Crystals of Time: Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Extended Cinema
“For God's sake! – quick! – quick! – put me to sleep – or, quick! – waken me! – quick! – I say to you that I am dead!”
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”
The past is present. Something has happened and the echoes are still resonating in my head. They are not becoming more difficult to discern; in fact the echoes are becoming increasingly loud and impossible to escape. The past lingers on, yesterday reverberates in today: An example: A teenage girl with short blond hair is throwing a ball against a wall. A man is sobbing heavily in a bedroom nearby; suddenly he screams out in agony. A girl’s voice explains: “Today my dad is crying. Late last night a car drove over his dad who died instantly.” These ominous opening words set the tone in Eija-Lisa Ahtila’s Today (1996/97), a three-part work that presents the same violent incident seen through the eyes of three different characters: a young girl, a grown-up man and an elderly woman. Their fragmented, strangely poetic reports touch upon the accident, but simultaneously weave a dense web of questions concerning family relationships, personal identity, sexuality, and death.
The past is present. Something has happened: an accident, a catastrophe, a tragic event. The work unfolds as a process of assessing and working through – a process of grieving that consists of fragments of narration incapable of presenting an overarching and coherent account. This is true of Today and Consolation Service (2000), and in one way or another of all of Ahtila’s mature works. “It’s a story about an ending,” says the neighbour-narrator in Consolation Service. The married couple with a child who have decided to get a divorce explain: “We’ve decided to put a stop. . . to everything.” The story unfolds in three chapters. The first section describes how it happens, says the narrator. In the second it happens, and the third is a kind of consolation service. There is no therapy, no catharsis, no Hegelian Aufhebung. It all starts with an ending, and then it ends again. That is Ahtila’s grim idea of consolation.
The artist herself generally summarizes the intent and structure of her works in brief statements. These dense texts, mixing technical details with aesthetic issues, represent the best introductions to her works. Writing about Today, Ahtila notes:
“Each episode forms a meeting with a different member of the family who reveals a part of his/her private life at different periods of time. The episodes are connected thematically, in dialogue, and with visuals and sound elements. The actors both play characters in setting the story and address their lines directly through the camera to the viewer. Instead of a simple causality of events, the emphasis in the narrative is on the audio-visual elements of each scene and on the information it offers to the story as a whole.”
This statement of intent clearly phrases the key components and the general aim of the work, while conveying nothing of the specific atmosphere and urgency of the installation. It is true that the narrative does not proceed according to “simple causality,” but what then has taken its place? Ahtila continues with short descriptions of the three sections constituting the work. The first part presents the girl’s view of what has happened: “The girl throws a ball in the yard, father is weeping heavily in the bedroom. Everything is seen through her viewpoint. The girl’s narrative voiceover talks about her father, her grandfather, and their relationship. The sound world gives a rhythm to the work and forwards it.” But even before the voice starts to tell its story about death and mourning, the dramatic pulse of the music and the screeching sound of a car stopping short set the tone. A mysterious and scary-looking face carved in wood is the very first thing we see; it will remain an enigma throughout the story.
The second section, entitled Vera, presents an alternative view. Ahtila writes: “The main character of the second part is an elderly woman. The episode happens in her apartment during the early hours. The sound world creates the environment and situation in which she is. Her narrative voice tells her views of surrounding society.” Clearly the most abstract section, the elderly woman’s report is a critical commentary on life in modern society. No family members are mentioned until the very last sentence: “A rattling tram pronounces my dad’s name.” Immediately afterwards, the title of the third section, “Dad,” appears, and one is led to think that the old man emerging out of the darkness – like a dead soul in Virgil or a phantom in Gary Hill’s Tall Ships – must be the dad she just referred to, i.e. her own father. But does that make any sense?
Ahtila describes the third section: “In the third part a man talks to the camera. In his monologue he goes through his relationship with his father and with his own daughter. At the same time he sees himself as a child and as a parent. The text is structured as a poem or as the lyrics of a song – short descriptive sentences and chorus-like repetitions.” The three parts of today refer to each other in complicated and sometimes rather subtle ways. The girl with the ball returns in the man’s ruminations on parenthood: “I have a daughter, she throws a ball and asks me to watch. And those throws look like the anger I have swallowed.” Although the work is only ten minutes long, the many cross-references and the elusive narrative structure are hard to fathom after only one viewing, and questions remain after several. Towards the end of the first section, for instance, the girl seems to leave everything open: “Maybe it’s not my dad who’s crying, but someone else’s dad. Sanna’s dad, Mia’s dad, Marko’s dad, Pasi’s dad – or Vera’s dad. I’m in an armchair. I have a boyfriend. I have something in my lap. I’m 66 years old.” Whether this trans-generational and temporally paradoxical speculation is a fantasy or an unexpected look into the distant future we will never know. In fact there are other quite crucial things about this tripartite work that will never become unambiguously clear. For instance, who is Vera?
