The viewer is not yet there. An interview with Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Anna Iltnere


The whole length of the third floor of the KIASMA museum in Helsinki was thick with atmosphere. Until 1st of September, the most important video works of Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila (1959) could be seen here in the exhibition “Parallel Worlds”. Although the artist is from Finland, the touring exhibition came here from South of France, Nïmes' Carré d'Art, and from Stockholm's Moderna Museet, where the tour started. A strange, magnetic mood is characteristic of her works, which she achieves through both a judicious use of color (forest-green, gray, wine-red, etc.) and the stories she tells. For instance, in her 2002 video work “The House”, she sought inspiration by researching and interviewing women who have various psychological issues – hearing voices, hallucinations, etc. Over the years, Ahtila's interest in art philosophy and feminism has evolved into a research-based interest in how nature, animals and humans coexist, and the links that bind us all together. In one of the halls at KIASMA, on six screens that span the length of two rooms, could be seen Ahtila's moving image installation of a fir tree – broad and green, its branches sway in the wind. Although the tree was filmed vertically, it seems crooked, and as if it has been “stuffed into” the art space. In this way, Athtila wished to show that even technology is so anthropocentric that it is not possible to normally film a tree and show it in its full size. In addition, in Finland – as in other Nordic countries – fir trees are regarded as nothing special, and rarely does anyone pay any attention to them.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila. Photo:

Ahtila's latest work, “The Annunciation” (2010), is her version of the Biblical subject, and has already been shown in its cinematic version at the Venice Film Festival and at the Oberhausen Short Film Festival (where it won the Arte award for best European film), among others. On 8th of September it will be shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and from 16th to 20th September, at the Milan International Film Festival. This autumn, Ahtila will also participate in Moscow's 5th Contemporary Art Biennale, which starts on 19th of September and at the same time has a big solo exhibition in Davis Museum near Boston, USA. Select cinematic works will also be on view here in Riga, during the “2Annas” festival (21st – 27th October); program details are still being finalized. New works are being planned for 2014.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila is one of Finland's most recognized artists; a pioneer in Finnish video art, her career mushroomed in the 1990s, and she quickly garnered world-wide attention. Ahtila has participated in the European-wide biennale Manifesta 2, as well as in dOCUMENTA and at the 48th & 51st Venice Art Biennale; she's had solo shows at the MoMA museums in New York and San Fransisco, and a retrospective at the Jeu De Paume in Paris and Tate Modern in London. Ahtila is currently represented by the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York and Paris, which can boast among its long-term artists as Gerhard Richter, John Baldessari, and Maurizio Cattelan.

Our conversation takes place at Eija-Liisa Ahtila's studio, in a warehouse district of Helsinki that now contains several offices. It's just a couple of hundred meters from the Marimekko outlet. Ahtila used to work at The Cable Factory, which used to be a Nokia telephone cable factory; in the 1980s, it became an enclave of artist studios, and later – a hub of design- and architecture offices and museums. It's become too loud there in the past few years, says Ahtila, so, she decided to move. Ahtila still dreams of setting up her studio in her backyard, in an old shed, but she has neither the time nor the resources to bring that dream to life right now. The atmosphere in Ahtila's studio is one of a business office – shelves full of archival folders and books, a green chalkboard hangs on one wall, and computers are lined along a table next to the windows. On the floor there's a rag rug and a toy ball. “My dog is usually here”, explains Ahtila.

Today, many artists choose to live elsewhere – that is, not in their home country, but in places like Paris, New York, Berlin, Shanghai... You're proof that an international career can also be carried through, in the long-term, without having to permanently leave your home country. What is the reason behind your staying in Helsinki?

My husband and I spent 1994 and 95 in Los Angeles, where I studied film; we were certain that we would return there. We even stored things in a friend's attic in Los Angeles, because we didn't plan on staying in Helsinki for more than a year. But things turned out differently. We kept putting off returning to LA because we got the opportunity to work in Helsinki; we got financing for our projects, and I got a dog (laughs). I started working with galleries in Cologne and Paris.

Even though we lived in Helsinki, I traveled a lot then. I participated in shows in Europe and the USA; there was a time when I went to New York four times a year. Nevertheless, however much I really liked it there, I couldn't stand the noise and racket. It makes me nervous. There's peace in Finland. I also have a summer house in the forest, by a lake.

How would you describe the mood of the Finish art scene in the 1990s, which is when your career also started and when, thanks to the Hans Ulrich Obrist-curated exhibition “Nuit Blanche” (1998) in Paris, everyone spoke about Nordic contemporary art as a newly discovered wonder? Was that felt here?

