I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Eija-Liisa Ahtila and I have never met in person—I only know what she looks like thanks to YouTube—and we conducted this conversation via email over a period of about two weeks in April of 2012, her keyboard docked in Helsinki, Finland; mine, in Houston, Texas. Worlds apart in many ways, not the least of which would be landscape and climate—things that matter very much to this artist. And yet, as she reminded me in our conversation, one of her most ambitious pieces, The Annunciation, ends with a song by Townes Van Zandt, the legendary Texas singer and songwriter from just up the road in Fort Worth. “Coincidence?,” I can hear him asking in his Texas drawl, even though he died on New Year’s Day, 1997. Our paths crossed several months ago when I was contacted by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and asked to write a piece for the catalogue of a major retrospective of Eija-Liisa’s work called Parallel Worlds. She had read some of my work (What Is Posthumanism?, I think) and asked them to contact me—and that made for an invitation that was hard to resist.
Any number of critics and commentators will tell you that her work is meticulous in its execution, razor sharp in its intelligence, and beautiful and strange at the same time. But what I find most appealing about it is what I would characterize as a rather unique kind of gravitas, a willingness to raise the big questions, but in fresh and unexpected ways, as if they were part of the fabric of the ordinary and the everyday, as if we could stumble upon them—or they could come upon us—at any moment, while staring blankly at the computer screen, say, or out for a walk with the dog: What is the nature of the miraculous, of divinity or grace? What does it mean to share the planet with other creatures who inhabit very different life worlds from our own? What are my responsibilities as an artist or a person regarding historical events that transpired in another time and place? Can something familiar become strange and, in so doing, transform who I am and how I see?
As many of her recent works attest, such questions aren’t to be simply answered, but are rather staged—in multichannel installations that bring space and time in and out of synchronicity, impossible to experience in a single take or point of view—and lived through, in a world neither wholly visible nor wholly ours.
— Cary Wolfe
Cary Wolfe As you know, there’s been a lot of discussion in contemporary philosophy and theory (by Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek, among others) about a “return of the religious.” I wonder if you could talk about the role of religion in your work? It’s certainly prominent in more recent works such as The Annunciation, Where Is Where?, and even The Hour of Prayer, but it seems to take on quite different meanings in those pieces.
Eija-Liisa Ahtila I should first say a few words about this context, this country where I grew up. To put it briefly, Finland is a Scandinavian society where Christian—or here, more precisely, Lutheran—ethics have been adopted as part of our political system and climate of ideas. Lutheran ethics have assimilated into the ideas of democracy and become part of our multiparty system. And I’m not talking about the small Christian-democratic party that is also present in the parliament, but rather how Lutheran ideas have affected both the Right and the Left—resulting in milder versions of both—and how the role of the state regarding its citizens has been influenced by all this. I think that this assimilation has also affected our comprehension of religion and our approach to it; our religion does not start with a capital letter, it is not a gateway to heaven, rather it resembles a ”social security system”—that everyone will be taken care of and will not be left alone. I suppose the sacred is not too sacred here.
I want to mention this because I feel this kind of context makes it easy for me to approach religious issues like any other issue, seeing them as part of culture and history. Maybe this point is most visible in The Hour of Prayer where the story ends in a house in Benin located next to a Catholic church. The bells ring at dawn, and the dogs bark and run to the church, while the narrator listens. The piece is about death and loss, and that moment at the end is, I suppose, a reference to the idea or possibility of sacred or religious experience, but it’s really the stray dogs that run to the gates of the church—not the narrator/observer.
I see The Hour of Prayer as a turning point among my other works. Before that piece, the works are something that I once called human dramas—a definition that is misleading if we have the new pieces in mind, but telling in relation to the earlier moving-image installations. In those, the story is created around a situation that involves humans as protagonists, with the topics being questions of identity, close relationships, and family relations. Even though the stories are experimental and nonchronological, the idea of character, for example, is left intact. In The Hour of Prayer, even though there’s a narrator who takes the story forward, there is no protagonist in the traditional sense. One could say that empty spaces become a protagonist. The Hour of Prayer is also my farewell to a certain kind of drama and narration.
