaret Morse has argued, a defining feature of television, with its fluid shifts between discursive forms and modes of address (including art films with advertising breaks). It is also, increasingly, a feature of art galleries and museums, where media forms meet and mingle in an environment in which each room and each frame, vitrine or screen may enclose a different world.
The conception of an imaginary world that is discontinuous not only with our own world but also with itself is developed in Ahtila’s multi-screen installations. This form extends the diegetic space and flexibility of the single-screen film and multiplies the possible readings of off-screen space; if the existence of off-screen space may be implied on any of the frame’s six sides, then a three-screen work, for example, may function in up to 18 dimensions. Spatial and temporal relations between screens – as between successive shots in singlescreen works – may be based on repetition, overlap, contiguity, alterity or false continuity, and may be constructed so as to reduce or increase complexity and ambiguity, creating pockets of relative spatial and temporal indeterminacy or contradiction. Editing, which normally functions sequentially, acquires a spatial dimension. This enables new forms of continuity and also creates new forms of discontinuity, turning temporal intervals into gaps in space. Where installations take on architectural form, the visitor in the gallery may enter into these gaps, giving new meaning to the notion of the spectator-in-the-text.
Gaps are essential to the three-screen work If 6 was 9 [Jos 6 olis 9, 1995), an evocative portrayal of the ambiguous world of 14 year-old girls in which sexual curiosity and exploration coexist with biology homework and piano practice. Its wholly engrossing presentation of middle-class schoolgirls in wintry Helsinki is patterned with precise musicality, the images punctuated by black screens. A group of five girls are seen engaged in everyday activities, meeting at the hypermarket, hanging out at home and playing basketball at school. For the first few sequences, the girls narrate these activities in voiceover, then the mode of address and the subject matter shifts, as they speak directly towards the camera, recounting sexual fantasies and experiences, from childhood games to teenage promiscuity. In the final sequence, they cut up magazines, including pornographic ones, and make collages of strange hermaphroditic bodies. The monologues in If 6 was 9 are scripted with hindsight, from the perspective of a more experienced woman, and it is this subjectivity that is vocalised by the girls. Realisation of this fact elicits a gestalt shift, comparable to that provoked by the famous young/old lady illusion. This shift is thematised as time travel, when one of the girls announces that she is a 38-year-old woman who has been sent back to re-live her girlhood after spoiling her life as an adult by being too demanding. “We have a future … but I have been there once already.” Over the course of the work, the naïve discourses of the girls acquire an evidentiary force that implies a feminist thesis on the relationship between gender identity and memory: What if girls don’t become women in the repressive way that Freud and Beauvoir described? What if girls retain certain aspects of the androgynous identity with which they begin life?
Although the narrative unfolds in a linear fashion, Ahtila’s complex editing is like the street magician’s sleight-of-hand game in which the spectator bets on which of three cups conceals the ball; we begin to follow a thread, make connections, anticipate significant changes, but find ourselves caught up in the flux of images and sounds. Narrative space is dynamic, constantly changing shape. The three screens occasionally join up to form a panoramic view, but more often present three views of a scene. Sometimes an image is projected onto only one of the screens, while the others are dark. In effect, the work unfolds through a series of changes in aspect ratio, from widescreen to academy – times one, two or three. The changing mode of address also has implications for the viewer’s spatial relationship with the screen – direct address establishes a vector between character and spectator as the principal axis of the work, whereas indirect address establishes the transversal plane of the mise-en-scène as its principal axis. Shifts between these modes change our understanding of the screen, as an object in our world or a threshold to another.
If 6 was 9 is structured around a series of thresholds – between childhood and adulthood, past and present, discourse and performance, documentary and fiction. The form of the work embodies this play on thresholds in its construction of screen space as fluid, multi-dimensional and gapped. The articulation of space across three screens endows the edges of the frame with a particular importance, especially when things disappear between screens as a result of framing, as one of the girls does at one point. Disappearance is also articulated as a theme: one girl describes a book she read about a cannibal who killed and ate young women, and another girl talks about the children in the story of the Pied Piper who disappear into a hole in the side of a mountain. Gaps and passages recur throughout the work, in the black screens that punctuate it and as images within it, including architectural openings and bodily holes. Through the figure of the gap or hole, present as form and content, Ahtila constructs a world in the image of an ambivalent, polymorphous feminine subjectivity.
