WELLESLEY — Just as it is pointless to pursue a single definition of art, there is no one answer to the question of what it is artists actually do. But early on in “The Annunciation,” a 30-minute film by the wonderful Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila, an unseen narrator offers the best answer to that question that I’ve encountered in a while.
“Ehkë eteen tulee kysmys, jota ei ymmärrä. Tai kuva jos-tain, joka alkaa vaivata . . .”
Happily, there are subtitles. The gist is this: Artists encounter questions they can’t understand, or images that puzzle them. They display them, then wait to see not only who comes to look at them but also how they look at them.
Ahtila herself doesn’t specify that the formulation applies to artists; she uses the neutral pronoun “one” and the passive tense. You could argue — she is perhaps inviting us to think — that it’s a description not just of what artists do, but of what we all do. Our every interaction is speculative. Something is wrong if it is not.
Ahtila is the subject of a captivating show of several multiscreen videos, most just a few minutes long, and a handful of drawings at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College.
What’s great about her work is the same thing that’s great about the proposition above: It embraces what E.B. White, in an obituary he once wrote for his dog, called “chronic perplexity” — the fate not just of artists and dogs but, frankly, of all of us.
It also opens a door to the viewer. We who look to art for sustenance and pleasure need not behave like pilgrims bowing before the singular authority of the visionary artist. On the contrary, it is our own effort to tune ourselves to the work that gives point to the whole endeavor.
Getting yourself in tune with Ahtila’s work is not difficult, although it may require a few small adjustments. She is a philosophical artist who works with moving images both beautiful and mundane. Unlike the general run of video art from the past two or three decades, her films are lovely to look at. They do develop, they do cohere, but they are not linear or plot-driven. Unapologetically, but modestly, they toy with thoughts from multiple angles. A corollary of this is her preference for multichannel films displayed simultaneously on separate screens.
“The Annunciation” is a meditation on what is communicable between living beings and what is not. If that sounds like something best left to Wittgenstein, Kant, and Co., it may be reassuring to learn that the film itself is quiet, amusing, and finally, very touching.
The main action is a rehearsal for, and then a staging of, the Christian story of the Annunciation, in which Mary was informed by an angel that she would give birth to Jesus, the son of God.
Only two of the actors in this oddly downbeat staging are professional; the rest are clients of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute’s women’s support services. They appear homely, half-defeated, and ready to be saved, to be touched by something miraculous.
The three screens first show, from three different angles, a raven in a spruce tree in the midst of a snowy landscape — inviting us, perhaps, to think of Wallace Stevens’s great poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (“I was of three minds / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds.”)
This is followed, hilariously, by the appearance of a figure dressed as Santa Claus walking through that same landscape. He is seen from high up in the tree — truly a bird’s-eye perspective.
A voice-over meanwhile comments on the problem of seeing things from one perspective only, and asks if “something already familiar [can] fulfill the criteria for a miracle? Can one be shaken with surprise by something one knows through and through?”
Scenes of the rehearsal ensue, as the actors and a director discuss the Annunciation and its possible meanings, then begin to act it out. Occasionally the camera breaks off to show us a donkey, or the snowy landscape, or city Christmas lights. The film ends with an actual performance of the Annunciation story, followed by footage of the woman playing Mary leading a donkey down a road.
Every scene is very carefully thought through, pregnant with meaning. And yet the overall impression with which it leaves you is tentative and unfinished.
Ahtila, who is in her mid-50s and one of the most acclaimed video artists in the world, has lately been animated by an idea she came across in a book by Jakob von Uexküll called “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds” (1957).
Uexküll argues that living creatures perceive time, space, and other phenomena differently. He concludes that there may be no single envelope of space and time but rather many, coexisting simultaneously. The term he coined for it, “Umwelt,” has become a touchstone for Ahtila, and the question it triggers for her seems to be, how might we communicate at all in this confusing situation?
With great difficulty, is one answer.
With some strange combination of empathy, art, and love, is another. And indeed, Ahtila’s work, even at its most nakedly philosophical, is suffused with an attitude that combines curiosity, simplicity, and something like love.
Her other narrative video here is called “The House.” Based on conversations with women who have experienced psychosis, it is an attempt to use film to communicate what it is like to be in such a state. In a quiet mode, entirely lacking in the histrionics of films that have dealt with similar themes (I thought especially of Ingmar Bergman’s unforgettable “Through a Glass Darkly”), Ahtila uses her three-screen approach to track the breakdown of her protagonist’s mind.
We watch as a voice-over, reinforced by simple but acutely selected imagery, describes the woman losing her sense of reality’s coherence, of perception having a reliable logic, and of time elapsing in orderly fashion.
Given the hypothesis behind “The Annunciation” — that we exist on parallel planes of perception and understanding — “The House” makes us wonder whether psychosis amounts to losing one’s grip on reality, as we tend to believe, or if it is rather a case of forfeiting one’s defenses against reality, in all its multiplicity, its overwhelming simultaneity.
As a work of art, “The House” is quite brilliant, and more successful than “The Annunciation,” although I admired both. Interestingly, the two films both contain footage of a woman flying, suggesting a kind of miracle or escape. And they both seem quietly preoccupied with fir trees.
This preoccupation is taken up a notch in a third piece here, “Horizontal” — a six-channel moving image of a living spruce tree, shown horizontally across six large screens.
In one sense, “Horizontal” is a simple demonstration of the limits of the movie camera. We take it to be an unbiased recorder of the external world, but in fact it enforces a constricted, single-point perspective view onto that world. So constricted is this view that it cannot even represent that most common of things, a tall tree, without drastically distorting it.
With its alignment of six contiguous views of the same tree, “Horizontal” demonstrates this proposition effectively (in a manner not dissimilar to David Hockney’s far wittier and livelier photo-collages of the 1980s). But it doesn’t seem to do much more than that.
Still, it is an exceedingly lovely sight to behold as you walk into the Davis’s galleries. And it operates as a fine philosophical appetizer before the more complex and satisfying courses to come.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this review misidentified an actress named Kati Outinen who appears in “The Annunciation” as the video artist herself.