In the next piece, Where Is Where?, the way of presenting things in an installation using the moving image and narration, as well as the approach to religion, is different. Where Is Where? aims at presenting a historical event that took place during the Algerian war of independence in the late ’50s and bringing it to the present day. I use theatricality to do this, both in the narration and in the installation space. In the story, there are two different times and two different places present: 1950s Algeria and the present day in a European city. In the installation structure, the aim is to maintain that difference: Four screens surround the viewer, creating a cinematic space on the screens and another space in the middle for the viewers. When the actors talk to each other from the opposite screens, they also temporarily incorporate the viewer’s space in the story. S/he is in the center of the narration, or, to put it another way, on a stage—having to choose what to look at and how to navigate through the story. S/he is present in the installation and, at the same time, in the middle of the events, on and off.
The topic and the situation in the Where Is Where? is the presence of two different cultures, two different political systems and two different religions. The piece aims at showing religion’s role in the past and present as part of identities—individual as well as national—both in Islamic society and politics and in the West. When the work was exhibited for the first time at Jeu de Paume in Paris, some nationalist party members came by and handed out leaflets in front of the gallery asking people not to go to see the work.
The Annunciation was first shown in Paris early December 2010. I remember we needed a carpet the color of Virgin Mary blue for the floor of the installation space, and it had to be ordered from Belgium. There were snow storms and no one was certain the truck would arrive in time. As opposed to the other works, The Annunciation begins with a religious topic—a central motif of Christian iconography, which was constructed and reenacted through the moving image. It is an installation of three projected images on three walls. Both human and animal actors, during the project, reconstruct the sacred. The Annunciation started with the idea of a miracle and what meaning it could take on today. As usual, I did write a script, but in this case it was used as a support structure. I wanted to keep the question open and explore it with the actors. All of the human actors except for two were nonprofessionals, and many of them clients of the Deaconess Institute’s women’s support services. Even though the frame of the work is religious, I see the topic of the piece as perception and knowledge—the order of things. During the Renaissance, central perspective entered painting with the Annunciation theme. It meant a whole new system of seeing and organizing things—a new system of emphasizing certain figures or elements in the painted environment and valuing them. In my Annunciation, I contrasted this way of seeing with Jacob von Uexküll’s idea of umwelt—of different but simultaneous worlds existing for different living creatures (for example, how the living space of a rabbit is different from a human one). Breaking up perspective has long been one of the central themes in my works—both in the multiscreen installation structures and in the way I rearrange drama and narration in the stories.
CW I was fascinated—and of course excited!—to come across Uexküll in your work. (As you know, we just brought out a new translation of his famous essay on human and animal umwelt, together with his “Theory of Meaning” essay, in the Posthumanities series that I edit for the University of Minnesota Press.)
EA That’s fantastic—I actually did not know that. When I was writing the script for The Annunciation, I ordered Uexküll’s text from Amazon. At the time it was only available as an old out-of-print hardcover called Instinctive Behaviour, including texts of several writers. But when the work was completed, a new translation came out in French, and yours in English, both in 2010.
CW Uexküll’s work on umwelt enables you, in a way, to naturalize religious questions, along the lines you suggested in your opening remarks. The idea that the everyday or the familiar can become the site of the miraculous, a place of transformation or even of grace—perhaps what we think of as divinity—clearly becomes important in The Annunciation, where there’s a sort of inversion of the place of the iconic humble and lowly donkey and the Virgin Mary, so that being able to see, or imagine, the world from the animal’s point of view is actually the site of the otherworldly—another world inside this world, as Uexküll would put it. And in that wonderful final scene, the actress playing Mary and the animal walk side by side: partners—friends, even—in a shared world.
EA The scene is accompanied by the song “No Place to Fall,” originally by Texan Townes Van Zandt. I wanted the song to be interpreted by a young male voice. A friend of mine recommended someone I did not know. Into the studio came a young Finnish guy who was tall, blond, and so beautifully innocent looking with his woolly hat that I did not know where to look. When he was singing with his perfect voice and playing his guitar in the studio, I thought I should have cast him in Mary’s role.