This treatment of the screen as a semi-permeable threshold is developed in Today [Tänään, 1997], also a triptych, arranged in sections that play consecutively on three sides of a square. The narrative concerns a family in which a teenage girl’s father is grieving after accidentally killing her grandfather in an inexplicable and surreal road accident. Again, a mixture of direct address with voiceover creates a hybrid diegesis. This hybridity is most evident in the contrast between shots in which a fictional space forward of the screen is clearly implied, for instance when we see the characters driving their car straight into that space and shots in which it is abolished, when they speak directly to an implied audience in front of the screen. The shift from one conception of space to the other can involve us very directly, as when a shot of the girl bouncing a ball against a wall is followed by a shot in which she bounces the ball off the screen, interpolating the viewer into the film space. At the same time, we’re cautioned against believing what we see and hear, as the girl stops bouncing the ball but the sound of it hitting the wall continues, hinting at the temporal inconsistency of relations between sound and image orbetween one shot and another. Temporal inconsistency becomes more marked when the girl announces that she’s 66 years old and has something in her lap, and, on the next screen, we see an older woman, sitting in the same chair, holding an ashtray in her lap. Are they the same person, years apart, or separate characters in the same timeframe? Is the older woman the girl’s grandmother? Viewers are left to fill in the gaps, quite literally as the three-sided square of the installation puts them in the place of the fourth wall.
The discursive structure of Today implies the simultaneous coexistence of two (mutually excusive) worlds outside the frame – the world of the story, and the world of the viewer. In Consolation Service [Lohdutusseremonia, 1999], Ahtila extends this strategy in two ways, by including direct references to textual processes, and by using framing and mise-en-scène to suggest a nested structure of worlds within worlds. Across two screens, Consolation Service dramatises the story of J.P. and Anni, a young couple in the process of separating. Inconsistencies between the paired screens, including deliberate infringements of continuity, may be read as expressions of the idea of breaking up or as breaks in illusionistic coherence. Comparable breaks are produced in the work’s verbal register. The story begins with a voiceover, explaining that the characters are neighbours of the narrator. Disconcertingly, J.P. confirms this, telling his therapist: “Our neighbour is the babysitter – the one who is writing this story.” The narrator exists inside the fictional world – as an unseen, acknowledged, inhabitant of the neighbourhood – but also outside it, describing it in clearly artefactual terms: “I am standing in the middle of the characters’ lines. Without action I grasp the sentences and function as the narrator.”
Immersion is not only an effect of the work but also a theme within it, as the characters go out with their friends and accidentally fall through thin ice on a frozen river which engulfs them. Under water, they float lifelessly in a murky limbo until the grey light that surrounds them turns golden and this world almost imperceptibly gives way to another, in which thin horses roam at the edges of a dusty African village. This is then revealed to be an image from a documentary on the television in the family’s home (the baby is parked in front of the screen, watching from her bouncy chair). In this world, the characters are apparently still alive, despite having drowned in the previous scene – instantiating what David Bordwell has described, after Borges, as “forking-path narration.” The fictional world here becomes a kind of multiverse in which multiple possibilities co-exist for the characters, but which also includes the world – or a version of the world – of its maker and its viewers.
In a group of works made between 1998 and 2002, Ahtila explores the ways in which cinematic worlds can mimic or model mental landscapes, specifically those of people suffering from delusional psychoses. Anne, Aki and God [Anne, Aki ja Jumala, 1998] is based on the case history of a Finnish telecommunications engineer named Aki, who developed schizophrenia, hallucinating God and an imaginary girlfriend named Anne. A complex arrangement of monitors, screens and props is used to explore questions of illusion and reality, performance and identity, with multiple performers playing Aki (at the same time) and a number of actresses auditioning for the part of Anne (in turn). A series of interrelated films, exhibited in various ways – including as an installation, entitled The Present [Lahja, 2001], and an episodic single-screen film, called Love is a Treasure (2002) – were developed from interviews with women who had experienced psychotic episodes. In these works, cinematic rearticulations of space and time and sound and image mimic the perceptual and cognitive disturbances that accompany psychosis. Ahtila highlights the ways that lucid insights can sometimes emerge from the cognitive dysfunctions of mental disturbance. For instance, the elementally angry protagonist of The Wind [Tuuli, 2002] offers a trenchant critique of globalisation – “How is the trash sold to the third world and how do they manage to carry it there? Keep your own shit! That’s what I got my doctorate in.”
