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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.2 (2003) 32-47

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Subcutaneous Melodrama
The Work of Eija-Liisa Ahtila

Jane Philbrick


Finnish filmmaker and visual artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila is one of the most prominent practitioners of the vibrant Nordic art scene to emerge in the 1990s. Trained in art and film in her native Helsinki, as well as in London and Los Angeles, and currently completing her doctorate in fine arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki, Ahtila makes work that is smart in theory and practice. Smart, emotionally arresting, engaging, affective. A self-described "teller of human dramas," she approaches narrative equipped with a rigorous arsenal of postmodern strategies ranging in scope from critiques of the global communications network and post-structuralist investigations of volatile subjectivity to feminist and post-feminist concerns with subject construction. One of her most potent tools, however, is a two-centuries-old dramatic genre of proven emotional reach and punch, melodrama. Historically disdained as "low" art and more recently, and exhaustively, interrogated by film theorists as a site and vehicle of feminine erasure, in terms of both representation and spectatorship, melodrama is a provocative and savvy narrative device for a contemporary (female) artist telling stories in the language of the cinema.

Evolving as a byproduct of the French Revolution, melodrama is a hybrid genre combining speech with the traditional mute boulevard entertainments of mime, music, and spectacle. Banned from popular stages by a ruling aristocracy deservedly wary of the insurgent potential of an uncensored people's theatre, spoken texts became the exclusive privilege of officially sanctioned, upper-class theatres, and conformed in style to the neo-classicism favored by the well-educated elite. With the new democracy, common people found political voice, and reclaimed it for the theatre as well. Melodrama's first audiences included active players and firsthand witnesses of the Revolution's real life-and-death dramas, its bloody warfare and grisly public executions. They were unlikely to find neo-classicism's highly refined, static, literary artifice satisfying. A new dramatic form for spoken theatre was required, one exhilarating enough to captivate a highly charged, post-revolutionary society in dire need of direction in its newly democratized life. Emotionally vivid, visually stunning, easily accessible, morally mindful—these fundamental attributes of melodrama, forged in the revolution marking the advent of the modern age, prevail [End Page 32] today, whetting twenty-first-century audio-visual appetites of contemporary narrative practitioners and their audiences.

On the website for her recent exhibition, "Fantasized Persons and Taped Conversations," at the Tate Modern, Ahtila accompanies the conventional menu of didactic information—biography, general intro, an overview of works on view—with an unexpected link to a section labeled "Finnish Info." Here the curious can discover such novelties of the Nordic hinterland as statistics on Finnish society (one in five families owns a dog), tantalizing linguistic tidbits (Finnish has no future tense), a short list of homespun proverbs, and a schematic timeline spanning Finnish history from twelfth-century Swedish rule in the south and west to the 2000 election of Finland's first woman president. In other words, Ahtila sets forth a museum-goer's thumbnail Baedeker to one of the EC's most affluent nations. Casting her native country, where she continues to live and work, as a land apart, far afield from familiar trade routes of twentieth-century tourism, is consistent with Ahtila's working method of mixing fact with her own fiction. Associated in popular perception (if at all) with melancholic overtones of Strindbergian bleakness and claustral Munchian despair, and the sublime transcendence of the landscape tradition, contemporary Finland is a post-war success story, a seemingly content, if somewhat bland, welfare state, becalmed by government-issue middle-class comfort and ethnic homogeneity. A closer look reveals a darker side, evinced by the country's high suicide rates and prevalent alcoholism. Representing her native land, home to international conglomerates such as communications giant Nokia, as a world within yet without mainstream globalism, is more than a glib, ironic...


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