Real characters inhabit invented worlds at Tate Modern

Story by Jack Foley

Love, sexuality, jealousy, anger, vulnerability, and reconciliation, all the powerful emotions underlying human relationships are explored in the works of Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila at a new exhibition at the Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1, until July 28.

Entitled Eija-Liisa Ahtila: Real Characters, Invented Worlds, the exhibition is comprised of a series of 'human dramas', some photographic, others in video form.

As museum curator Susan May points out, "the process of emotional reconciliation is a recurrent motif" in Ahtila's work, as "her characters move between past and present without relying on a conventional cinematic 'flashback'".

In recent work, the border between 'self' and 'other' is investigated as the viewer is invited to peer inside the minds of individuals caught in moments of psychological fragility.

"Above all, Ahtila is concerned with the language of film-making," continued Ms May. "There are three elements that she views as central to her work: the way images are constructed, the way narrative unfolds, and the physical space in which the work is encountered. She is interested in how film and video are absorbed into our everyday worlds, and many of her works adopt the techniques of contemporary media, from music videos, commercials, cinema trailers to documentary film.

"The treatment of colour in the films is particularly painterly, while her approach to the display of the works is deliberate and considered. Some of the films are shown on multiple screens, or within complex installations that require the viewer to navigate their way through the space. Others are as likely to be encountered in a cinema or on television as in a gallery setting."

Ahtila was born in Hameenlinna, Finland in 1959, and lives and works in Helsinki.

One of the more telling sections of the exhibition is contained within room 2, in which female desire and sexuality are examined through a series of frank declarations and confessions by a group of adolescent girls (one of whom is pictured above). On the brink of womanhood, their sentiments appear to fluctuate between childishness and precocity. They switch from reminiscences of fairy tales to candid admissions of the intimate exploration of their own bodies.

Despite its objective, documentary approach, the film is ultimately a complex fiction. Split across three adjacent screens, the narrative evolves in a non-linear way, giving as much precedence to background movement and sounds as to the 'story' of the teenagers. Eventually, a girl discloses that she is really a 38-year-old woman, with a sexually mature body and appetites, raising the possibility that the entire account is a construct of the past.

The principal theme of The Present, however, is forgiveness, summarised in the closing statement of each of these five short stories: 'Give Yourself a Present; Forgive Yourself'. The work is loosely based on interviews Ahtila conducted with a number of women (one of whom is pictured right) who had developed psychosis at some point in their lives. In each case, the mental breakdown takes a different form, for some more overt than others.

The five stories were originally part of a longer film. Ahtila has also made 30-second cut-down versions, designed to be watched on television during commercial breaks.

Each episode focuses on a specific moment in the life of its protagonist. In Underworld a patient is seen in the clutches of paranoia, hiding beneath her hospital bed to avoid imagined killers. In Ground Control a teenage girl is on the point of entering her house, when she hesitates and lies down in a muddy puddle instead. The Bridge shows a mother who is only able to cross a bridge on her hands and knees; while in The Wind a young woman's anger takes the form of a hurricane. The House features a woman's futile attempts to block out the sounds in her head.

To accompany the films, Ahtila has produced a series of blankets, which she sees as a metaphor for warmth and protection, as well as being a traditional form of handicraft and symbol of women's industry.

For those with an open mind, or who like their art to be challenging and even daring, this is one exhibition to catch quickly.

Tate Modern, Bankside SE1, daily 10am to 6pm (Fri and Sat to 10pm), £5, £4 concs. Tel: 020 7887 8888
Nearest Tube: Southwark/Blackfriars