These cinematic investigations of subjectivity in crisis are accompanied by an interest in architectural structures – perhaps because of the similarities between the structure of a film or installation and that of a building, or because of the way in which the built environment, like film, externalises mental landscapes and systems of thought. A number of the episodes in Love is a Treasure/The Present explore anomic suburban landscapes. In Ground Control, the protagonist lives in an unfinished house (with plasterboard and breeze blocks showing) on a modern estate in the process of being built, overlooked by a water tower which resembles a spaceship that has landed in the suburbs; in The Bridge, a doll’s house stands in for the family home and a miniature model of the hospital is momentarily mistaken for the real thing, until the frame widens to reveal the building behind the model; a shot in Underworld shows leftover materials from its set construction piled up in a corner; the epilogue to Love is a Treasure is staged in an all-white interior, the décor equivalent of a blank canvas. Architectural structures are the subject of Ahtila’s House sculptures of which she says that the house is “a metaphor for the human mind.” Unfinished structures and visible sets also communicate her interest in fabrication, and in building the process of making things into cinematic storytelling, instead of taking the conventional approach in which construction is its invisible support.
Parallels between cinematic syntax, architectural space and subjective experience are explicitly addressed in The House [Talo, 2002], an episode in The Present/Love is a Treasure which is also shown separately as a three-screen installation. The protagonist, Elisa, arrives by car at a lakeside cottage surrounded by trees, and, in voiceover, offers a precise description of the house – number of rooms, orientation, and so on. Then she introduces the question of point of view, explaining that, from where she is standing, she can see the trees through the window, but when she steps to one side, they are obscured by the curtain. The car begins to move by itself, and the house becomes an unstable, unreliable space. Elisa tells us that “the car didn’t stay completely parked in the garden today, but came inside with me […] I parked the car quite normally in the garden, but the sound has separated itself from it. I don’t know where the car actually is. I’m confused. I go and look at it from the window and see it outside. But if I take a step to the right I see only the striped curtain and I hear the sound of the car here.” As she speaks, a toy-sized car drives around the living room wall behind her. The House reverses the familiar philosophical riddle to ask: if someone hears a tree fall in the forest, does that mean it has? This new conundrum is derived from abnormal psychology – auditory hallucination – but also from film editing, which routinely requires us to resolve such questions. A similar approach is taken to the question of framing and mise-en-scène: a shot of the television in the living room, on which the image of a cow can be seen, is followed by a close-up of the screen so that only the scene with the cow is visible, then a third shot showing the cow walking across the living room in Elisa’s house. She says that the house no longer has walls. This transition exploits the power of the close-up to make a leap “beyond the limits of situation” as Eisenstein suggested, but, instead of transporting us into dialectics, it generates a new phenomenological situation. In the three-screen version of The House, this effect is redoubled by the proxemics of the installation, which shift not only as a result of editing but also with the viewer’s own movements in the space.
The hallucinatory experiences that Elisa recounts are represented through editing; she describes being in two spaces at once, one constituted by sight, the other by sound, and we experience it too, as we hear the sounds of a busy port but see her in her house. Shots showing her hanging blackout curtains are coupled with shots showing her on the other side of the room, as if watching herself, or perhaps in the moments before or after hanging the curtains. The conventions of film editing lack the absolute fixity of meaning to en-able us to determine the exact relationships between shots, and Ahtila exploits this ambiguity to portray an unstable world. Elisa says: “Outside a new order arose, one that is present everywhere. Everything is now simultaneous, here, being. Nothing happens before or after. Things don’t have causes […] Time is random and spaces have become overlapping. No place is just one any more.” This can be read as a description of the formal organisation of The House, corresponding to Lev Manovich’s description of the new forms of spatial narration made possible by multiple windows in new media: “The diachronic dimension is no longer privileged over the synchronic dimension, time is no longer privileged over space, sequence is no longer privileged over simultaneity, montage in time is no longer privileged over montage within a shot.” It also describes the way in which the protagonist’s mental breakdown is made metaphorical through the house, an archetypal trope of feminine psychopathology. This displacement is evident in Elisa’s statement that “I think the living room, or my house, is breaking down. It can’t keep things out any more, can’t preserve its own space.” Finally, one of the hallucinations she describes hints that her altered state may be a hypostasis of wider geopolitical conditions; she sees a ship that is “the same ship as all the other ships, and this ship is full of the refugees who come to every shore.” As she describes how the people she meets take up residence inside her, the analogy between the self, the house and the world is sealed.
