Writing: Eija – Liisa Ahtila: The Present, Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper.

An experiment in art writing.
Eija – Liisa Ahtila: The Present

As a little experiment in art writing, I want to bring two seemingly disparate things together and see what results, if anything. What tools we use to help us read or understand art is of interest to me here. By bringing Gilman and Athila in parallel how does the reviewing process change. In recent discussion the idea of creating worlds has come up in relation to contemporary art and curatorial practices. What all believable worlds need are characters and narrators to move forward a plot and create depth in illusion. An American short story and video installations by a Finnish artists may at first not seem like comfortable bed fellows. Both present characters, flawed and all too human. The short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman crept around my head as I watched Athila’s short video portrayals of women experiencing various states of psychosis. Striking similarities can be found in the experience of the woman protagonist in Gilman’s short story and Athila’s various women protagonists. ..

In the video titled Sita/Bridge positioned as number three on the layout plan, a woman crawls along a sidewalk mumbling about evil landing in a tree and a tiger walking around the tree. The end image of Gilman’s story jars back into my mind as a truly frightening image of a woman at a crisis point of psychosis creeps along a wallpapered wall, the yellow colour smudging her clothes as she imagines that she has at a last escaped from the pattern of the paper which has been encroaching on her troubled consciousness. Athila’s woman creeps along the side walk dragging her handbag along, while we sit and watch her through metal railings, free to walk away from her disturbing behaviour, or sit in sympathy to see it through to the end, half expecting resolution, half knowing the resulting ambiguity. Gilman’s husband character to her ‘sick’ protagonist swiftly faints after axing down the door only to find his wife on her knees babbling. ‘Give yourself a present, forgive yourself’ appears at the end of each Athila video piece. Self compassion is a powerful healer in terms of mental illness, much research explores the role of self compassion with regards mental health. Thus this mantra highlights the guilt and confusion around mental illness, and perhaps around the creative process which knows no easy route.

Gilman’s eerily disturbing story makes much use of the mental image, the reader also cannot stand the wallpaper of ‘sprawling flamboyant patterns, committing every artistic sin’, the colour is ‘repellent, almost revolting’. such is the unnamed female characters fascination with the wallpaper that accompanies and is the object of her psychotic episode. As in Athila’s video Tuuli/Wind a male voice is the voice of authority. ‘shut the door’ the girl demands, ‘it is shut’ replies a male voice, unseen. She asks ‘where is the draft coming from?’ unseen replies ‘your imagination’. Is the wind real or imagined? The lines between reality and fiction blur fantastically in Athila’s show. The viewers confusion about the wall hangings meaning and use exaggerates the phrase Give youself a present, forgive yourself. Not everything can be understood or explained. If the artist is a figure who shows us something different or asks us to think differently then Athila’s show opens up avenues of difficult discussion, about what is difficult or different, the imaginary and the real.

A sense of security ebbs away as the female speaker in video number 4 Wind tells that she never figured she would have to see a psychiatrist, rather that she had hoped to become one. Just as Gilman’s female voice tells us how guilty she feels at becoming a burden to her husband, who refuses to let he write or to work, guilt and amusement at such a bizarre condition issues forth. The domestic sphere features largely in Athila’s videos, the domestic sphere being a much contested sphere of value. The boundaries between inside and outside appear in ‘Groundwork’. Here an adolescent girl walks past a house, drawing attention from a woman within, she passes and lies down belly up in a puddle, solemn, gets up and walks on again. Goal posts appearing, dragged backwards by a tractor. Shifting goal posts and victories perhaps. Gilman’s deranged woman is immensely proud of herself by the end of the story, ‘I’ve got out at last’ in spite of their efforts she tells her bewildered husband and maid. The yellow wallpaper and it’s undulating, dizzying patterns she had believed contained a woman who tried to escape out through the patterns at night time. By pulling away the wallpaper, the protagonist had set her free, but also set her self free or so she thought. Oppression and boundaries feature again in The Present such as the woman blocking out the light in the video titled Talo/House. ‘I shut out the images’ the subtitles translate to us. This piece is the only one to have head phones attached to listen to the speech. Inner voices conflict. The voice of the speaker and our own inner voice busy making sense of what it hears.

‘I make the house dark because I can’t get away from the sounds’ the woman n the video tells, such skewed reasoning ends the Gilman story as it also ends each video piece. The women come to a conclusion about their state but in a less than rational way. Gilman’s woman and her disbelief at her husbands seemingly irrational fainting reaction, continues on her way creeping over his body on her path along the wall. The woman in ‘Underworld’ hold tightly to the underside of her institutional bed, believing that killers are after her. The amused and weary hospital workers look on irritated by her behaviour. The shrinking proportion of one worker signals the psychotic blurring of real and imagined, the viewer, as the reader of the short story cannot help but feel disturbed.

The five short films of between 1min 12sec – 2 min, provide a short time of interaction, the sort, sharp action filled screens draw the viewer in, making a second viewing necessary to catch the smaller details. The short story in contrast provides a delicate space to create a world in a few pages, the strain is to create a world interesting enough to keep the readers attention to the finish. The image rules both, by contrasting The Yellow Wallpaper and The Present perhaps something is said. The former was published circa 1891, and is as fresh on the issues of women’s mental health as Athila’s video pieces. The journal like style of the story compare nicely to the confessional style of Athila’s pieces. Both the writer and the artist allow an ambiguity to their work, they keep it open – ended, the viewer/reader not knowing the outcome of these women. By comparing such works from such different time periods, the question begs, has much changed?

In a short conclusion, this is an art writing exercise, any discussion is welcome, perhaps I could have come at this from another angle, but that’s what I’m trying to understand, what are the entry points of discussion and where do they lead.

Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. (1992) The Yellow Wallpaper, from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, (ed) Joyce Carol Oates, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Posted By: Edel Horan (