Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Marian Goodman Gallery. Eija-Liisa Ahtila: “Where is Where?”, (2007) and “Fishermen (Etudes, No 1)”, 2007.

On screen, a military squad shoots and kills Algerian civilians in an attack during the middle of the night. In the next scene, a Nordic looking woman goes to visit her preacher. She says she feels guilty because someone has died. The preacher tells her she should accept God’s forgiveness, and the woman replies: “I don’t understand how I can be forgiven for what happens to other people.” And not just to other people, but in other places and historical periods. The woman’s perplexity about human suffering and guilt, well represents some of the issues confronted by Where is Where? (2007), Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s latest video installation.

In this four screen dramatic film, the Finnish artist brings together the story of three boys living in Algeria during French colonial times, and the story of a European poet in her forties. In the film, Ahtila juxtaposes the violence that took place in Algeria in the early 1950’s, with the attempts to make sense of history of a European outsider. The film begins at the present moment, but the story of the three children becomes increasingly important, culminating in the murder of the French child by the two Algerian children. While the story of the three children is based in a real event, Ahtila’s frame places the incident in a greater context than the Algerian-French conflict. The tragic and violent events, experienced and filtered through the perspective of the poet, become starting points for an understanding of current conflicts between the Arab worlds and the West, as well as metaphors for exploring the ideas of violence, death and war.

In addition to contrasting two stories from different worlds, Ahtila places the viewer at the center of the installation, symbolically involving the spectator in the narrative. During the film, the European poet is not alone in asking questions and looking for meaning. As the screens around the viewer switch imagery and move from one narrative to the next, the viewer finds herself constantly looking around, wondering, asking: “Where is that voice coming from? Where are we now? Where will this go?” Like the poet, and mirroring the title of the work, the viewer of Ahtila’s work is provoked to look for answers by the design of the installation as well as by its narrative.

In Where is Where?, Ahtila makes of a 2 dimensional film, a three dimensional experience. Caught in the middle of the action on the screens, viewers are simultaneously given the possibility to look elsewhere and choose a new angle from which to view the events unraveling. In contrast with her multi screen installation, Ahtila’s other piece on show at the Marian Goodman Gallery, Fishermen (Etudes, No 1) (2007), offers a simple, one screen documentation of fishermen attempting to defy stormy weather to go out fishing on their boat. Fishermen displays the first in a number of studies on fishermen Ahtila plans to develop in the future.

Together, Ahtila’s new works create visual and aural environments that absorb the viewer, while raising painful questions about human relations and the violence and struggle that define history. Although the two pieces vary greatly in subject and form, Ahtila’s poetic sensibility comes across in both of them, providing a welcome perspective that resonates with Scandinavian rhythms and aesthetics.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila
Marian Goodman Gallery
Through April 30, 2008

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