Despite the localised setting of most of these works in and around Helsinki, passing references to geopolitics are indicative of the effects of globalisation. In Ground Control, for example, the young protagonist’s erratic behaviour is first noticed when she comes home wearing her friend’s hijab over her long blonde hair. The issue is touched upon only briefly, but contributes significantly to the particular construction of modernity that informs Ahtila’s work.
Geopolitics take centre stage in the six-screen installation, Where is Where? [Missä on missä? 2008], Ahtila’s first major work with a transnational setting and subject matter. The narrative concerns an event that took place in Algeria during the War of Independence, recounted by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth as one of a number of case histories of mental disorders induced by colonialism. Two boys aged 13 and 14 killed a friend, a pied-noir of their own age, in response to the massacre at Meftah of 40 Algerian men who were dragged from their beds and executed one night in 1956. The fragmentary re-enactment of these events is interwoven with another narrative strand in which a middle-aged woman poet in contemporary Finland tries to understand and write about them. Her reflection is aided by a discussion with a woman priest who concludes the encounter by levitating, and through a visit from Death, a hooded figure in the Scandinavian tradition, familiar from The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921) and The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957). Death brings the boys to Finland, crossing the sea in a small boat which then appears in the swimming pool in the poet’s garden. The work ends with the questioning of the boys and their responses, as reported by Fanon.
The four central screens of the installation create a room within the gallery which the visitor enters. Across these screens, the two diegeses unfold and intermingle in a shifting pattern of immersive continuities and disorienting discontinuities. Two further screens, located at the points of entry and exit, show a graphic animated film featuring the major motifs of the work and archive footage from the Algerian War (which also appears at points on the central screens). This arrangement of screens is more immersive than in other works by Ahtila, and yet she uses it to undermine, rather than simulate, spatial coherence, not only by interleaving two distinct sites, but also by combining location shots of real places and overtly theatrical sets. Some scenes use a minimal décor of flat, painted scenery, and, in one scene, movable walls are lowered around the characters. Location is raised as a historical and geographical question but also as an ontological question:
When you are driving up a hill, how do you know nobody is coming towards you in the same lane? How can you know the others are driving on their own side of the road? How do you know this isn’t that unexpected moment in time, when timelessness and time meet. A pause, a fit of absent-mindedness, a lapse into recollection. How can you know, when you step out of the door, that you are stepping into your own garden? Not into Meftah or Maroua? A second’s inattention, disobedience, a half-guessed hint. And there are no distances, everything is the same side of the same and nobody knows where is where.
Shifting between different modes of registering location in time and space as geopolitical fact and as phenomenological experience, Where is Where? explores the relationships between modes. The ethical question of putting oneself in the place of another is accompanied by an aesthetic question inspired by the hybrid form of the cinematic installation – which art forms might help us to do this and how?
The work begins with a poet reading a text loosely derived from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, “Enfance,” which was written in the early 1870s. This Symbolist poem uses vivid, imagistic language to suggest a flux of shifting locations, including a wooded landscape, terraces by the sea, broom-covered hills, a garden, a red road, a library and a tomb. The poem’s exotic imagery is derived from what Fredric Jameson has termed the “geographical Unconscious of colonialism.” Jameson argues that Rimbaud’s work is structured around two spatial poles of embodied experience – that of the adolescent, as “a historically new and specific sensorium for which a host of unique determinants made this particular figure a privileged recording apparatus” and the (also new) experience of the global space of colonialism. Writing at a crucial moment in the transition from market capitalism to monopoly capitalism, Jameson registers “a whole mutation in the world system.” In turn, Rimbaud’s spatial text responds to a gap between individual, phenomenological experience and structural intelligibility:
[I]f, in the newly decentred situation of the imperialist network, you live something strongly and concretely, it is unintelligible, since its ultimate determinants lie outside your own field of experience. If, on the other hand, you are able to understand a phenomenon abstractly or scientifically, if your abstract mind is able to assemble all the appropriate determinants, present and absent as well, then this knowledge fails to add up to a concrete experience, remains abstract and sealed away in the compartment of the mind reserved for pure knowledge and reflection.
