November 29, 2006

A Mighty Wind

Art Fag City: Ahtila's shattering installation looks at culture's impact on female identity

By Paddy Johnson

Suffering for more than her art: A sequence from Eija-Liisa Ahtila's The Wind, the first exhibition of her media work in an NYC museum (Photo: Eija-Liisa Ahtila)

There is something very strange about a narration of madness that remains lucid enough to sound vaguely reasonable. Much like Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar or The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the protagonist in Finnish video artist and photographer Eija-Liisa Ahtila's short three-screen film installation The Wind maintains a sympathetic relationship with the audience because her strange behavior is situated as both having evolved from a place of rationality and as a reaction to culturally imposed pressures we are all familiar with. "[I make] moving images of stories that have already happened" Ahtila said last month, aptly describing her work to The New York Times.

The statement speaks to the nature of storytelling itself as well as the artist's research, which involves funneling the experiences of women she has interviewed into her videos. After having seen Javier Téllez's 2004 film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, which features laborious monologues by 12 female psychiatric patients, I'm quite certain the process is more tedious than it is illuminating. But what separates The Wind from such films exploring female psychology and the cultural expectations that women be meek, body-conscious and sexually submissive, is not that it tells us something we don't already know, but rather that it sensitizes us to those expectations' profound effects. In doing so, the artist creates a surprisingly complex portrait of female identity and the fractured psychology of the disturbed.

Part of the artist's larger 35mm feature-length film Love Is a Treasure (which comprises five discrete narratives about women and screens twice this month at MoMA,) The Wind depicts a young college student's nervous breakdown by piecing together a series of imagined and real events. As such, do not expect a narrative that moves fluidly from one point to another. Closer to a delusional stream of consciousness, the film maintains some semblance of chronology, but there is no way to know for certain if even the biographical information presented or basic behavioral difficulties are fabricated: She describes herself as a child who developed slowly and did not perform well in school; her family members yell with ease although she cannot; she compulsively bites her hands and believes she is fat and lives in filth. Sounding the words, "The rebellion starts," the film subsequently recounts a series of (presumably) imagined events witnessing her breakdown: Three young teenager girls break into her apartment to pass judgment on her housekeeping abilities. A young man named Wallach moves in and irons her newspapers in silence. Finally, she crawls up the wall of her apartment, improbably perching herself in its corner.

Normally, the fact that the main character ends up miraculously suspended on a wall in a catatonic state would seem a little overdone for my tastes, but because the protagonist has spent the better part of the movie arranging garbage on her wall, the sequence suggests that she literally becomes the junk she obsesses over. The film doesn't solicit an overwhelming amount of empathy, but does create a rather creepy scenario.

Not that the whole film feels that way; the reason we make a connection to this character at all is because she's not wholly out to lunch. In a lucid moment that takes place outside of her apartment she reveals, "I rather thought I would become a psychiatrist myself, not the other way around." This seemingly inconsequential thought speaks to a seldom discussed aspect of girl culture, which often involves either imagining or being told by your girlfriends that your skills of empathy and listening are such that you would make an excellent therapist. Its inclusion is important, because it provides a balanced look at behaviors that are relatively benign in addition to those that can weigh significantly on a woman's psyche.

And herein lies the real achievement of The Wind: it never degenerates into an exposé on societal norms. By crediting the audience with enough intelligence to identify that items such as lipstick, hot pants and china signify expected behaviors, it frees Ahtila to investigate individual response. In one scene the protagonist places a heart-shaped vial in her mouth before stomping on it, suggesting she has a tender relationship with the beauty items she chooses to destroy. We care, not because it reinforces the feminist framework that contextualizes the work, but because her actions, no matter how bizarre, are well-thought out and unique to her. The fact that she can be engaging, damaged as she is, not only maintains the attention of audience, but inspires deeper reflection.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the NYC art blog Art Fag City.

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Comments (1)

what is the music in this film?

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