CW Townes Van Zandt—that would require another entire interview! Then we would have to talk about Steve Earle too, and we would never finish! Anyway, that crossing of the ordinary, the everyday, the familiar and the unusual, the strange, the transformative—that which makes us think and feel outside ourselves—can also take a different form, as it does in The House or Where Is Where? There, the home, me and mine, the everyday, entail a kind of desperation, a violent reaction to the different, to the outside and the other, so that that which is most foreign or distant suddenly seems most intimate and threatening. In that light, the sense of home, land, and the everyday takes on a different cast, and a kind of subterranean passageway in your work opens up between works that seem very different, such as The House and Where Is Where? (as a similar sort of passageway opens up in the latter between the time and place of the historical events recounted and the contemporary time and space of the narrator). In that light, oddly enough, Where Is Where? might be said to develop on a grander and more explicitly geopolitical scale the remark that the protagonist in The House makes about “immigrants, who arrive from every shore.”
EA In both works, the house turns out to be not only a private home but a place where the outside can enter and where the limits and borders of things can be examined. What is of our concern, what is our history, and where does one’s being end? (I remember when I was a child, that sometimes in the evenings I was afraid of being in our house, with the lights on—as on a stage—and I felt it was somehow safer to go outside to the darkness of nature.)
It has been transformational and of utmost importance for me to find Uexküll and the links to Giorgio Agamben, J. M. Coetzee, and all the writing about the question of the animal, as well as your own texts about posthumanism and biopolitics. It all offers a different kind of worldview which respects the other—animals and nature. And it also touches the questions of seeing the world, of perception and representation. This idea of different worlds, of different living creatures existing simultaneously, also brings with itself a certain notion of limits, and living in the world then inevitably means living with and next to others (which is somehow very relieving). That immediately affects the way one can portray things as an artist or filmmaker. It sets questions that need to be answered in the works, questions concerning the presentation of things, the relation between the artist and the object, and finally, of course, the validity of the languages of representing the other. Which then again touches on the question of colonialism.
Based on these kinds of thoughts, I made a series of drawings called Anthropomorphic Exercises on Film. In those sets of drawings, I aimed at exploring the rules of filmmaking. In the drawings I replaced a human as the protagonist with a spruce. And then, with different drawn situations with the spruce, I approached questions of action, drama, point of view and aspect ratio of a film frame, etcetera, and how this all affects what we get to see.
CW Your response helps us better understand the overall trajectory of your work: How we get from the earlier pieces that one might call feminist (if that’s the word we want, and it may not be), such as If 6 Was 9, Me/We, and Okay, to The Annunciation, where the story is, after all, central to an old-fashioned, patriarchal religion and the main character is a virgin! Those earlier works also focused on some of those “other others” you just mentioned (women in alienating relationships, young girls), but one way to describe it is that the earlier work challenges dominant, habitual modes of organizing reality from the outside in, whereas a piece such as The Annunciation undoes them from the inside out. Your comments on your more recent work (and your earlier remarks about The Hour of Prayer) help us connect these concerns to how your visual and spatial approach has changed, how these concerns have shaped the formal characteristics of your work as it has evolved.
EA Yes, in the earlier works the feminism was kind of inside the drama and the performed action and dialogue, whereas in the more recent ones, like The Annunciation, the arsenal of creating a moving-image piece—from dramaturgy and acting (or showing oneself to others through the image) to editing rhythms—is used to question the validity of languages that we draw on to represent others.
I had this odd experience last September at the Venice Film Festival. I was there as a member of the main jury, and we were watching a Chinese film, People Mountain People Sea by Cai Shanghun, in a huge tent that was packed. About halfway through the film there was a rape scene during which a woman seated in front of us stood up and left. Then two others behind us did the same, and more and more people left the space. My immediate thought was that their leaving was a reaction to the rape scene on the screen. I made a comment about this to Darren Aronofsky, sitting next to me, to which he replied that no, it can’t be, it must be a fire alarm situation. Even though there was no alarm sound or smell of smoke, gradually all of us went outside. Nevertheless this was an episode that I will remember—the people’s reaction to rape (although a misinterpretation) even as it lasted for a short moment only. There were actually some problems with screening the film, and all in all I saw the rape scene three times.