Rimbaud’s exoticism is on a historical continuum with Fanon’s anti-colonialism, the one working between the micro-geography of embodied experience and the global scale of new world systems, the other retracing the journey, between the colonial system and a poetic phenomenology of subalternity.  Together, the two texts place the experience of geopolitical dislocation within the specific historical context of the period dominated by monopoly capitalism, at the moment in which writing was its privileged mode of cultural expression.
The commutation of Symbolist poetic language and anti-colonial theory into moving images is not just a movement along a historical continuum but also an intermedial leap. One of the consequences of this leap is that the immateriality of language gives way to the materiality of cinema, so that the abstraction of Death (played by the movie star Tommi Korpela), for example, becomes a stock figure from Nordic cinematic iconography. Unlike writing, filming begins with the concrete and the particular. To render spatial and temporal dislocation in cinematic terms requires the systematic disarticulation of the necessary spaces and times of production. In order to achieve this, Ahtila draws on the strategies of arthouse cinema, to which spatial and temporal indeterminacy are key. In Deleuze’s account of modern cinema, films register the emergence of new kinds of environment, “non-places” as cinematic “any-spaceswhatever.”  Modern films are characterised by “a method of film composition based on the gap, or the space between images.” In Where is Where? spatial, temporal and psychological gaps open up between screens and between shots and even within shots. The transposition of the formal strategies of arthouse cinema to multiple screens widens the gap between images so that it becomes a space that the spectator enters into physically as well as mentally.
The imagery and articulation of Where is Where? are designed to combine forceful kinaesthetic effects with an embodied sense of disorientation generated by the gap between the screens. Canted shots showing the two Algerian boys tumbling down a steep slope communicate their movement to the viewer, to the accompaniment of loud electric guitar and rhaita music that is felt within the listener’s body. Sufi dancers are shown on all four screens at once, but from different angles, so that motion is both coordinated and slightly out of joint, transmitting the disorientating effects of the spinning movement from dancers to spectators. When a shot, fired in Algeria on one screen, pierces the door of the poet’s study in Finland on the screen directly opposite, it causes viewers to flinch involuntarily. This is essentially a mimetic effect, as defined by anthropologist, Michael Taussig, not only a copying or imitation, but also “a palpable sensuous connection between the very body of the perceiver and the perceived.” Mimesis is also figured within the work, when, in response to the sound of engines droning overhead (motivated by archive footage of French war planes), the two boys run with outstretched arms, playing at aeroplanes. Cross-cultural mimesis is troped as innocent, but deadly, misunderstanding, just as the murder mimes colonial violence. Drawing on the mimetic properties of cinema, Ahtila makes structural unintelligibility a palpable central principle of the work and explicitly links this to geopolitical dislocation: “You stand in the wrong country assembling the pieces of a puzzle,” Death tells the poet. The form of the installation literalises the question of where one stands in relation to events.
The installation’s art film aesthetic is framed by two other cinematic forms – animation and documentary. An animated film, which appears on the screen at the entrance to the installation, presents an alternative expression of the installation’s subject matter, cycling repeatedly through a sequence of images derived from it – two separate land masses approaching each other, a road running over a hill, a clock running fast, a bird on a branch singing. The vivid red colour of the animation resonates with the instruction Death gives to the poet to “put some red in” and with the strong reds used throughout the mise-en-scène, especially in the deep red walls of the poet’s home. The use of the colour red as a marker of transitional states and spaces has been noted in Ahtila’s earlier work. Here, it is associated with a poetic, almost metaphysical, distillation of the installation’s themes, removed from a specific place and time.
