Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Lahja (The Present),a five-screen video installation now at TBG&S, is the artist’s first showing in Dublin. The screens display intermittent videos, each with a female protagonist. As we walk through the space we notice that there are cut-out tarpaulins on the walls, each with the line ‘give yourself a present, forgive yourself’ embossed upon it. The first screen shows a young girl approaching a house; she hesitates at the step and walks back on herself; seeing a deep puddle, she immerses herself in it; after lying for a few seconds, she proceeds on her original path and enters the house. On the screen appears the line from the tarpaulin wall-hangings: ‘give yourself a present, forgive yourself’. The video ends with the screen going completely blank.
Another screen sparks into action and we follow the path laid out for us by the artist, the order initially sequential, moving anti-clockwise around the space, becoming random thereafter. The manipulation of the viewer is obvious – we are performing for Ahtila. The second screen sees a woman suspended under her hospital bed; she says she is hiding from the orderlies; they, aware that she is hiding, discuss how best to remove her. We see the blank screen again and know to move onwards, deeper into the riddle. We then encounter a mother crawling across a busy city bridge; comedic in its rendition, the woman tells us she has a lovely life, two kids and her parents are still alive; her description belies her posture. One senses the crushing weight of motherhood and responsibility. She continues crawling. For the first time in the sequence we encounter an interruption and we notice the next screen in line flicker on; our attention is grabbed and we try to follow both, but can’t quite keep up. There is a loud crashing sound from the next screen; a girl is smashing up a room; by the time I distractedly move, abandoning my crawling woman for the screen where all the action seems to be happening, I am faced with the girl sitting close-up to the screen, laughing and giving me the finger. I feel a bit stupid, and lost; I think I have missed something. Ahtila is adept at manipulating the viewer; the cuts and interplays of the screens reveal the complexity of the videos, each a single story, yet also an exchange with the others. Our thoughts are being micro-managed and the way in which we view the stories is selectively transposed.
The final screen flickers into action and for this one I see headphones are required. Here a woman is in a house, closing all the curtains until she has achieved pitch blackness; what we hear in the headphones are the sounds of nature being systemically blocked out. The overall effect is our isolation from the room; thus we mimic the figure in the video. The screen goes blank. The circuit sparks off again and we are brought through the room on a new path.
Are each of these women representative of a point in our lives that we inevitably encounter? The artist flags the multitude of responsibilities we carry as a women throughout our life; we are the little girl who mischievously ruins her outfit by lying in dirty water, and our teens are often seen as the period most likely for us to end up incarcerated. But is that it, are we not more than that? The show brings a certain confusion to bear on the viewer, especially if you happen to be female. What becomes apparent is a seemingly one-sided view of femininity. All the imagery is suffused with frustration. Though sparks of humor offset the craziness, we are for the most part seen as terribly irrational. Is this piece intentionally a humorous caricature of female-hood? If this is the case, one can argue that Ahtila is proposing a masculine vision of the female.
There are surreal encounters along the way, goalposts move, people get smaller. The madness of life seems amplified within these vignettes, and after each episode the artist leaves us with that message that now smacks of a mantra – ‘give yourself a present, forgive yourself’. I feel like I am in a self-healing camp and in a Clockwork orange–style aversion therapy; if I look long enough at the screens and repeat the ‘forgiveness’ motto, I will no longer err on the side of madness. I somehow don’t think it’s that simple, and I doubt whether the artist does either. Ultimately this is a present I don’t want, I want my mania to sit happily nuzzled in the safe-house of the rest of my personality. By amplifying these aspects to womanhood, the artist has inverted them, making them extreme, yet contained. The Present serves to nullify our neuroses by setting them aside in the cocoon of the ‘healing room’, or in this case the gallery. Because of this The Present has a definite temporality; we can now move on.
Hilary Murray is a critic and MA student at NCAD.