It's hard for me to judge since that was a time of new opportunities for me outside of Finland. I tried to attend all of the openings for exhibitions that had my works; I personally got to know such artists like Pierre Huyghe, Shirin Neshat, Aernaut Mik, and others whose work I admire. I don't travel like that anymore. Frequent flying hinders my concentration, which I need in order to create something new. 

The Annunciation. 2010

How did you come to work with the prestigious Marian Goodman Gallery? Do you remember the day that she invited you to join her?

I first began working with the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris, and later in New York as well. I met Marian in San Francisco, when my a show at the SFMoMA opened. She addressed me there. It coincided with the time when I was still working with a gallery in Cologne (which had just moved to New York), with which I had worked with since the beginning. We had grown up together, and we were close friends. They had done a lot for me, and I was, you could say, an important artist to them. I lingered for a long while in dropping them in order to take up Goodman's offer. It was a painful choice. When I'd met with other artists and people in the art world at the time, I'd ask them what I should do in this situation. Everyone was confident that I should take Marian Goodman's offer. 

In the relationship model that exists between a gallerist and an artist, can the gallerist serve as inspiration for the artist's growth?

Sometimes, here in Helsinki, I feel how the gallery in New York is very far away. If I lived there, our relationship would be different. But at the same time, when I have ideas, there's always someone at the Goodman Gallery who is ready to listen. I've never been told: “You shouldn't do that”, but rather I'm always given, encouragement. In addition, there are several people working at the gallery, and I have developed relationships with all of them.

A lot is dictated by the gallerist's personality, every collaboration is different. I also work with a small gallery in Stockholm – Charlotte Lund. I've had other galleries in Europe and Japan too. Then there's the question of how many galleries can one work with. To work with several galleries means you have to produce a lot of works. Moving image installations take a long time in the making.

Your art does not come about with just you working alone, but rather, it's the result of long and complex teamwork. The technical process – the “crust” of the project – sharply contrasts with the poetically dense core of the artworks. How do you manage to not loose your fragile artistic vision until the work has been brought to fruition?

One answer is – I don't know. Another answer is – that is my artistic responsibility: the red string that cannot be broken during the creation process. In my works, the scenographer has a definite role, the costume artist has hers, and so on. Everyone does their best. But the final responsibility of the whole is mine alone. Sometimes I have to make hard decisions like changing the roles of the actors or leaving out certain scenes. Sometimes these decisions hurt people, which is sad. In terms of atmosphere, one could say that everything counts. But it is put together during the editing process and sound design. 

With what do you start? The screenplay?

I always write a screenplay. I also did it for the Annunciation, but it was used during the shooting more as a supporting structure. The script is the first version of the work. Then, during production, at some point the work “opens itself up”, dictating its conditions. It is a great moment. Like when you're putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and you start to get a sense of the big picture and it becomes easy to put the pieces in their right places.

As an artist, what does the reading of theoretic texts and books mean? Is that necessary for you to work?

When I'm thinking about a new work, I can't do without books. Even if I'm not going to use them directly, the act of reading inspires me. I always take down notes on the margins of pages. What I read inspires other, new ideas, which might not have come to me otherwise.

I especially feel this now, while working on a new work. For the first time, I've gotten an assistant who reads for me and writes up summaries. I've realized that it's not the information in the book that I need. It's the reading process itself that inspires me. Because sometimes, it's can be a small detail that creates a spark. A sentence. Or the way it's written. Or a three-line poem. What do I read? Prose, poetry, and theoretical books about subjects that are close to the topic that I'm working on.

Where is Where? 2009

How about reading texts after the work has been created? Do you read reviews? Do they give you anything?

It's very important that reviews come out, but I must admit that I don't have the possibility to read them all. They are written for the viewers mostly, and they're informative about the work. Which is of course important. But they seldom include the critical analysis, that the artist would find fruitful. There are some exceptions though, which you can find in the art magazines.

In 2011 you were on the panel of judges for the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. Last year, your work “The Annunciation” plucked laurels at the Oberhausen Film Festival. Is the division between video art and film still relevant to you? What is the line that must be crossed by an artist in order to become a director?

