CATALOGUE - Mika Hannula. Accidents Waiting to Happen - Marko Mäetamm’s Loser’s Paradise. Estonian Exhibition at the 52nd Venice Biennial. Catalogue. Center for Contemporary Arts, 2007
What do we do when we do what we do? Well, it depends, obviously, on what we want to do and set out to do. Some of us want to be good, some of us bad, and there are even those of us who crave to be super-baaad.
What does Marko Mäetamm as an artist want to do? Quite simply, he wants to tell us stories. Not just any kind or type of stories, but stories that are not about this or that significant or spectacular act or event. Instead of magnificent highlights, he inhabits the area of in-between. He is interested in those everyday instances where everything seems to be so brilliant but at the same time they are sites and situations within which just a blink of an eye separates us from nightmares and disasters. It is about anticipation. He is, there no way around it, obsessed with accidents waiting to happen.
But what is the frame and context of his stories told by means of the practice of contemporary art? In one sense, it is the difference that takes place between ones expectations and experiences. On another level, it is about the suspicion and fear of what might be hidden or buried behind every neat and tidy surface and façade. And yes, the third essential element is the condition that the ongoing worrying causes. A condition labelled, with good reason, as a modern problem of dealing with daily anxieties, pressures and requirements. Thus, welcome to the Loser’s Paradise.
Let us start with focusing on the series of paintings called Bleeding Houses. It is a remarkable laconic series of carefully constructed and executed paintings of houses that look normal but are not. Like now you see, and now you don’t. These houses are bleeding – and sometimes they bleed to the maximum. Not just a little drop here and there, but a real flood that forms a proper red sea. These are houses that on purpose are drawn as correctly as possible. They describe a neutral structure that is anything but neutral.
Here we have, in practice, the game between expectations and experience. A game that is motivated by the distance of how close you are to the fire that burns – and how close you really want to get to that tickling notion which caught your interest. These are houses in motion, connected to emotions that spell failures, aggression and sadness. But they are, yet, just suggestions. This is not reality, this is a story. A sad but true and blue story. Mäetamm gives us hints of what, where and how something not so ordinary and pleasant might be happening. He knows that we are tempted to look further, but he also knows that we don’t want the real thing. We want to be voyeurs. We want the danger, but not the bite.
But these houses do bite. Not instantly and not openly, but with time and with precise cleverness. Houses that you recognize and houses that you and your family, friends and even enemies occupy. These are premises that are part of me, part of you, they are part of us. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. We face the thin line between love and hate, controllability and pure rage. We see it, we feel it and we sense it. With anxiety, agony and admiration.
But it certainly does make us look again – in the words of Gadamer (1994) – inviting us to participate in the process of tarrying in front of the image and the painting. We are stuck. Not in some la-la land of anywhere and everywhere, but in that condition generated in the position from which you watch and look. A position which is both time and place specific and which you can’t copy, but a position you want to and need to continuously return to.
Mäetamm seeks his inspiration and goes through his perspiration in and with these daily situations and circumstances that are constantly on the verge of tipping this or that side. A balancing act that is almost never dramatic, but more often as boring as it gets. It is about waiting. Waiting for the train of thought that might, and might not come and blow us away.
But what does he see when he sees himself as a part of his everyday surroundings? Well, what and how Mäetamm does reflect on reminds us of the story told of the Italian modern classic sculptor Giacometti. As we recall, Giacometti is famous for his long, thin and seemingly distorted human sculptures that made some of his critics wonder why he had to always depict humans so negatively and so awfully. A question to which the puzzled artist was only able to retort: I don’t twist and distort them, this is how I see them. And for me they are not ugly, they are beautiful.
Similarly, it seems that Mäetamm is stuck with his private and personal view and the unique but troubling version it produces. And here the emphasis must be placed on the word producing. Because that is what he does. He produces interpretations and versions of the daily life that are almost exactly but not quite what we are accustomed to. The main ingredient in the production is his awareness that he is stuck. It is a realization that both helps and hurts. Like that pop song from the days of youthful non-chalance of the misguided 80’s remind us: Should I Stay or Should I Go? A dilemma that sits comfortably in the core of Mäetamm’s way of dealing with a thing called reality.
