Guillermo Kuitca

at the Arts Club of Chicago, through November 12

Eija-Liisa Ahtila

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through November 14

By Fred Camper

There are no human figures in Guillermo Kuitca’s installation and four paintings at the Arts Club, and few in the 81 drawings on display. But the suggestion of humanity is almost overwhelming, creating an aching gap between implied presence and absence.

Kuitca’s installation, Untitled (Beds) (1991-’92), conflates the public and private realms. He’s placed 20 bare mattresses in one row of 13 and another of 7, raising each perhaps a foot off the floor. Dark and discolored, they suggest decades of grime, reminding us of the intimate activities mattresses are witness to–Kuitca calls the bed “a place of sleep, love, birth, and death.” The “grime” looks painted on, however, as do detailed road maps. Though in statements the artist suggests that he simply chose readily available maps, other mattress pieces I’ve seen by this 39-year-old Argentinean living in Buenos Aires have managed to include, as this one does, Oswiecim–in German, Auschwitz. Each map continues unbroken across two to five mattresses, suggesting that the maps are not mere decoration but have a reality and significance apart from the unusual “canvases.”

It’s impossible to look at maps of Europe without feeling the weight of its past–Sarajevo is where World War I began, Florence is the city of the Renaissance. Many smaller towns undoubtedly have histories equally weighty. And here it’s as if the public realm had invaded our dreams, now haunted by history. Kuitca has said that when he began using mattresses he thought about a room completely covered in them to prevent a deranged person from hurting himself–but someone not yet deranged could easily be pushed over the edge by this creepy piece. Every time you go to sleep, it seems to say, you must think of the Warsaw ghetto–and of the future, the horrors that have befallen the former Yugoslavia since the piece was created, for example.

The contradictions in modernist works are in part intended to make the viewer play a more active role in determining meaning. And for minor artists, producing contradiction-laden art has become almost a parlor game. But Kuitca’s images, which seem overfilled and vacant at once, open up a yawning gap–between the almost too literal mattresses and the almost too suggestive maps–into which a veritable panoply of contradictions can enter. In the quest to make sense of this art’s disparities, the viewer either invents narratives or vibrates between pairs of contradictions: the gap between public and private spheres, for example, or between individual lives and society.

In three of his four paintings Kuitca depicts vast theaters. One untitled work from 1995 shows multiple tiers of seats from the vantage point of the stage. Each seat is numbered, but the numbering doesn’t resemble any system used in a real theater–for one thing, the numbers sometimes repeat from row to row with no letters to differentiate them. Glowing with intense white light against the painting’s dark blue background, the seats are like banks of light floating in space. These quintessentially public but unoccupied spaces are as evocative of the human presence as empty beds, giving them a similar power. While each seat suggests an individual viewer, the blurring together of seats by smearing the paint or repeating the numbers implies that the audience is an undifferentiated mass. And of course the performers’ whole purpose is to lose their individuality to their roles.

In the paintings, as in Untitled (Beds), Kuitca’s mixture of referentiality and emptiness throws the viewer back on himself, bouncing him between sets of opposites: public/private, social/individual, presence/absence–and also knowledge/ignorance and order/chaos. Kuitca’s work evokes things we can’t know: who sat in these seats, who performed on this stage, who slept on these mattresses. The artist is neither form giver nor narrator: Kuitca depicts the structures that house human life but not life itself–that, he seems to say, is for the viewer to provide. These works invite a kind of conceptual journey only partly guided by the artist; their intensity comes from our feeling that Kuitca has at once included and left out so much.

Kuitca’s grandparents were Ukrainian Jews who fled pogroms early in the century; he himself came of age during the terrifying mass murders of Argentina’s “dirty war.” In both cases, individuals were persecuted because they were members of a group seen as threatening, whether Jews or leftists–history that seems to have found its way into Kuitca’s work.

The drawings–never exhibited before–provide further insight. The earliest are from 1981, a decade before the oldest painting on view, and suggest a psychosexual component to the conflict Kuitca sees between identity and anonymity. In two untitled drawings (numbers 19 and 25 on the checklist), a man “screws a column,” as Kuitca put it in his diary (the note is reprinted in exhibition materials), “which for me represented something like Western culture.” What’s striking about the nude man wrapped around a horizontal column in both drawings is how vulnerable and weak he seems compared to this quintessentially masculine architectural element. “He’ll never finish,” Kuitca wrote; culture, like history, is vast. In number 17, a kneeling man seems crushed by a globe on his back.

The drawings are at their strongest when, like the paintings, they embody contradictions. Corono de Espinas depicts a floor plan in thorns. “The apartment plan as crown of thorns,” the artist calls it–a home, which typically offers comfort, is outlined with canonical images of persecution. Untitled (Via Abruzzi) again chillingly represents human presence by its absence: a map of several blocks of an Italian city is made up of bones.