In one of the most ambitious essays on Ahtila to date, the French critic Régis Durand points to a recurring temporal structure in her films and installations: “Ahtila’s work is full of secrets and past events more or less clearly referred to by narrator-protagonists who plunge us immediately into a situation that can be characterized as after the fact. Something (an accident, a death, a rupture, a collapse) happened, and we are invited to a kind of interpretative or cathartic ceremony following which this event might be exorcised, and which might serve as the starting point for the reconstruction of the subject.” The frightening wooden mask is clearly one such secret, and there are other more central enigmas, such as the grandfather’s hidden reason to lie down in the shadow cast by the trees on the street to be killed by a car. “I didn’t like that guy,” says the blond girl? But why did father’s father want to die? One secret that Durand chooses not to see is the identity of Vera. For him, the narrative is about three generations, thus Vera must be the spouse of the deceased: “the wife, who speaks of the continuing present, who is the continuing present, life, survival.” Not that Vera’s dismal account of perverted sexuality and society can be said to talk of any such thing (“life, survival,”) but in principle Durand might be right concerning her identity. Clearly she is part of the family, of the “we,” because her voice reappears in the last section otherwise spoken by the father: “A week later we drove to the place of accident. We bought a small silver spruce which we planted as a memorial by the side of the road.” It is not possible to exclude that she is the wife of the dead and hence mother and grandmother of the two other protagonists. But on the other hand there is never talk of her as wife, mother, or grandmother. She is simply Vera and her identity will remain as uncertain as many other details in this work.
A typical feature of Ahtila’s work which is quite salient in Today is the speed and nervousness with which the protagonists deliver their lines. There is something hectic and impatient about these voices. What is it that creates this sense of urgency? Maybe it's a question of a strife against the ruthless power of oblivion: “Consciousness’s race against forgetting, against blur, is clearly what lies behind the feeling of urgency and acuity in her work. When that race is run, no final ‘secret’ will be revealed, no overarching narrative will appear top give coherence to lives and scattered fragments. Yet, in such a brief and yet intense time span, something will have been transformed: our consciousness of other people, alive or dead, of their ineluctable alterity. . . This consciousness is experienced in an act that is, all at once, reminiscence, self-analysis, the process of grieving and a celebration of what happened.”
The dead old man appears in the recollections of the young man in pain. He emerges out of the darkness, walking on a road that runs through a forest. The trees cast their shadows across the road producing a geometrical pattern of light and darkness. The man comes closer; he looks directly at us, the viewers. Then he turns away and lies down on the road in such a fashion that the body disappears into one of the shadows, with only the arms visible. Then he pulls them closer to his body, and he is gone entirely. We understand what will happen, or rather, what has already happened: “We drove for a swim through the forest – where the road is striped with black shadows of the trees. Suddenly one of those shadows stood up…” That image of a man lying down to die, pulling in his arms and vanishing into darkness: an image in which time seems to crystallize. It's a kind of memory, yet he is very much there, preparing himself for a future of no return. Past, present, future in the blinking of an eye. Ahtila’s works are full of such dense and temporally complex crystal images. In his book on the “time-image,” Cinema 2, Gilles Deleuze analyses exactly these kinds of condensed cinematic moments that capture the very movement of temporality in a crystallized formation: “What constitutes the crystal-image is the most fundamental operation of time: since the past is constituted not after the present that it was but at the same time, time has to split itself in two at each moment as present and past, which differ from each other in nature, or, what amounts to the same thing, it has to split the present in two heterogeneous directions, one of which is launched towards the future while the other falls into the past. Time has to split at the same time as it sets itself out or unrolls itself: it splits in two dissymmetrical jets, one of which makes all the present pass on, while the other preserves all the past. Time consists of this split, and it is this, it is time, that we see in the crystal.”
Deleuze conceives of temporality in Henri Bergson’s terms, and to a certain extent his entire study of the cinema is as much a philosophy of time and movement as it is an interpretation of certain artworks using moving images. What is Bergson’s philosophy of time all about? Deleuze presents the most basic ideas: “Bergson’s major theses on time are as follows: the past coexists with the present that it has been; the past is preserved in itself, as past in general (non-chronological); at each moment time splits itself into present and past, present that passes and past which is preserved.” Time flows and each present fades, but it doesn’t disappear. It is preserved as past and consciousness has direct access to this past. The time-images of cinematic imagination that succeed in making this temporal structure evident in forcing themselves upon the viewer are the points of crystallization: “The crystal-image was not time, but we see time in the crystal. We see in the crystal the perpetual foundation of time. . .”
