The Annunciation | Eija-Liisa Ahtila | Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Past exhibition

Eija-Liisa Ahtila: The Annunciation

05.12.2016 - 08.28.2016

Eija-Liisa Ahtila (b. 1959, Hämeenlinna, Finland) shot The Annunciation (Marian Ilmestys, 2010) on the snowy Aulanko Nature Reserve in southern Finland during the winter of 2010. The installation consists of three projections that reenact a well-known passage in the Gospel of Luke (1:26–38) that narrates one of the most important themes in Christian iconography, which is also the central motifs of some of the earliest paintings to successfully use perspective.

This contemporary Annunciation explores the nature of miracles and the possibilities of perception and knowledge. The work consists of material produced during the preparations for shooting and an actual reconstruction of the event of the Annunciation. There is a clear contrast between the interior scenes, made to look like an artist's studio—where the set of the Annunciation reenactment was built—and the nature outside.

The underlying viewpoint in the Annunciation is the Estonian biologist Jacob von Uexküll’s  (1864–1944) idea that the different worlds of living beings all exist simultaneously. The idea is used as the approach for an exploration of the nature of miracles and the possibilities of perception and knowledge. In the work, the actors are engaged in a process of reconstructing the sacred and redefining the human through the divine and the animal.

All human actors except for two are non-professionals. Most of them are clients of the Helsinki Deaconess Institute’s women’s support services. The animal actors are a trained raven, two ordinary donkeys and a group of carrier pigeons from a bird farm. Although based on an existing script, the events, roles and dialogue were adapted during the filming process to the actors’ individual presence.

The first part of the work is shot in a matter-of-fact documentary style with digital cameras. A diverse group of women prepare to stage the moment of the Annunciation representing the event when the Archangel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will be impregnated by God. Before the final scene we see the test flight of the Archangel and how the women discuss the various roles they have been assigned. The woman playing the part of Mary learns how to ride a donkey and what,  according to the paintings, have been the different reactions of Mary when she meets the angel. In the final enactment of all their rehearsals, which is shot in 35mm film, the Angel glides across a beautiful garden and through a glass window into the real space of the actors – a moment of angelic intrusion into the ordinary world.

The piece ends with an idyllic image of the young woman cast in the role of the Virgin Mary—no longer garbed in the bright blue we associate with Renaissance Madonnas—accompanied by a donkey, while Townes Van Zandt's song “No Place to Fall” plays in the background.


Eija-Liisa Ahtila
The Annunciation - Marian Ilmestys, 2010
Three-channel projected installation, 28 min., 25 sec.
DD5.1 sound, original in Finnish with English subtitles.
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris, London