Winter Campfire: Ahtila’s “The House”

by Carl Strang

A recurring theme in the juxtaposition of science and spirituality is our subjective perception of the world “out there.” As I have discussed several times in the Winter Campfire series, there are problems posed by the limitations of our sensory perception, central nervous system function, theories of relativity and quantum theory that simply do not allow us to get away with regarding reality in the simple-minded way that everyday experience tempts us to do. In particular, I keep coming back to the little-appreciated fact that time is not what it seems to be. We regard time as an independent framework through which we move. This seems to work quite well for us. But the universe has demonstrated to us, through the work of Einstein and those who have come after him, that this is an illusion. In wrestling with this paradox I have been interested in what perceptual pathologies may reveal about the way we have come to our “normal” way of understanding reality. Earlier I reviewed the work of William Gooddy in this regard. Today I want to discuss a remarkable film.

I encountered this film last week during my annual trip to The Art Institute of Chicago. It was so gripping that I viewed it three times. It is titled Talo (The House), by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. In an on-line search I found comments on its emotional content and imagery, but what struck me were its insights into how psychosis pathology may inform our understanding of how our ancestors evolved a mechanism for ordering space-time. Ahtila studied references and interviewed people who have experienced psychosis as she did background research for this film.

The film begins with a young woman, Elisa, driving up to her house, parking the car, walking through the garden and into the house. As she goes, she describes her routine in matter-of-fact language (we hear her speaking in Finnish, but there are English subtitles). Her opening sentence is, “I have a house.”

The first sign that something is wrong is one of the three projected screens suddenly showing the car driving itself, quickly moving back and forth, in and out of its parking space with the loud sound of the motor as it does so. Elisa is shown standing, looking through the window. She comments that she sees the car parked outside, but loses sight of it when she takes a sideways step so the car is blocked by the curtain. She says that the car’s sound separates from it and comes inside the house. She can’t keep sounds out, and through them she is in many places at once. They bring outside elements into the house, and we see the car in miniature driving behind her on the wall. A cow is shown on the TV, and then it is walking through the house. A man and dog are outside, then the dog is walking past her as she sits in the house. She is jumping backward and forward through time (this film is one of a series, and I am guessing that this man’s identity was made clear in an earlier chapter). She says, “My garden is coming into my living room.” She is losing her boundaries. Through all of this, however, she is describing these impressions in a matter of fact manner, showing emotion only briefly at one point when she says she is getting confused. She never appears crazy, despite the bizarre experiences she is having.

She begins to address her difficulties, sewing curtains which she hangs on the windows to block her view of the outside. She does this to two windows, and though this was not addressed in the film or in any commentary I have seen, I connect those windows to the two eyes. The house then becomes a metaphor for the woman, and the woman for her point of view, the self that is experiencing time and space. With the windows/eyes closed, she has some control, some ability to keep outside things apart from the house. As she goes to hang one of the curtains she walks with difficulty. I thought that she was rocking as though she were on one of the boats she hears, but one commentary suggested that she has put weights on her feet so as to stay grounded. In the most remarkable special-effects scene, Elisa glides through the forest toward the house, her body parallel to the ground and she touches the tree branches as she goes. She reaches the house, and pulls herself back down to the ground.

Toward the end of the 15-minute film she summarizes her perception of reality: “The ship on the horizon is the same as all other ships…Things that occur no longer shed light on the past…Everything is simultaneously here, now, being…Nothing happens before or after. There are no causes.” She imagines people coming inside her, controlling her movements. This was an impressive depiction of a pathology in which someone’s “normal” perception of time separated from space has broken down. It demonstrates how our ability to order things and events by our separation of space and time also allows us to define our own boundaries, to have separate subjective points of view. The film left me with questions: Does space-time order the mind, or is it the reverse? Who is closer to experiencing space-time as it really is, the healthy person or the psychotic?

Note: I was fortunate to catch this film just before it is to be taken down on November 25. It is owned by the museum, and will be shown again someday, but not for a while.


1 Comment

  1. December 1, 2011 at 5:20 am

    brilliant descriptions that leave me wanting to view the film.

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