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Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s multichannel installation commands attention

Birds chirp and branches sway in the massive, six-channel moving-image installation “Horizontal” (2011) by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila.

Featuring a nearly life-sized pine tree oriented laterally across the gallery space, “Horizontal” is one of the first works that greets visitors to the “Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Ecologies of Drama” currently on display at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The exhibit features a selection of the artist’s multichannel film and projection installations from the last 20 years. This is Ahtila’s first United States career survey and was organized by Senior Curator Cathleen Chaffee.

Unlike exhibitions that feature traditional media such as painting or sculpture, those with time-based work present unique challenges for the spectator: the work commands your attention, and it does so for specified lengths of time.

To avoid duration-induced fatigue, I recommend that you spend time with a select few of her works, sitting with them from beginning to end, rather than trying to see everything immediately. Wander the gallery for a minute and see where you are drawn to first, then stick with it. Rinse and repeat, break for coffee and then go back for more. Ahtila’s work is visually rich and conceptually complex, demanding your time but rewarding you with a multidimensional viewing experience.

While “Horizontal” is by far the largest work in the exhibition - it spans an entire wall and dwarfs viewers by its sheer monumentality – it is not the most interesting. The tree, according to the artist, is shot from the perspective of a tree, meaning that it is presented nearly to scale in a fully frontal perspective. This blurring between narrative film and still-image presents a taste of what is to come. It has a run time of only 6 minutes, making it one of the shorter works. While captivating and colorful, “Horizontal” distinctly lacks the intriguing narrative structures of Ahtila’s other featured work.

Ahtila’s other multichannel work envelopes the viewer by positioning the screens around the viewing space, fragmenting the experience. Each channel features a different shot of the work, forcing the spectator to look from one screen to another, and then back again. Unlike the experience of seeing a film in a movie theater, where you can sink into a comfortable seat, lose yourself in the dark, and become fully immersed in with actors moving from one screen to the next, film, Ahtila’s work makes you aware of the very act of viewing.

Three of the most compelling works are “The House” (2002), “Where is Where?” (2008) and “Studies on the Ecology of Drama 1,” which is the artist’s newest work and premieres in North America in this exhibition.

With approximate run times of 14 minutes, 54 minutes and 28 minutes respectively, these works alone command a significant chunk of your visit, but they are well worth it. Each is unique from one another in terms of narrative and plot development, each deconstructs the structural processes inherent in filmmaking and spectatorship. This exploration of the constructed nature of narrative and drama is one of the most compelling aspects of Ahtila’s work and forms the guiding question posed by the exhibition: “How have drama and narrative historically been constructed, and how might we envision their new forms?”

Allowing viewers to consider these questions for themselves, Ahtila’s work leaves you thinking long after you leave.

Art review

What: Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Ecologies of Drama

Where: Albright-Knox Art Gallery

When: Through Jan. 3


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