Eija-Lisa Ahtila was born in 1959, in Hämeenlinna, Finland. From 1980 to 1985, she studied at the University of Helksinki and, from1981 to 1984, was also a student at an independent art school. A further step in her education led her to London where, in 1990 — 91, she studied art and film at the London College of Communication (formerly: London College of Printing), one of the colleges of the London University of the Arts. Ahtila completed her studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she enrolled in entertainment studies. During her time in Los Angeles, she also worked at the American Film Institute. Today, Ahtila teaches media studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki.
Since the early 1990s, Ahtila has presented video works that use techniques of experimental film to stage moving pictures. Her medium is the dramatic narrative, the moving picture and spoken language forming explicit links. Ahtila also adds English subtitles to the Finish spoken in the videos, so that next to the spoken language the written text is included as a visible element. Her narratives often tell about everyday situations into which existential phenomena are integrated. Conflicts between the generations, relations between couples, sexual experiences and puberty, but also psychotic mental states are being thematized in the staged narratives. Deliberately, the artist approaches the cinematic aspects of mass culture whose familiar vocabulary she breaks up. She uses the specificities of film as medium to show, in subtle ways, communicative gaps, the failings of entrenched behavioral norms, and wholes in the network of social relations. Often, the scenes shown are based on interviews done by the artist, or they present interviews that are being conducted. In her seemingly authentic filmic narratives that are played by professional actors, Ahtila unhinges functional aspects of behavior and communication, defamiliarizing the linear combination of picture and language in complex montages and spatial constellations. This becomes particularly obvious in the monologically structured filmic sequences, where spatiotemporal or color discontinuities, and fragmentary structures foil the expectations of a filmic process marked by closure.
It is the spatial experience of the viewer that becomes an important starting point in Ahtila’s works. Films such as If 6 was 9, from 1995, build upon the format of the triptych, or they work with the simultaneous projection of several synchronized or successively running monitors. An example would be the presentation of personal experiences from the perspective of persons suffering from psychosis (The Present, 2001). Through including voyeuristic experiential structures of seeming immediacy, Ahtila creates highly intense, sometimes brutal works. For example, Ahtila shows different familial reactions to and appraisals of the death of a family member (Today, 1996/97).
Ahtila’s interest in film as a medium of the »society of the spectacle,« disseminated through cinema, TV, and video has recently been described as follows: »The small revolution, however, the Finnish artist has set in motion within the wide ocean of moving pictures, is to have overturned the rules of the society of the spectacle through seeming plainness. In her crazy world, the true is not – as Debord writes – a moment of the untrue, instead it actually emerges as a moment of the true in a miraculous way« (Regaglia, in: Ausst.-Kat. Museion 2003).
Eija-Lisa Ahtila’s works have been shown at numerous international exhibitions, among them the Documenta 11 (2002). She has had solo exhibitions at locations such as the Museum Fridericianum in Kassel (1998), at the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (2000), at the Tate Modern, London (2003), at the Museion, Bozen, Italy and the K21 in Duesseldorf (2008).
The artist lives and works in Helsinki.
Taktiken des Ego, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Gilles Barbier, Birgit Brenner: Ausst.-Kat. Stiftung Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum Duisburg, hg. v. Chr. Brockhaus, Bielefeld 2003
Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Ausst.-Kat. Museion, Museum für Moderne und Zeitgenössische Kunst, Bozen, hg. v. L. Ragaglia, Bozen 2003
Stories – Erzählstrukturen in der zeitgenössischen Kunst, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Lars Arrhenius, Birgit Brenner: Ausst.-Kat. Haus der Kunst München, hg. v. St. Rosenthal, Köln 2002