Marko Mäetamm could be considered one of the most active and productive contemporary artists on the Estonian art scene. His creative career includes numerous international exhibitions, among others, the Venice Biennales of 2003 and 2007.
Mäetamm’s work is drenched in many styles and ideologies, and by combining their form and content reaches a rather unconventional outcome. Conceptualism, influenced by pop, crosses paths with existential philosophy, and through the artist’s filter, appreciating humour, the angst-ridden absurdity of existence finds its way into graphic art, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, video or even applied art infused with black humour.
It is difficult to find a topic that Mäetamm has not reflected upon: his range covers glimpses of the most ordinary and boring aspects of the lives of ‘the little men’, but also broader phenomena, such as religion or domestic violence. As usual, he tackles issues with a fair amount of irony. Throughout, Mäetamm’s work also carries an element of performance – the artist and his body, like a central station for perceiving the world, become the central figures, projecting his own feelings onto a greater scale. As he is fully aware that his view of the world is unavoidably subjective, the artist grotesquely combines his introspections with fiction. If we start speculating over the nature of humour, we must admit that one of the prevalent mechanisms in making jokes is exaggeration, a slight shift from reality that Henry Bergson defined as a mechanical rigidity in a place where one would want to find advertent elasticity and lively fluidity (1). An unconventional or absurd reaction to commonplace expectations creates a humorous situation. Alongside the grotesque, Mäetamm also applies atypical and even simulated sincerity. For example, the stories about his children, who take up all his time and energy and drive him mad and even to murder, are so far-flung from reality and a moral foundation that they could hardly be seen as tragic. Here, the function of humour reveals itself – to alleviate the negative emotions from the everyday drama and submerge them in laughter.
Most writers associate Mäetamm’s works with pop or neo-pop. Mäetamm himself has said that in the beginning of the 1990s, when he began his studies at the Estonian National Art Institute, he did not know anything about art and blamelessly reproduced everything that he found intriguing. That is why his early works display similarities with Gauguin or Toulouse-Lautrec. The artist has said that he was introduced to Pop Art almost haphazardly: “At the time, probably the only exchange student in our institute, from Germany, happened to see my picture “Jamaaha, Kavasaki and Honda taste an egg” during the assessments, and asked if I liked Pop Art. Not wanting to look stupid, I instantly nodded, to say I really do like it. (...) As everyone liked the picture, I tried to do something similar again and so, I somehow started to move towards Pop, subtly and haltingly.” (2)
At some point, the colourful happy paintings of hippies and simple pictures from everyday life became more minimalist in form and used a reduced palette (mainly black, white and red). The gleeful festivities culminated in existentialist contemplations on life, death and religion, and by the end of the 1990s, almost all Mäetamm’s works exhibited the angst of existence that can still be seen today. Although his works are always humorous, they are not fatuous. They do not compare to meaningless comedies that aside from a brief moment of laughter offer the viewer no thoughts or interesting views of the world. Mäetamm seems to continue the line of nihilism running from Stirner and Nietzsche.
Stirner is predominantly interested in saving individualism from crumbling under the oppression of God; Nietzsche ponders the question of whether it is possible to live without believing in anything (3) and Mäetamm is captivated by the mysteries of walking on water and the virgin birth, but overall, they all agree with the same principal, the absurdity of the situation.
Mäetamm does not seem to be an angry atheist, trying to kill a God that is already dead (and why would he, after all, he is a part of a society that is among the least religious in the world). Rather it could be said that the object of his sarcasm is religion as a broader structure, Christianity as the perfect brainwashing scheme (“The chemistry of the most successful advertising campaign in the world”). He is interested in human nature in the larger context – who is that creature, so easily manipulated, and yet ingenious and hyper-intelligent at the same time? What is the perfect human like in the first place? The answer can be found in the work “The chemistry of me – supernatural”.
