Nick Hackworth

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Tate Modern

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Happily, video artists seem no longer ashamed to make work that is comprehensible. Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila focuses almost exclusively on human relationships, working often with Finnish actors or members of the public. She relies on decent dialogue between characters and employs a simple and direct visual style that is subservient to the story being told.

It is a formula that saw her gain international recognition during the 1990s, earned her a certain amount of critical acclaim at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and has now led her to a solo show that will profit from overlapping with the crowd-pleasing Matisse Picasso exhibition, due to open on 11 May. Her video pieces are spread throughout the gallery, broken up by passages of incidental photography, though the series that greets you in the first room, featuring the naked artist adopting various canine poses, has a certain amusement value.

In If 6 was 9, split across three screens, five girls, aged between 13 and 15, discuss their sexuality (in Finnish, but there are subtitles) as we watch scenes of typical teenage life unfold. Some might find watching 13-year-old girls discussing “cute cocks” prurient, but the naturalness of the girls’ performances manages to sidestep the issue. In The Present, five short stories each end with the statement “Give yourself a Forgive Yourself ”, which would be agonisingly glib if the stories were not based on interviews with real women who developed psychosis at some point in their lives.

The most compelling passage in Ahtila’s work comes in Consolation Service, in which the traumatic breakdown of a marriage is depicted in a straightforward short-film treatment. In the midst of the personal drama, a group leave the couple’s apartment and head for a restaurant, taking a short cut across an iced-up river. They strike up a morbid conversation about what would happen should the ice crack. Sure enough it does, and in a serene sequence we watch the bodies floating past the screen, the calm movement of their drifting limbs matched by a quiet voice recounting their smooth slip into death.

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