CW That is weird. And interesting. I remember that one of the things that drew me to write in What Is Posthumanism? about Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark—the one with Björk in the starring role—was everything I read about how extreme the reaction was by different audiences who viewed it. Some people found it profoundly moving and were visibly shaken, sobbing, just completely blown away. And other audiences literally jeered and threw stuff at the screen—they thought it was a manipulative piece of junk, the worst thing they had ever seen. So, I wondered: What is this about? Is it a feminist film? Yes, I think so, profoundly. But not in any straightforward way, and it takes a while to explain why—which is why that chapter in the book is so long!
EA I remember I was really impressed by Dancer in the Dark—that and Dogville. The Chinese film was as well a great narrative about a certain region in China, about violence and problems in that society.
CW One question that may sound odd, but I think is related to what we’ve been discussing: Can you say something about your choice of which language to use in your work? The difference between your native language and English (which you use in The Hour of Prayer) is so striking that it makes for a quite different experience of your work for those who don’t speak your language. “English” as a kind of apparatus of standardization and globalization seems important in light of your work’s concern with juxtaposed and coexisting umwelts, since we know how important language differences are to constituting those lifeworlds, the texture they have for us, and so on.
EA In all works except The Hour of Prayer the dialogue is in Finnish. It was a clear choice, to maintain that difference and remind the audience about other cultures. We try to get subtitling done in the language of the place where the works are shown. Sometimes it is unfortunately not possible, and then we use English. I don’t really like subtitling because there’s a lot of visual information in the multiscreen pieces, and it makes it more difficult to follow. The Hour of Prayer is in English because I originally made an audio work of the material for an art collector. A few months later I decided to do a video installation as well and use the same actor. Then it was kind of natural to use English.
CW Let’s return to your most recent work, Anthropomorphic Exercises on Film and Horizontal. In both, a spruce tree is, as you put it a moment ago, the protagonist. I find this very suggestive for a few different reasons. For one, it foregrounds just how uncertain and contingent the boundaries are between subjects and objects, things acting with agency and things acted upon. And it raises that question in relation to another one: the question of the frame and framing. In my mind, this reaches very directly back to one of the most important philosophical discussions of the frame in modern philosophy, namely Martin Heidegger’s in “The Question Concerning Technology.” He asserts that “the essence of technology is nothing technological,” and he reads technology as gestell or a kind of framing that can operate properly or improperly—it can in fact turn nature, or human beings for that matter, into what he calls bestand or “standing reserve,” resources that are quantified and ready to be exploited. (It’s interesting in this context that you mention somewhere in an interview that the spruce tree in your country is seen as a fairly common or lowly species, used for building materials, and so on.) Heidegger’s essay is seen by many people today as an early key text in biopolitical thought, one that reaches forward to Michel Foucault and others regarding technology—the dispositif, as Foucault puts it—as something that not only frames our relationship to others (including nonhuman others) and to ourselves, but also dictates the ethical and political disposition of different kinds of life forms as subjects of biopower. For example, animals used in factory farms can be seen as “killable but not murderable,” as it is sometimes put, or spruce trees can be seen not as homes for ravens or squirrels, but as building materials in reserve, lumber in waiting. So this leads to an interesting question for me: Do you think of film, and perhaps art generally, as a biopolitical apparatus, whether or not that is what it intends to be? After all, in both of these new pieces, the tree is shown to be the object of a kind of visual violence or even, in the case of Horizontal, a kind of dismembering—a violence created by the frames we force it into.
EA Before answering, let me ask: By biopolitical apparatus are you referring to what you said about Heidegger and questions of framing? That a biopolitical apparatus has similar functions?