Number 21 shows a bed whose surface resembles a stairway; a baby carriage is poised at the top–a reference to the famous moment in Sergei Eisenstein’s film Potemkin when a baby carriage falls downstairs during a massacre by cossacks. Kuitca refers both to the real massacre and to the filmmaker’s representation of it. History and culture flow through this ordinary household object, with its connotations of safety and privacy–like all of Kuitca’s best pieces, this one acts at once as a sudden illumination and as an invitation to meditative thought.

“Meditative” is not the first word likely to occur to viewers of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s two video installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Though this Finnish artist was born a year before Kuitca, in 1959, her work suggests a later generation. A booklet about the show says that Ahtila has been influenced by TV commercials and music videos–and indeed her style is fast-paced and flashy. If Kuitca is a culture-burdened modernist seemingly influenced by Borges, the poet of irreducible labyrinths and multiple fictive worlds, Ahtila is a media-savvy, cool postmodernist.

Both of Ahtila’s installations were originally exhibited as films, both have been carefully scripted and staged, and both use three screens. Today (1997) is projected on three walls of a darkened room, illuminated one at a time from left to right. Two of the tapes represent a response to the recent sudden death of a family patriarch by the man’s son and the son’s daughter. (The middle tape shows a woman giving a sociological analysis of relationships in the city.) Often the subjects talk about the difficulty of showing feelings; the son, bawling his heart out, remembers his father’s reserve, while his teenage daughter doesn’t know what to make of her father’s grief.

Today might be seen as an outrageous reduction of the emotional complexity in the art of someone like Kuitca. Ahtila’s “human dramas,” as she calls them, focus on the characters’ affective worlds. The multiple screens underline the differences between people’s responses to a single situation–but filmmakers have been doing that almost effortlessly on single screens for decades, using such basic techniques as cinematography and editing.

In fact, by traditional standards Ahtila’s work is sorely lacking in these areas. Her compositions rarely seem controlled or thoughtful; her editing seems to be mostly about adding one shot to the next without any regard to the effect of the cut. For example, in the third tape she cuts from a long shot of the son lying on a bed in profile with a dog licking his bare feet to a closer shot of the dog licking his feet from the man’s point of view. Such cuts were used for decades in classical narrative cinema, shaping the space with a kind of dance of perspective. But here the two compositions neither blend nor interestingly clash–like most of Ahtila’s cuts, this one seems motivated solely by a wish to get the subject on-screen.

But what if Ahtila isn’t trying to create a traditional aesthetic experience? It’s a disturbing thought but worth considering given that she’s been influenced by music videos and commercials. Having her characters speak primarily to or for the viewer is crucial: sometimes they face us, but even when looking away or offscreen, the subjects seem to be speaking to an imagined audience. Trying to enter the characters’ psychology the way you might with a narrative film gets you nowhere: this work is all on the surface. The characters focus on capturing our attention, focus on being looked at, rather than evoking an imagined life.

Especially in light of the work’s formal poverty, this seems to me a massive intellectual and aesthetic diminishment compared to the complex imaginary dramas in Kuitca’s art. But Ahtila may be working from a different model, conceiving of humans less as beings with inner lives than as performers who construct public personas. Her other, more intriguing and visually interesting piece supports that view. It helps that each of the three monitors in Me/We; Okay; Gray is a different size and shape and mounted differently: one is on an institutional table, the second on the floor, and the third on an older table intended for a home. Each black-and-white tape is 90 seconds long; as in Today, the tapes are shown sequentially. Two are about troubled relationships, and the third involves three women hiding from a recent nuclear-reactor explosion. Like Kuitca, here Ahtila joins the public and private realms: the disaster seems a metaphor for the relationship problems in the other two tapes. Visually the tapes are busy: the camera is moving, the characters are moving, the images are all very brief, the pace is frenetic. Once again the characters speak to or for the camera; faced with telling us their problems in 90 seconds, not surprisingly they sound a bit like TV hucksters. In the second tape, a woman who sometimes hits her husband walks toward us repeatedly saying “I’m OK”–but we know she’s not OK because she keeps reiterating the statement as if to reassure herself and us.

What’s interesting about Ahtila’s work is that it’s not about what it purports to be about. One learns little of interest about human emotions because Ahtila neither takes the time nor employs the visual skill needed to establish a character’s psychology. Instead what one sees are people who think they have emotions but are only capable of performing–narcissists who confuse their display of feelings with having an inner life. They desperately want to be looked at, in hope that a mirroring observer will somehow cure their emptiness. The inner lives they lack are like the complex structures missing from Ahtila’s work. In effect she makes the same choice as artists who think that the public projection of one’s own image is the same thing as making art. But the freneticism of Me/We; Okay; Gray suggests that Ahtila is more self-aware than that–one only wishes that her critique of mass-media superficiality were more profound.