Deleuze’s skepticism towards the phenomenological tradition made him avoid all references to Edmund Husserl’s comparable and in my view even richer approach to the problems of time-consciousness. Like Bergson, Husserl considers temporality to be the most basic level of subjectivity. And like Bergson, he distinguishes between different kinds of past time and different capacities letting the subject relate to it: the recent past which is still given in immediate proximity to the ongoing perceptual flow, and the past which has already faded into oblivion and therefore needs a special act of recollection to become present again. The first kind of memory, of the most recent past, Husserl calls retention; the second form he calls recollection. In our conscious life, Husserl would say, we are continuously split between several “tracks” of awareness: we live in the perceptual presence – which is built up by impression, retention and protention (expectation) – as well as in the recollected past. In addition to this, other forms of awareness such as empathy and imagination make the machinery of consciousness even more complex. The mind is a multi-channel apparatus, and several programs are active and viewed at the same time. When a contemporary artist such as Stan Douglas talks of “temporal polyphony” in relation to his split-screen installations, and more specifically the 1995 work The Sandman, it may sound as a very advanced form of consciousness: “Being able to simultaneously produce distinct voices has always been something I’ve been trying to achieve, not always having this idea of a single, static identity but one which is always challenged from the outside, and is able to think of ‘the Other’ simultaneously. Polyphony is a technique for doing that. That is the feeling of The Sandman, where you’re seeing two temporal moments at the same time, and you’re hopefully able to think of those moments at the same time, just as one is able to look at the present and understand how the past lived the way it did.” Such “temporal polyphony” is the mental state in which we all live continuously, and there are more complicated forms of synchrony then the interplay of perception and recollection. As Husserlian phenomenology makes clear, the nested structure of subjectivity allows for many flows of awareness: While looking out of the train window seeing the landscape pass by, I may fantasize about a memory of a strange dream-image or I may remember an old daydream. The subject – what Husserl calls the ego – is what keeps all the levels of such a multidimensional structure together: “I’m always in the present and still in the past, and already in the future. I’m always here and also elsewhere. I as ego come in between these two modes. I am only in this doubling, and I emerge in this displacement.”
What happens if the unifying function of the ego is no longer active and the multiplicity of flows live their own autonomous lives? Phenomenological philosophy has taken great pain in analysing the various illusions produced if one kind of consciousness is mistaken for another, if for instance a memory or fantasy is taken for a kind of perception. If on the other hand the structuring function of the ego is removed entirely and each “track” runs independently of the others, it is clearly a question of a severe breakdown of the mental apparatus as a whole. This is madness. Concerning her installation Anne, Aki and God (1998), Ahtila writes: “Aki V resigned from his work in computer application support with Nokia Virtuals, became ill with schizophrenia and isolated himself in his one room flat. His mind started to produce a reality of its own in sounds and visions. Little by little this fiction became flesh and blood, the line between reality and imagination became blurred. Fantasized persons and events stepped out of Aki V’s head and became parallel with the reality around him. The leading character in this new world was Anne Nyberg, Aki’s fiancée.” This installation, containing five monitors and two screens, differ from the works for monitors and split-screen installations such as Today and Consolation Service in that the multi-dimensionality clearly transcends what the viewer can apprehend. Through their speed and complexity, all of Ahtila’s works explore the limits of perception, but Anne, Aki and God pushes things further and clearly represents a kind of mental disintegration. The work is an intricate mix of insane imagination and documentary footage. The story, according to Ahtila, is “based on real events about a man who, being in a state of psychosis, created a woman for himself.” On the one hand, Aki appears as a confusing multiplicity of faces and voices that deliver the same lines about an ideal woman: “In the daytime, Anne is an aerobics instructor. She is very affectionate by nature, yet firm when necessary.” On the other hand, documentary footage is presented showing real interviews with a large number of young Finnish women applying to play the role of Aki’s imaginary girlfriend. Thus everyday reality is presented side by side with fictional, hallucinatory imagery. A third component, present on an additional screen, is a dual image of God, played by two actors, one female, the other male. Together these elements produce a multi-layered and mazelike narrative, or rather a maze of narratives, that transgresses the mental capacities not only of so-called normality but more radically, keeping the presence of a God in mind, of finite subjectivity. The heterogeneous crystallization of time that takes place here is no longer that of ordinary human experience but that of a shattered consciousness opening up to infinity.
The combination of documentary and fictional narrative in Anne, Aki and God is, to a certain extent, reminiscent of the earlier work If 6 was 9 (1995), a split-screen installation about the sexual world of young females in Helsinki. The story and the dialogue in this strangely melodious work are fictional, but extensive research and interviews with real people preceded the realization of the work. Ahtila explains the structure of the installation: “The installation consists of three separate moving images which form a split screen. The story is told with the movement along the screen: images contrast and react to each other. They also create time to time a feel of simultaneity and mutual space as well as a dialogue between the people on the screen. The split is used as a formal means to mirror the distancing and approaching aims of the young females.” If the work about the psychotic telecommunication engineer Aki represents the breakdown of normal time-consciousness, this portrait of a group of young females instead conveys a fluid kind of temporality. The three screens display the sexual fantasies, everyday actions, and dreams of the adolescent girls. Even if the work is ultimately a piece of complex fiction, the straightforwardness of the girls creates a strong documentary feel. The intricate interweaving of different kinds of consciousness – memories, fantasies, perceptions – produces not a sense of dissonance but rather of harmonious flow. The tender lyricism of daydreams and soft piano music clashes with the straightforwardness of their accounts. However, the directness of their stories does not exclude a sense of wonder and mystery: “It was equally amazing to see in a porno magazine that men have no hole behind the testicles. I thought that it had not always been like this.”
If traditional cinema could produce what Deleuze calls crystal-images capturing the structure of time itself, the temporal possibilities of the “other cinema,” to use Raymond Bellour’s concept, i.e. the multi-screen installations of today’s artists exploring new forms of narration, are even more impressive. The simultaneity of several flows of moving imagery grants the possibility not only of crystal-images, but also of more intricate constellations and juxtapositions. Is it this phenomenology of the experiencing subject that interests Ahtila, or is the multidimensionality only a means to an end that must be described in quite different terms? Clearly there are recurring themes – such as death, dogs, sex and violent desire – that create the strange atmosphere and poetry in Ahtila’s work. But it seems that the phenomenological issues are also of great importance to her. In a recent interview, she talks about her investigations into the functioning of memory and perception:
“It was morning, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom of a hotel in Canada last winter. I walked to the window of my seventh floor room and saw a dog running down there in the park by the sea.
I returned to the bathroom and thought about the dog. I realized I did not picture it in my head as I just had seen it from high above, but as if I was standing beside it in the park. I saw it as a medium shot from the side taken from my eye level or even below, how maybe I had seen dogs before, and that was how I recognized it.
This has a certain connection to the narration with moving image: in which different ways perception and memory can work together, eg. how space, time and events can be created using sounds and images, what possibilities are there to brake the traditions of editing and creation of meaning... This is something I haven’t really written about yet but what I have tried to study in my works.”
The richness of temporal experience and the complexity of the experiencing subject is certainly one of the issues explored in Ahtila’s mature installations. But already in her three 90-second works for monitor, Me/We, Okay, Gray (1993), she staged incredibly subtle situations involving fluid and destabilized forms of subjectivity. In these compact and enigmatic works, the natural link between human subject and human voice has been loosened – or entirely eliminated. Here, many voices speak through the same mouth, or the same voice through many mouths. The persons appearing to us in these dense works are alienated not only from the people surrounding them – family, partners, etc. – but even more dramatically from themselves. Alterity in various forms seems to rule completely, no harmonious whole or fixed self-identity is in view. There is always a fracture, a split or a dissonance that divides and estranges the speaking subject from it self. Having the actor step out of character and address the audience directly is one of the devices that Ahtila uses to create this alterity effect, but even more subtle is the constant manipulation of the relation between subject and voice. In the humorous Me/We, all the members of the family move their lips, but strangely enough it’s the self-absorbed father who analyses the deteriorating family. In Okay a woman walks back and forth in her room, like a nervous animal in a cage, spitting out information about a violent sexual relationship: “If I could, I would transform myself into a dog and I would bark and bite everything that moves. Woof, woof!” The story is told in the first person, but many voices – male as well as female – force themselves upon us. All this happens with such speed and ease that it is impossible to reconstruct the alterations and shifts after viewing the work just a few times. In Gray – one more account of a catastrophe – three women travel in an industrial lift. They deliver a deeply worrying report about an imminent environmental disaster. Or maybe it has already happened. They speak with incredible speed about chemical and radiation, creating a weird poetry: “Lead protects us from gamma-rays, sand stuffs the holes and absorbs the products of fission. All the sounds of comfort are insufficient. One hundred rads equal one gray.” The subject emerges in these compact pieces as a preliminary constellation rather that as substance or essence. It is a fluid arrangement of positions that can be redefined and restructured. In Ahtila’s works the subject seems to live in time but also to be time. Time itself – a zone of radical difference – can crystallize in many ways but it will never rest in stable self-identity.