I'm happy to work the way that I do. I like to experiment with moving image and narration. Many of the feature films are very conservative in their subject matter and story-telling. A constantly repeating form that hasn't changed in decades. Venice film festival with Marco Müller as director was an exception. FID Marseille does not categorize the films according to their length of whether they are experimental, documentary or fiction. That is the direction that we should go - and many of the film festivals are taking the challenge seriously - e.g. Rotterdam, Toronto.... There are many fantastic and creative filmmakers coming from different parts of the worlds with their unique approaches to film. If I one day come up with a suitable idea, I don't rule out the possibility to make a feature length film - although I don't think that these kind of limitations or categorizations are necessary. If I think about the amount of work, it might be easier actually to complete a feature than an hour-long multi-screen installation surrounding the viewer.

The House. 2002

Have you ever dreamed of an idea for a new work?

No, never.

Not even the part in the “The House” where the woman is flying?

No; even though as a teenager, I did have dreams in which I could fly. I think that everyone has had those kind of dreams. (She stands up and shows.) When dreaming, it seemed that if I concentrated very hard, I'd be able to lift my legs up and back, and I'd glide. But I had to continue concentrating, otherwise I'd fly too high. Or, I could fall.

What sort of advice would you give to a young artist – how to find one's voice, one's signature?

You can find something only if you really work hard as an artist. But working hard as an artist can mean sitting on a bench observing. And you have to fail, to be able to find something different. You also need to simply live your life, and you'll get to know yourself over time. 

You were first educated in law at the Helsinki university. Why so? Did your interest in art only come later?

I come from a working class family. But my parents never told me that I shouldn't become an artist. Even though, yes – my mother wasn't too happy when I later went to art school. My parents were concerned that I should have a secure future.

I've been drawing and painting since childhood; it was also a hobby of mine during university. When I was really young, I dreamed about becoming an architect. When I finished high school, I also applied to the art history department because I wanted to be an art teacher; funnily enough, I wasn't accepted there, but I was accepted into the Faculty of Law at Helsinki University (laughs). That wasn't completely baseless, though. I liked the idea of being a lawyer and helping people. To do something good in life. Frankly, I enjoyed my law studies.

I was extremely shy in my youth. I always felt like an observer from the sidelines. But while studying law, I had the opportunity to learn that I am a part of society, that I don't have to be an outsider, that I have every right to take part, to get involved.

I clearly remember one Christmas during my time at university. I didn't have much money, but enough to get by. I was standing at the train station to head home for the holidays. My parents lived 100 km north of Helsinki. I was standing in line to get a ticket. At the next window, the clerk was arguing with a customer to whom she didn't want to give a discount. This poor person was explaining that he doesn't live in Finland, that he doesn't have enough money for a full-price ticket, and that he has an ID card indicating his incapacity, which he had forgotten home, in Sweden. But he wanted to travel to his parents, for Christmas. There was a long line ahead of me, and I had to listen to this never-ending argument in which the clerk didn't want to give in and give the man a discount. When my turn at my line came up, I bought my ticket, went to them and gave a 100-mark bill to the clerk and said: “Here's the money; give this man a ticket.” I was so shy I turned around and left immediately. I didn't even see the clerk's reaction. But that was the best 100-marks I ever spent. Later in the train, my sense of satisfaction was immeasurable. Because by doing this, I had become a part of society – I took part in the situation by giving what I could in order to make things better. I was no longer a child, not even a student; I was, suddenly, a citizen.

But does this work in art? Do you think about doing something good for others during the creative process? How important is the viewer to you?

I don't think about the viewer during the creative process. Or, I rarely do. That's not because I don't care what others think, or because my work isn't meant for them. No. But during the creative process, I am alone with the work. In other words – the viewer is not yet there.

The Horizontal. 2011

If you had the opportunity to create a museum containing all of your works, what would it look like? Or perhaps, where would it be located?

A forest; perhaps by a lake. Nothing else around. Visitors could stay for a set period of time – for instance, three hours. In any case, no overnight stays, and definitely no camping... But if the museum also had to contain my works, then they would be underground. Yes, that's a really good idea. There would be a place that you could enter to see the artworks, but on the outside, one could sit in wooden reclining chairs, keep warm with a blanket, and just look at the woods.

Can an artist go out of style – become morally old-fashioned?

That depends on whom you ask. There are people who constantly need something new, and also in terms of art. That's the way it is. But there are those for whom an artist is something like a writer, whose works one follows and always waits for the next one to come out. The painter Cy Twombly comes to mind. About two years ago, in an interview shortly before his death, he said that things like that simply don't interest him. Because there have been both good periods and bad periods; people have both praised and criticized. And that is no longer important; he just continues to work.