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Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Intention to Fail

Celebrated film and video artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila is a master at depicting the kinds of oppressive horror and despair that can only be unearthed from domestic matters. Ahtila depicts women who are imbricated in a web of phobias, fears, and dysfunctions. In a series of cinematic episodes entitled Intention to Fail, currently on display through September 5 at the Berkeley Art Museum, Ahtila reimagines conventions of film and video by removing her characters from traditional narrative and exploring insanity through multiple perspectives.

Through multiscreen installations and split-screen projection, the Helsinki native expertly renders the stuff of life - attraction, obsession, denial, indiscretion, cruelty - that composes what she calls "human dramas." Ahtila offers an engrossing look at trauma, psychosis, and the dramatic flow between fractured time and space, past and present. Played out side by side and in simultaneity, Ahtila's stark images of failed relationships and psychic division are a glimpse into memory, pain, suffering, and the human tendency to compartmentalize what we find disagreeable. It's one hell of an internal ruckus, but Ahtila is never pedantic in her delivery.

For the exhibition, two of Ahtila's career-making works are being screened: Me/We; Okay; Gray (1993) and The Wind (2002). Me/We; Okay; Gray is a short film that obliquely underscores the absurdity of the nuclear family, split into three 90 second episodes it is screened on separate monitors installed on and around gallery furniture. Focusing on an idiosyncratic chapter in the life of a family of four, Me/We explores the boundaries of the individual through the family's overbearing patriarch, who speaks for the other members as they passively mouth their words. Okay further questions identity and the self, but in the context of an intimate relationship. Ahtila looks at definitions of sex, self, other, and the fateful collision between men and women. Only one person appears on the screen, but the voices that emerge are both male and female, suggesting a protean connection to gender and the enduring relationship danger of having one's identity swallowed and merged with the other. Gray further examines the interpersonal disintegration of the nuclear family in its look at an unnamed catastrophe that immobilizes three characters from taking action. The Wind is a portion of Ahtila's 55 minute film, Love is a Treasure, and is simultaneously projected on three mural-sized walls, edited to unfold in and out of synch. Each projection presents a different view of the same apartment space, through which a chaotic wind howls. We see a woman gazing dolefully into the camera - she then proceeds to unload upon the viewer a catalog of grievances about her failures and suffering. As she rearranges the scattered contents of the apartment, she continually adds to the wreckage, allowing her pain and anger to build to a crescendo. The woman's interaction with the real world is vague and disrupted by the filmic device of repetition. In the beginning, a strange dialogue occurs:

"Shut the door, please!"
"It is shut."
"Where is the draft coming from, then?"
"Your imagination."

The installation version of The Wind intensifies Ahtila's penchant for bringing the various liminal selves of one person to the forefront, in an unwieldy clash that's enacted by the out of synch projections. In destroying the boundaries of time and space, Ahtila's installations render the effect of a painting from three perspectives. Fractured as the images are, they are united in their atmospheric rendition of disorder. In speaking of her unsettling shifts in story and perspective, Ahtila insists on the various ways people manipulate information about their surroundings. "I wouldn't like to make a smooth Hollywood film, where everything is one level of reality. I like to remind people of these different levels and different ways we deal with everyday things." Ahtila's work is fictitious, but it's loosely based on interviews with psychiatric patients and her own observations and experiences with trauma. Her heavily stylized sets and costume designs are marked by an obsessive use of color to portray the unspooling mental states of her characters. In the main gallery, deep vermilion walls mirror the bloodiness of the disturbed female psyche and draw viewers into the fateful vortex of the women's neuroses. While Ahtila's theme explores an individual's mental imbalance, her shrewd assessments of rejection, dysfunctional family dynamics, loneliness, and sexuality are brutal in their universality.

Intention to Fail is on exhibit through September 5
at Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft Way or 2621 Durant Avenue
Between College and Telegraph
Phone: 510.642.0808
Hours: Wednesday - Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Thursdays 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.

Image: Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Tuuli/The Wind, 2002 (still); 3-screen DVD installation with sound; courtesy Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert Inc., New York. Crystal Eye Ltd, Helsinki.