The Art Institute of Chicago
Through October 23
by Claudine Ise
I’m not sure if Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion makes for the best comparison to Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s 2002 video installation Talo (The House)—it may simply be the most obvious one. Ahtila’s three-screen narrative is set primarily inside a single domestic interior and centers around a young woman’s descent into psychosis, just as Polanski’s classic (and certainly more lurid) work of psychological horror focuses on a solitary woman who suffers from powerful delusions. In both Repulsion and The House, the character’s home provides a decidedly unheimlich double for her rapidly unraveling psyche.
Whereas Polanski’s Carole feels as though the walls of her apartment are closing in on her, Ahtila’s unnamed protagonist seems perfectly at home inside her ramshackle cottage, that spare yet comfortable environs provide a veritable “womb with a view” from which she can see and hear, through her windows, the human activity taking place at a nearby harbor. For this character, it’s not the house, but the growing infringement of the exterior world upon the house’s physical boundaries—as well as those of her own—that provokes anxiety.
The woman appears to suffer from some form of dissociative disorder, telling viewers (in a direct address to the camera subtitled in English) she feels the house’s walls “breaking down,” that it “can’t preserve its own space” and that “my garden is coming into my living room.” She recalls an outdoor conversation with a friend during which the sounds of a boat “form another space in my head where I was simultaneously.” The installation’s three-screen projection evokes this sense of spatial fragmentation, the screens angled so as to suggest an enclosure without fully achieving it. Large gaps between screens prevent the triptych of projected images from creating a coherent sense of space, while the different images that appear on each screen require viewers to shift their gazes from one to the other, juggle multiple perspectives simultaneously and invariably miss something in the process.
In response to her own, physically immediate experience of this same condition, Ahtila’s protagonist constructs a metaphorical shelter inside her home by sewing and hanging thick black curtains over the windows, presumably to keep the overwhelming external stimuli at bay. Immersed in darkness, her mental wanderings can now be guided by sound alone. Ahtila’s research for the video involved interviews with women who have suffered from psychotic episodes. It’s hard to assess with certainty how successful Ahtila is at evoking this particular type of experience, but I suspect that’s not really the point. Instead, it’s striking how eerily similar the protagonist’s descriptions of psychosis are to the state we find ourselves in while watching movies in a darkened theater, where we are likewise fixated upon phenomena that is not really there, or at least not physically present. Indeed, this house-bound figure provides a potent, poetic metaphor for the immobilized cinema spectator, who likewise can be everywhere, experiencing everything, simultaneously.
Enclosed in her theatrically darkened chamber of a house, the woman tells the camera/viewer, “I meet people. They step inside me…Everything is now, simultaneous here.” She describes her feelings of dis-embodiment, yet at the same time she feels physically em-bodied by the people she encounters—just as actors “step inside” the bodies of others in order to play a role, or spectators identify with film characters in their process of imbuing a narrative with meaning. At the end of Repulsion, a violently incapacitated Carole is carted off to a mental institution. Ahtila’s protagonist has found a different, and perhaps more empowering, means of escape: by covering up the outside world, she can actively screen her own delusions, letting sound be her guide. Although the related viewing experience constructed by Ahtila’s installation is temporary and far less traumatic in nature, there is an implicit suggestion that the two are more alike than they are dissimilar. On one end of the spectrum there is madness; on the other, the immersive pleasures of cinema, where even the most sane of us has been known to “forget ourselves” by becoming absorbed in the experience of another, however briefly.
Claudine Ise is a Chicago-based freelance writer and Editor of Art21 Blog.