“I’m very much a visual artist in the way I work. Just that my medium is moving images instead of—let’s say—paints or pencil. I try to find the ways of expression with my medium that will tell the things I want. I do not aim at making a film of a certain length for certain audiences. I don’t have to try to make profit for the production company nor does the script need to be of a certain kind, (but certainly the expenses have to be covered and the wages paid). I’m allowed to experiment with the medium for a certain extent—meaning that I probably wouldn’t get the money which is earmarked for the real features because my work is too experimental for the larger audiences—or at least that would be the excuse. I don’t think my works are especially painterly—no. What probably comes from the art side is that I trust the audience’s ability to see, hear and think.”
—Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Kopenhagen.dk Interviews
We live in a time characterized by the defining, re-defining, deconstructing, restructuring, blurring, and eliminating of borders, boundaries, and definitions. The Art World is not exempt from this trend, and although we are familiar with the fluidity of its self-described boundaries, it is interesting to note this in relation to the moving image. The shifts between the cinema, the gallery, the television, the internet, and other arenas for time-based work open up many interesting conversations about viewership, spectatorship, sponsorship, and participation. There are many contemporary artists exploring the structure of filmmaking as a way to expand a conceptual framework—Julian Schnabel, Steve McQueen, Shirin Neshat, and Eija-Liisa Ahtila, to name a few, have recently (and some not so recently) stepped into the arena of feature-length filmmaking.
Although ‘film’ and ‘video-art’ have traditionally been separated into two distinct, canonical histories, there have been many crossover projects. We have experienced this at the Walker, with many artists and exhibitions straddling both the Visual Art and Film/Video departments. With this in mind, Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s upcoming screening of Where is Where? (Missä on missä?), which explores the way children are uniquely situated to absorb and interpret the complexities and absurdities of war, nationalism, and cultural identity, is of great interest. Below is an interview in which she discusses her relationship to the moving image.
Chris Darke: How do you feel as an artist making films for the gallery? Do you have any general thoughts about the way this particular practice has been evolving over the last ten years?
Eija-Liisa Ahtila: I think it’s really obvious what’s going on. The moving image is the medium through which people see what’s happening around them and how they get information about society. It’s the most common way of interpreting our society. It’s no wonder that artists want to make work with moving images. In fact, I’d rather talk about ‘moving images’ than video or film because it’s difficult to talk about ‘video-art’ nowadays.
Is that partly because ‘video-art’ now seems like an historical term that relates to the 1960s and the 1970s and that the digital moment ended ‘video-art’?
Not really, because one way of defining video art has to do with technical things but, on the other hand, there’s a lot of moving image work that really has its roots in ‘video-art’. When I talk about ‘video-art’ I more or less think about the tradition linked to performance and using the camera to record performances. I went to see the Sam Taylor-Wood show (Hayward Gallery, London Spring 2002) and she’s a good example. I could easily link her work to that kind of tradition.
Is there an active relationship between the film and art worlds in Finland?
The film world is pretty conservative. It’s very difficult to convince them that visual artists have anything to contribute. They’re still quite separate.
Why do you think that separation exists?
It has to do with money. It’s a small country and the amount of money that film gets from the state is small. A lot of people want to make films so there’s a lot of competition. What’s really lacking is a forum where these issues can be talked about. Most of the film magazines are really conservative. I hope that’s changing because there are some new festivals now that younger people have started, like Avanto (the Helsinki-based Media Arts Festival).
Do you yourself have references that derive from film-making?
It’s difficult to say. During the 1980s I saw almost all of Fassbinder’s films. Antonioni’s early films also really interest me, particularly his way of using space and architecture, that’s very important for me. Then Bergman and the human dramas, the dialogue and maybe even the characters.
You studied at the London College of Printing and at UCLA in the States.
I was in the UCLA extension programme, an evening school. It was a really important time. My art before that was traditionally conceptually-oriented and I felt that it was extremely important for me to have the possibility to go deeper and study ways of expression in the medium, like cinematography and editing. In LA I studied with a cinematographer and he showed examples of solutions that other cinematographers have had in certain situations and how to create meaning with the medium. What was very important for me was to learn how to tell a story using sound and images, how to break up the story and use a structure that had something to do with the subject matter.
When you watch films or TV now you must notice the increasing use of screens within screens, the fact that the surface is fragmented simply because it’s technically possible. Does this phenomenon interest you?
Personally, I don’t think split-screen works on TV. It’s a gimmick. For me, the split-screen is always a physical experience. If you have it in an installation it has to do with physical presence, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to start to work with the moving image. It is very interesting to work with the medium in such a way that the information is in the sounds, the rhythm and the story and the viewer uses their senses to make the meaning out of these corresponding things.
—Chris Drake, Vertigo Vol 2 Issue 3, Summer 2002
Where is Where? (Missä on missä?) screens Saturday, January 23 and Wednesday, January 27 at 7:30 pm.