In the new millennium, Mäetamm’s works have more layers – the ideas do not manifest themselves exclusively in pictures anymore but in text as well. In addition to painting, which until recently had dominated, printmaking has also become relevant. The stories have grown more violent and bloody, and the artist has begun to place himself as the object of his explorations – as houses, a half-brother, a medium and so on. Mäetamm changes the angle of his perspective in a way that he himself is put under scrutiny, yet, this is not quite so. The story is not told by the author, but by a character created by him. This conception embodies Roland Barthes’ tautological view of the author – the author is not a writer, the writer is not the author, language (or even text) is not an instrument but a structure, a forced substance, and reality is its pretext – so, the author can never describe the world. (4)
Experiments with his position as author take an interesting turn when, with Kaido Ole, the character John Smith, a German genetic engineer of Polish descent, is brought to life. The field of study in this man, who moved to Rapla at the end of the 1960s, is the genetic combination of an ordinary man, and his goal is to answer the question of what determines a person as someone belonging to the indistinguishable masses. To carry out his experiments attracting as little attention as possible, he disguises himself as an art teacher in a school and kindergarten, which was also where he found his first objects of study, ordinary mediocre boys, Marko and Kaido. Smith paints his “guinea pigs” and after several successful exhibitions, ends up at the 50th Venice Biennale.
A few years later (2007), Marko Mäetamm presented the exhibition “Loser’s Paradise” in the Estonian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The exhibition consisted of bleeding houses, sandboxes and a bear, personal confessions and a familial massacre where ugliness and beauty, happiness and misfortune blend into yin and yang, the primal principle of being.
The subject matter is sincere and personal, but undoubtedly reaches universal dimensions. Mäetamm is troubled by the eternal question of well-being – how to live good a life and how to find a mission in life. How to divide oneself between one’s art, work, family and mortgage, and how to achieve harmony so that everyone can be happy. He has reached a certain balance and flow of energy by transforming the tensions and the sickest and angriest fantasies into works that give off a diametrically opposite emotion – into pure comic art.
Mäetamm also seems to confirm the feminist slogan personal is political and proves that it applies to a much wider sphere. As a small cell in a larger organism, an individual carries the same DNA – the fractal principle applies. Artists are often revolutionaries and want to make a difference in the world, pointing out the stumbling blocks in society. A great part of Mäetamm’s work is humorously critical of society. He is interested in contemporary codes of ethics that are expressed in pop culture, in the everyday lives of simple people, in the ideals of beauty or in how people spend their free time, but he is also concerned with how customs influence relationships and through that, people’s psyche.
The series “Parisian Postcards” from 2011 perfectly reflects the mind-set of westerners. The aim of postcards is to give an adequate overview of a place – including its most important characteristics and sights. The image of a Parisian arc-de-triomphe hides the history and the victorious French military campaigns. Still, what is the message of the picture of a couple, loitering in a park in the city of lovers? It alludes, of course, to the immaterial part of the culture that exists nevertheless. Paris, as a metaphor for romance, offers Mäetamm the opportunity to delve into that part of human psychology concerned with the relationship between couples. The idyll of the couple seated on a park bench is ruined by the seemingly inseparable – love and a certain understanding of the aesthetic body. The woman snaps at the man: “I never knew you were so fat before you took your clothes off. I am extremely disappointed.” The advertising industry has shaped the way we think a perfect human and worthy partner should be and dictates with whom to breed to pass on our aesthetic genes. Facebook, or rather the ordinary people who equate real people with their image, is also criticized (“I visited your Facebook account today”). The clash of reality and ideals at the level of human relationships is one of the most important problems for Mäetamm (e.g. the series “30 Story”, 2010).
During the last decade, the core of Mäetamm’s work seems to be the phenomenon of people and their incredible ability to adapt to their surroundings (that become increasingly absurd). The works that are critical of religion from the late 1990s point to the same problem as do the later ones criticizing the media. God is replaced by television or the internet. The centre of it all is an ignorant human who believes anything that is said, and mechanically does everything that is expected of them. The only question is why are they doing that and being like that? If they acted differently, would the world be nicer and the people happier? The anatomy of the human soul is not yet completely understood and the discoveries about the nature of the subconscious have not provided complete gratification either. Potentially, Mäetamm is not looking for the answer to the impossible question, but is merely reflecting upon his surroundings, trying to create a shift in the rigid chain of TV-work-obligations and contemplating why everything is as it is and whether it could be different. And even if it cannot be, at least we should laugh at the absurdity of an existence that without laughter would be unbearable.
(1) Henri Bergson. Naer: essee koomika tähendusest. (Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic) Tallinn: Ilmamaa, 2009, p. 16.
(2) Marko Mäetamm. Marko Mäetamme loomingu kataloog. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, 2006, p. 1.
(3) Albert Camus. Mässav inimene. (The Rebel) Tallinn: Vagabund, 1996, pp. 97–102.
(4) Roland Barthes. Essay “Authors and writers” from Critical Essays. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1984, p.145.