Mäetamm acknowledges that he is asking for trouble. He knows this perfectly well, but then again, he can’t let it go. He wants to see what he sees. He wants to anticipate these accidents, these murders, these horrifying events. He wants to see the bad when others of us are reluctant to see anything but good or better. But what for? What’s the point?
Well, here comes the dirty and powerful trick inherent in his strategy. He gives us danger, and he serves us visions of ultimate failure. He lets us believe there is pain and demolition waiting around the next corner, but what he is really after is the opposite. It is the result of the condition of that condition where he cares too much, worries too much, sees too much and thinks too much. In a simple sense: he craves to be a good human being by flirting with disasters in a way that lures us to think again and to appreciate to the full that boring lovely normality of our daily lives we have, share and shape.
Let us focus on another example, and this time on the sculpture called Sandbox. An example that unravels the nuances of this attitude and strategy that has a linguistic counter-part in turning and using words into their opposite meanings. The French call it verlan, the productive and playful act of moving the last part of the word to the beginning of it. A play that most of us played when we were children, and a play that has been thematized strongly in critical theories of languages as performative acts (See, for example, Butler 1990). It is the act of turning the tables, making something look pleasant when it is terrible, showing something as worthless when it seems to be full of high moral integrity. A means which Bertolt Brecht (1967) called the act of alienation, an act of placing a theme or event out of its original context into a completely different one – and a one in which the content of that previously given symbol or act must be completely revisited and redefined.
It is an act that Michel Foucault labelled as eventualization. Let us quote Foucault (1987) on what he means by this concept: “It means making visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke historical constant, an immediate anthropological trait, or an obviousness that imposes itself uniformly on all.” (p. 104) Thus, the task is to highlight the things we take for granted and to go behind the claims that things are as they are because that’s how they have always been and there are no alternatives to their ways of being. It is to question, and to criticise. But not from somewhere outside the domain and site in question, but as an embedded self from within it. As a participant, as someone who truly knows he/she is part of the problem, part of the mess.
But what is the result in the case of Mäetamm’s Sandbox? Well, here we have the interplay between what we know a sandbox for children is built for and what its current function is. Thus, the intersection of what looks normal but turns out to be dysfunctional. A piece of furniture that almost makes it, but nevertheless falls down the stairs and becomes, well, a sick type of a furniture. But then we also have the specific connotation that Mäetamm sees in this box where he watches over his and his friends children playing. Admitting, it is not a nice thought he has. It can easily be seen as a weird kind of an interpretation, but not as in a dead-end of creating a one-way street of a spectacle to be bought, used and disposed off, but as in a worrying notion of what might happen – again seen in a productive sense.
It is the overlap between life and death. A symbolic interaction of give and take where when one gains force the other evades. A disposition underlined by the happy-go-lucky figure of a benevolent stork guarding over the playground with a hang-man’s noose dangling down as a proposition to do something that the parents would not allow. A temptation to see the similarities between the place where children dig holes in the sand and play with spades and the place to which in some cultures we are placed wearing a stiff wooden box once we have changed to a completely other paradigm of a site from the one in which we play and participate in our lives. Of course, Mäetamm is not only satisfied with the similarities between these two kinds of boxes that are filled with sand. He has to wonder what happens if the bottom of the children’s sandbox is all of sudden pulled away and that our sweet and tender lovely kiddies fall into the abyss of nothingness.
And yes, here comes the trick again. A double act that everyone of us recognizes. We know we should not fantasize about these kinds of brutal events, but then again, we do it. And yes, we enjoy it. The point with Mäetamm’s strategy is not that tremendously complicated. He just happens to be completely obsessed with these multiple cases of what if’s and he has the talent of telling these stories so that they become something else, something more than just a slight glimmering chance. In Mäetamm’s stories, the danger is very credibly there. It is a potentially active possibility.
But lets us pause for a second. Can you hear that music? Can you hear the same sound? It comes on to us, so strongly, so overwhelmingly, and it says with the voice of a man camouflaged in a much too big suit: Stop Making Sense.
A winding bumpy road from an album title of the Talking Heads and David Byrne’s movie True stories lead us straight to the work called Bear by Mäetamm. A work which is loyal to the main frame of his works by focusing on the potential transformation of an object and a setting. It is a work that has also again direct reference to children’s toys, this time taking its cue, in fact, from something that certainly raises expectations and associations: a zoo for children located in his hometown Tallinn.
With Bear, Mäetamm trusts the act of highlighting the blurry line between reality plus and reality minus. We see the strikingly bleak and neutral figure of an animated bear painted with pastel colours and cut into a shape that nobody can hurt themselves with it. But sure, at the same time, there is danger lurking in the children’s site. What is that strange tube leading out from the structure, a tube that ends in an even stranger orange bag? How is this possible? Who let this happen, asks the worried and angry parents, but they ask it when it is already too late. The light pink reality has become distorted with colours that we’d rather not recognize.
But when is the picture tilted? When does the cosy afternoon turn into a blood bath? It is a razor thin line which Mäetamm seeks to zigzag in such ways that the viewer is not always able to follow. A strategy that relies on the apparent but still fully constructed and manipulated simplicity of the work as an object, but a strategy that tickles our nerve to follow the cue how something safe all of a sudden turns into a nasty piece of a surprise. The point is, of course, for it to do what it wants to achieve as a challenging and enjoyable story, you will never actually know when it will happen. You do know something is about to change, but what, how and when will tackle you at the exact moment you expect it the least.
Thus, what’s going on here, you know, all these various ways of addressing the same issue, whether its via generating the elements of surprises, or whether its via the tactics of alienation, or just to fill in the list, by using the act of eventualization, Mäetamms’s works add up to a very coherent and constant way of working as an artist. This is not to say that everything he does fits into a carefully constructed box, but what I do claim is that there is something significantly common within, not behind, but within how each of the individual pieces in this particular case function. A common ground I would be ready to call the Conundrum of a Carnival. A concept, which will take a while to clarify.
We have two words: conundrum and carnival. And when put together, we have Conundrum of a Carnival. The first part refers to these works as riddles. They give you a hint, but that is always only a beginning of a beginning. There is much more going on than meets the first gaze. It is a conundrum, because there are no answers, no final curtain and no certainties. There is and will remain the ongoing process of how to see what you have seen and how to read the visual information you have been given. This is the more obvious part.
But why would it be a carnival? Well, what I see here reminds me of a carnival, because it pretty effectively does what traditionally any kind of a carnival does. It makes fun of something that is very serious and because it is so serious, it is normally rather hard to deal with and discuss. In other words, carnival is a means of addressing and confronting tragic issues and events that our lives are – unfortunately or not – filled with. There are millions of miseries, people get hurt all the time, wives leave their husbands and children’s bikes get stolen. And then people also die. They don’t come back, just like that. What was there is no longer there. All it took was just that second, that sudden alteration that did not cause a bang. But it certainly changed something.
A carnival creates an atmosphere of being able to keep healthy distance from these serious matters. The point is that we do not witness or confront a reverse phenomenon. It is a carnival that shakes the very taken for granted conditions of the site and situation, bringing in doubt and laughter (For a classical reference, see Bachtin 1979, and, for example, Zorin’s, 1998, interpretation). It is a very sophisticated psychological trick that is then manifested often in the most unsophisticated gestures during a carnival – no matter what kind of a carnival it is. It is based on exaggeration, and it follows the path of turning things upside down, making seemingly opposite views and phenomena’s look not that unlike each other. By turning the tables upside down, this act generates a site for freedom, for alternative ways of being and perceiving. It is the tactics of the underdog, the strategy of the one without the right cards and connections.
With Mäetamm, quite frankly, we have an exhibition as a platform for a very specific kind of a carnival. Mäetamm’s carnival does not reproduce the easiest route possible. He does not accentuate the works and their display by grotesque figures and extra loud noises out of ordinary settings. Mäetamm is what he is: a quiet, achingly normal white man crawling towards middle-age who perhaps would like to shout and scream but can’t bring himself to it. Instead, he is confused, afraid and worried. He barely manages to recollect the amount of complications his being in the world causes and produces. He feels like things are slipping, and he knows that somebody somewhere is laughing loudly at him. He so very much and so very heart-breakingly wants to do the right thing, but can’t get it together. He can’t succeed, he can’t have fun, and he can’t work.
Finally, let us again get back to the particularities, and let us focus on a work called Dream. It is a short story told by means of a text running down a video screen in which the artist (Mäetamm himself) ends up doing a horrible deed. He ends up exchanging all that is dear and important to him – his wife and kids – for a small but vital piece that gives him peace of mind. He is desperately looking for a way out of the anxieties, troubles, dilemmas, uncertainties and pressures that force him to retort to extreme acts. He does not do it, as the story line goes, himself, but he gives his approval for the act. He becomes a murderer. But, please pay attention, not someone with a knife in his hand, but as a man who made the decision. His hands are clean but his soul is sold. And it is sold for a price that turns everything that mattered to him into nothing. What’s left is the agony of the sweet and sour memories of a reality dead and gone.
And yes, this is a Conundrum of a Carnival. It is a carnival that materializes not in huge and wild gestures, but in the discursive site through which Mäetamm mixes the bag of horrors of all things that could possible and potentially go wrong. The set-up is on purpose polished, clean, tidy and controlled. All of which is there as a frame in order to let the inner chaos of the confusion expand and explode.
It is a deliberative act of humiliation. A proper and full-scale entity as in a Loser’s Paradise. An act that turns out to be a very special and even semi-perverse way of powerfully describing oneself out of a dead-corner, out of the seemingly no-win situation. The litanies of miseries, the setting of accidents waiting to happen we witness in the story serve the purpose of empowerment. These acts of failures –again, not real, but stories that are told and circulated, shared and shaken – use the back door. There is the act of pretending to follow the part of the megagigasuperduper loser who can only endlessly whine and complain, but by the sheer accuracy and openness of these acts Mäetamm, instead, is able to reroute himself into a partly unknown territory where the structural expectations and limitations are no longer a relevant hindrance.
It is an act that liberates. An act during which a loser turns out to be, not a winner, but a survivor. It opens up by the parasitic strange counter-act of pretending to be closing everything down. It finds its solace in the playful scenarios of over-blown miseries and problems, and it does it so that what comes out of it is something that can’t be controlled, administrated or turned into a wellness product.
It is a carnival of enjoyment that starts from the deep-seated understanding that as long as we play a game that is set-up, constructed, maintained and ruled by the ideas and values dominated by others, there is very little way we can succeed or win. We will always be the losers.
But what is, ultimately, the game here? It is, and what else could it be, about our ways of being in the world. It is about our daily life. Nothing more and not a single gram less. Call it what you want, but I do know you can feel it too. It is the current fundamentalist climate of market driven capitalistic societies that most of us are part of in which everything and anything is aggressively turned into a product that must be sold and stolen, bought and borrowed and, finally, not so elegantly recycled. A version of a reality that does not accept any other values or ways dealing with our realities. A totalitarian version that turns us from citizens to consumers with less and less political freedoms but more and more variation of the ways we can consume. A process during which we seemingly have voluntarily made it possible to be turned into disposable products ourselves.
In the end, yes, now, finally in the very end, at least I need to take a deep breath, and go for a long refreshing walk. But I will return. I do promise that. I will do more or less exactly as the protagonist in the story Dream does. A story that is told in order that it can be told again – and again. Repeated and then repeated once again some more. The story of a nightmare ends but only to begin again. It begins where it stopped, but not involuntarily and not passively. The act of repetition that shapes the needed security to hold on and to continue. What’s more, it is an act of repetition that can’t be controlled and which causes effects that goes beyond the pale.
An act that is so very dangerous because it can fill us with too much security that we refuse to get out of the cycle. Thus, we might become passive and phlegmatic, prisoners of our own miseries. But there is another way. Not a way out, but a way to stay there – and do something with this site and situation. To let that repetitive motion of emotions take you somewhere, and to take those sensations and that sensitivity with you. Inch by inch, one experience at a time, followed by others. Not the same experience, but similar enough, and not alone, but together – together generating and exploring the accidents waiting to happen that we want to happen.
Bachtin, M. Michail, Die Ästhetik des Wortes, ed. Rainer Grübel, Edition Suhrkamp 1979
Brecht, Bertolt, Schriften über Theater, Reclam, 1967
Butler, Judith, 1990, Gender Trouble, Routledge, 1990
Foucault, Michel, 1987, Questions of Method: An Interview with Michel Foucault, in After Philosophy, End or Transformation, eds. Baynes, Bohman & McCarthy, The MIT Press, 1987
Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Bildkunst und Wortkunst, in Was ist ein Bild?, ed. Boehm Gottfried, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1994
Zorin, Andrei, Contemporary Russian Culture and Bakhtin, in Stopping the Process? Contemporary views on art and exhibitions, ed. Mika Hannula, Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art 1998