As a counterpoint to this expressive imagery, the archival footage of the Algerian War included in the work functions as a documentary reminder of the actuality of the events depicted. This footage is mixed in with dramatised scenes, but not at all seamlessly; the black and white images contrast markedly with the vivid colour of the other images, and the appearance of archival imagery is underscored by a sombre musical theme. At one point, the poet is briefly glimpsed surrounded by screens on which archival footage is projected, in an installation within the installation. The final screen by the exit – the “epilogue” – is used for the continuous (looped) projection of footage of corpses being laid out in the aftermath of a massacre. Hidden from the view of most spectators most of the time, yet continually present, the placement of these images mimics the place of the Algerian War in French life – a traumatic event which, unassimilated into consciousness, continues to reverberate through the national unconscious.
The opening-out of literary and cinematic forms into the space of the gallery invites spectatorial participation of a kind more usually encountered in theatre. In recognition of this, and taking its cue from the reference to a stage in “Enfance,” the installation figures theatre within itself, in a series of theatrical motifs including non-naturalistic stage sets and a row of theatre seats, in front of which the poet performs a hymn. Ahtila explains that “a stage can be seen as a non-place, anonymous in itself, something that is built to make something else visible.” At the same time, the stage is not made invisible; as Cormac Power argues, theatre involves “the simultaneity of imaginatively ‘seeing’ a fictional world that has been conjured up, while seeing the theatrical means of creating the fictional.” Theatre, the most social art form, enlists the support of its audience in the creation of a fictional world that coexists, in an intricate dialectic of presence and absence, with the actual space of the auditorium. Because theatre requires its spectators to believe themselves simultaneously here and there, now and then, self and other, it offers a model for synthesising experience and knowledge, turning structural unintelligibility into sensuously intelligible structural complexity.
Some of these concerns are carried over into Ahtila’s next major work, The Annunciation, a three-screen work dealing with a miraculous event and the cultural traditions that govern its visibility and comprehensibility. The installation presents the research and rehearsals undertaken by a group of women preparing a performance based on the Annunciation, as narrated in the Gospel of Luke and as represented in Italian Renaissance painting. It begins with a prologue in which shots of a snowy landscape are accompanied by a voiceover that reflects on questions of storytelling, knowledge and perspective. It is suggested that the miraculous may be the familiar seen from another point of view. A raven appears and the voiceover describes what it perceives in the landscape (the tracks of a hare and the cry of a bullfinch, but also Santa Claus walking past). An over-the-shoulder shot and a mobile shot create a point of view for the bird. Then, in one of those world-shifting transitions that typify Ahtila’s installations, paintings fill the screens. The three Annunciations shown in this way (along with a clutch of others that are included within the main diegesis of an artist’s studio), appear in chronological sequence – first an altarpiece by Simone Martini (1333), then a fresco by Fra Angelico (1438–1445), and last, a painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1475). Martini’s altarpiece shows Gabriel and Mary against a flat gold background, without the illusion of spatial depth. By including this work, Ahtila brings the three-screen form that she so frequently uses into direct contact with its historical antecedent, the religious triptych. For this pre-Renaissance work, the all-important space was that occupied by the celebrant and the congregation in front of the painting. With Fra Angelico, rudimentary architecture and a sliver of garden introduce some carefully structured depth and perspective. Finally, the Da Vinci painting places the figures in a landscape, with considerable depth of field and apparent solidity of form. Art historians have noted the coincidence of the theme of the Annunciation in Renaissance painting with the development of perspective. The paradoxical affinity between a humanistic, scientific system for the representation of objective space and the portrayal of a divine mystery is explained in terms of Saint Bernardino of Siena’s oxymoronic articulation of the mystery of the Incarnation as a resolution of contradictions: “Eternity comes in time, immensity in measure, the creator in his creature, the unfigurable in figure, the untellable in the tale, the inexplicable in speech, the uncircumscribable in place, the invisible in vision, the inaudible in sound.” The vanishing point of a perspectival vista, in which parallel lines meet in infinity, is compared to the mystery of the Incarnation, which is constructed as a secret, represented in the paintings by thresholds, walls, closed doors and other blockages. As Arasse concludes his major study of the subject:
It is probably no coincidence that the Annunciation should have become a privileged theme in the study of the history of perspective and its implications for the Renaissance. By staging the relationship, intellectually unthinkable but visually figured, between perspective and the infinite realised, the Annunciation did nothing less than give form to the unfathomable mystery that haunts it: the Incarnation of God who is the Word.
In “The Snail’s Gaze,” an essay on Francesco del Cossa’s Annunciation (1469), Arasse searches for the meaning of a large snail painted in the foreground of the picture. After an entertaining romp through the iconographic explanations (touching on the slowness of divine process and the enigma of mollusc reproduction), Arasse concludes that Cossa’s snail is there to mark the limitations of perspective:
Look at Cossa’s painting. Where is God the Father? Where is the dove? You have to look hard to find them. With its commensurations, perspective has reduced God to a distant little figure in the sky, just above Gabriel. As for the dove, it is there in flight, not far from the Father; but you can hardly see it – it’s the size of a fly speck. Perspective has taken over everything: how can it possibly let us see what the essence of the encounter is, its finality and its end, the Creator coming into the creature, the invisible into vision?
Cossa’s snail, mocking costruzione legittima from the edge of the picture, helps us to make sense of the epigraph to Ahtila’s Annunciation, quoted from bio-semiotician Jakob von Uexküll’s A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men (1957):
We are easily deluded into assuming that the relationship between a foreign subject and the objects in his world exists on the same spatial and temporal plane as our own relations with the objects in our human world. This fallacy is fed by a belief in the existence of a single world, into which all living creatures are pigeonholed. This gives rise to the widespread conviction that there is only one space and one time for all living things. Only recently have physicists begun to doubt the existence of a universe with a space that is valid for all beings.
Animals recur throughout Ahtila’s work, sometimes incidentally, like the guinea pig in Where is Where? and occasionally as central characters, like the dog whose death is mourned in The Hour of Prayer [Rukoushetki, 2005]. Ornithological imagery is prominent in The Annunciation, including the raven already mentioned, the dove drawn from Annunciation iconography, ornithological books and prints and live pigeons in the artist’s studio, a bird mask worn by one of the performers and the dark feathered wings worn by the woman who plays Gabriel. The other animal that plays a part in the work is the donkey, in a proleptic indication of events to come. The three screens are used playfully to show the donkey in three parts, ears on one screen, body on the centre screen, rump at the other end. In a scene shot at a stable, the women listen to an expert talking about the animal’s African origins, while two donkeys bray, showing their teeth as if they are laughing. The donkey, too, is given a point of view shot, made with a mobile camera while it walks in a snowy field.
The setting of an artist’s studio full of pictures and books allows for an array of art historical pictorial models to be shown, including reproductions of animal pictures by Dürer and a huge monochromatic painting referencing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The statement quoted at the start of this essay, on the power of an image or a text to open other worlds to us, is made by the play’s director as she prepares for the staging of the Annunciation. As she speaks, one screen is filled with a close-up of a picture on one wall of the set, an engraving showing buildings in a grid of orthogonal lines followed by a modern painting, in which a lattice of black lines on white gives the impression of a fluid, curvilinear, three-dimensional structure. This device, using reframing as a scene-shifting strategy that relocates the fiction into another world, is also applied to photographs of Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture, seen both full-frame and in a book held by one of the women. Pigeons in one of the photographs and in the studio link the separate worlds. The device also works in reverse; a pigeon flies up to the top of the set and perches there, calling attention to the staging of the artist’s studio on a set. Ahtila doesn’t dispense with Renaissance perspective, but she relativises it, by multiplying frames/worlds and by gesturing towards alternative ways of representing space.
The Annunciation signals a new departure in Ahtila’s working methods, as, instead of using interviews or case histories as the basis of the script, she has recruited her subjects to perform in the work, so that, instead of lending the facts of their lives, they lend their embodied selves to the project. With two exceptions, the actors are non-professionals, some of them clients of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute’s support services for women with health and social problems. The faces of these young and middle-aged women are well documented in numerous close-ups, and they endow the work with a worldly beauty and reality. Signs of documentary spontaneity can be seen throughout the work – while learning wireflying, the woman who plays Gabriel gets stuck upside-down; after rehearsing the three postures of Mary receiving Gabriel (friendly, fearful and humble), two performers depart from their instructions and hug each other. At the same time, the presence of a very recognisable actor, Kati Outinen, in the role of the director, draws attention to the fact that the preparations and rehearsals we see are staged. To what extent is this a documentary of the making of a performance, and to what extent a performance of the making of a performance? The uncertainty of the representation reflects the indeterminacy of the event itself.