CW The question of the biopolitical apparatus can be addressed in terms of Heidegger and framing but is not limited to that. By biopolitical I mean simply that questions of sovereignty, law, “rights,” etcetera, are no longer seen to be fundamental to the political reality in which we are now living (as philosophers and theorists such as Foucault, Agamben, Judith Butler, and Derrida have argued). Those terms (of sovereignty) are, if you like, seen to be a leftover from an earlier philosophical and political paradigm that can no longer really describe where the real political action is, “on the ground” as it were. Anyway, this is not limited to “framing” à la Heidegger, although that very much suggests itself in light of your recent work with the frame (and I would say more generally in how your work operates spatially after 2005, from The Hour of Prayer forward). This leads to an interesting question: Is installation work more committed in this way or not, since all art, after all, depends upon being framed as such in some sense? There are other ways of coming at my question. So, for example, in the seminar I’m teaching right now on biopolitics, we looked at your work alongside Ari Folman’s film Waltz with Bashir and Bill Viola’s piece I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, which are both biopolitical pieces of film-video making, I would say, but in very different ways—neither as explicitly concerned with the question of framing in the way that you are.
EA Yes, I can easily relate to Heidegger’s question of framing that you present. Let me try to approach your questions from an artist’s point of view. I think both film and art can be seen as biopolitical apparatuses, but they are different. I think that commercial film is something that reproduces its own apparatus again and again, but art is where the apparatus is a question—in art one has to be aware of it. When building a new piece, one needs to come up with the means of framing and find something that realizes the work. Or it can be very interesting to compare the systems in different forms of art—for example, rules of composition in drawing to those in dramaturgy in the moving image—with both being a kind of arranging of things and information but from different premises.
The Anthropomorphic Exercises on Film drawings—as the name says—concentrate on presenting the principles of the moving image by altering the viewpoint. Taking up another artistic medium and its means of expression helped to show the edges of this human-constructed medium for perceiving and presenting the world. The drawings are little exercises, easy to go near and react to, and funny, I hope. For example, I wanted to include an important concept in film narration: point of view. I just did not know how to do it with a spruce. How could one make a drawing of a spruce’s point of view? The whole series deals also with the question of subject and object—problematics you referred to above. Will we really be able to see the spruce? How close can we get to it? Finally, I decided to draw a vertical piece—a portrait of a tall tree in four parts—but I replaced the top part with a mirror. In front of the piece I placed a little stool that a viewer can climb up and see her/his face in the mirror on the top part of the spruce.
The beginning of the synopsis written for the work Horizontal says: “Horizontal is a six-channel moving-image work of a living spruce tree. The idea of the work is to show the tree in its entirety, as far as possible retaining its natural size and shape. Because the life-size tree does not fit in a standard-sized human space, the tree is presented horizontally in the form of successive projected images. The work is a portrait of the tree. It is a record of its existence as a living organism.” Everything that this excerpt of the text says concerning the spruce is, we could argue, not true. What we see and hear in an exhibition space is a huge tree moving in a heavy wind. But if we take a closer look, we’ll see that it’s not (only) a portrait of a tree but an image of the technical apparatus constructed as an extension of the human eye and perception.
Any attempt to show a fully grown spruce or some other tall tree using the moving image is bound to run into difficulties. First comes the problem of film frame: You cannot get the entire tree into one horizontal frame. Special lenses will distort the image. If one steps back what one gets is a landscape not a portrait of a tree. We filmed our spruce tree on a windy day in early October. The preparations had taken much longer than we had anticipated. Although we had decided to shoot the tree in parts in order to avoid distortion and maximize the amount of visual information, finding a tree of suitable size was difficult. The proportion of the width to the height of the tree was important to allow us to present it using five projectors. Second, the background had to be ”empty” to give prominence to the tree and its form. The tree also needed to grow in a place where we were able to set up scaffolding or use a scissor lift. We discussed what kind of a camera and lens we should use and how many would be needed. We knew from experience that using multiple cameras would also multiply the horizon and the background, which would be visible in more than one picture in the final work. We weighed different solutions both for the shooting and for postproduction. It soon became obvious that the more we tried to reproduce in the portrait of what we saw standing next to the tree and combine that with our ideas about the portrait of the tree, the more the final work would be about the devices and technology of cinematography and about us humans as observers. Again, the spruce returned us to Uexküll’s ideas about the coexistence of separate spatial and temporal worlds of different living beings and to the idea of existence next to and with something else.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee