Magazine article Art Monthly

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Magazine article Art Monthly

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Article excerpt

* Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Parasol unit London 26 February to 25 April

How does the spatialisation of narrative alter the cinematic address of the viewer? The narrative of Eija-Liisa Ahtila's latest moving image installation Where is Where?, 2008, is dispersed across four central screens which form the 'walls' of the piece, with a further two screens being located at the entrance and exit of this enclosure. The latter two screens show an animated film and digitised archival footage of the Algerian War and act almost like a trailer and a coda to the main event of the four-screen 53-minute film. Although there is nothing to stop viewers from ambulating distractedly through the darkened space, the seven-minute gap between hourly screenings sets up an estranged cinematic experience in which, given that there is no position from which to see all screens at once, expectation is combined with the frustration of where to position oneself to get the best possible viewpoint. This spatial dislocation uncannily echoes the narrative of the film itself, which meditates on the complexity of positioning oneself, especially as an artist, in relation to horrific events such as war and genocide--whose contagious effects seep across time and place in a globalised world. The installation stages this dilemma both temporally and spatially, as two diegetic worlds unfold simultaneously and disjunctively across the four screens.


One diegesis focuses on a contemporary poet in her suburban house in Helsinki--although this could be any European city--as she is researching an event that happened in the 1950s during the Algerian War where two young teenage Algerians murdered their European playmate. Ahtila's own research for the film partly centres on Franz Fanon's account of this incident in his 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth, where it surfaces as a traumatic counterpoint to his calls for revolutionary insurrection. Ahtila aligns Fanon's case study with Arthur Rimbaud's poem 'L'Enfance', which connects childhood and death, and links to the filmic poet's search for words to understand the incident. The poet is visited in her home by Death, a character who looks as if he just stepped out of an Ingmar Bergman film, who mediates between the present and the past and the worlds of here and there, ie Europe and Algeria.

The other diegesis follows a re-enactment of the boys' act of violence, their revenge for the massacre at Meftah of 40 Algerian men dragged from their beds and executed in 1956. The contagion of violence, which turns children into murderers and friends into sacrificial scapegoats, is staged in the installation using a variety of genres, including the theatrical, the documentary, docu-drama and science-fiction. It is hard to keep pace with the speed of the editing and difficult to join the fragments together, especially in what can only be a partial view anyway, given that some images will always be to one's back or out of one's field of vision. While these breaks in continuity are frustrating on one level, they are also the means by which this story physically affects the viewer. Ahtila effectively uses the tropes of Bertholt Brecht's epic theatre where the 'text' leaves gaps and spaces for the spectator to enter and piece the work together, but rather than this being heavy-handed and humourless, Ahtila adopts Brecht's approach to combining disjunction with 'lightness and ease, quickness and wit' (as Sylvia Harvey described it) to ensure the work's popular appeal. …

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