The performance of the Annunciation is a strangely touching mixture of ceremony and deconstruction, with Gabriel, winged and dressed in a sharp suit with a lily buttonhole, flying over a kitsch set of symmetrical flower beds laid out in front of a gazebo, and through a window pane to greet Mary. The angel’s passage through glass made permeable by digital technology extends and updates the iconographic tradition according to which the immaculate conception is figured as sunlight passing through glass without breaking it. The tension between the marvellous and the everyday, often noted in Flemish Annunciation painting, is maintained here; the director vacuums the rug before the performance, and a saint in a chic white suit makes herself an espresso while waiting for the Archangel Sound and light are used to suggest the tangible presence of another world; birdsong appears on the soundtrack just before the performance begins, followed by the sound of an orchestra tuning up. As it ends, an almost palpable theatrical darkness sweeps across the set, enveloping the performers at the moment of conception. An epilogue follows, in which we see the woman who plays Mary, walking along the road with a donkey. The soundtrack to this section is a cover version of “No Place to Fall” (from the album Flyin’ Shoes) by Townes Van Zandt. The singer asks: “If I had no place to fall, and I needed to, could I count on you to lay me down?” The sweet and simple song invokes the Marian virtue of caritas, loving kindness.
The Annunciation is a complex work that can be viewed from many angles, as an exploration of the relationships between word and image, showing and telling, spirit and body, performance and performativity. Its exploration of point of view and perspective brings art historical and film theoretical debates together, confronting the abstractions of the latter with the particularities of the former. In the apparatus theory of the 1970s, Renaissance perspective was taken to imply a Cartesian transcendental subject, to which all points of view are ultimately assimilated.  But perspective and point of view in film are two different systems – one geometric, the other figurative. Figurative point of view systems unfold in time, and are interwoven from optical, acoustic, cognitive, evaluative and affective strands that may or may not be mapped onto the film’s geometry. Deploying multiple perspective (through the three screens), invoking non-perspectival systems from before and after the Renaissance (the Martini altarpiece and the modernist paintings), using subjective camerawork for animals but not people and engaging us with the points of view of her human actors through affect rather than optics, Ahtila offers a tour de force of the rhetoric of point of view. She arrives at an interesting, and perhaps unexpected, conclusion – that disengagement from Albertian perspective may be as much a matter of empathy as estrangement, facilitating our engagement with other points of view within the fictional world.
Moving images in the gallery have provoked considerable critical debate around the notion of a medium in the electronic era. While some artists’ work clearly has very little to do with cinema, there is an undoubted persistence of the cinematic in Ahtila’s work, in her concerted research into filmic composition and its transposition into a new space, and in her complex realisation of fictional worlds through mise-en-scène, framing and editing. Her work is driven by clearly discernible concerns with continuity and montage, storytelling and subjectivity, point of view and perspective, which arise from the history of film form and style. But film, as Bazin pointed out, is an impure medium. A film starts life as a script and its development passes through a number of artistic processes – design, staging, performance, editing and so on. Some of these processes are clearly affiliated to other mediums, such as literature, painting and theatre. There seems to be a progression in Ahtila’s recent work, away from the blending of these constituents into an integrated form and towards a presentation of the work as a loose constellation that doesn’t conceal or absorb its varied source materials or the mediums in which they originate. Each of these sources functions as an opening into a particular world – the world of Symbolist poetry or Renaissance painting, for instance – and together they comprise a unique world that arises from the particular aesthetic and historical conjunctions that they create. This unpacking of cinema responds to the location of Ahtila’s work in the art gallery, as a correlative of the spatial expansion of the medium and a response to the intermediality of the museum, but at the same time it offers a test of the capacity of cinema to unify its disparate elements enough to form a world.