CRITIQUE - Johannes Saar. CV and WC Dilemmas. KUNST.EE 2013, 2, 58-60
Johannes Saar analyses the latest work by Marko Mäetamm.
In hindsight, the title of Marko Mäetamm's spring two-part exhibition "Painting and Waiting" at Hobusepea and Draakon Galleries could be an anagram of something else. In Estonian Maalimine ja ootamine does not sound especially enticing, and for years now Mäetamm has been living and working with his sights on the Anglo-American world, so Estonian phonetics are irrelevant here.
However, the words "painting" and "waiting" create a nice assonantal pair, and the fact that the part that suggests creativity – "painting" – can easily be broken down to become "pain thing" forms a very logical partner to "waiting", which by nature is not a productive or freely creative activity, but relates more to the empty passing of time in an imposed situation.
Endeavouring to bring Mäetamm back into a discourse in the Estonian language, we could firstly identify him as some- one "languishing in prison", whose tiny world is like a "valley of woe, where one eventually dies and becomes one with the earth". As we know, the plot in Mäetamm's pictures has for years encouraged this line of thinking. A tormented family man, whose dire situation is the result of the unavoidable and everyday presence of reality; to be precise, the incompatibility of reality with the father's vision of a free and creative modus vivendi, an ideal and even romantic image of some higherÜberweltwhere "poetry can flow freely". Indeed, Marko Mäetamm belongs to that generation, already a little old-fashioned, with its dichotomous world view for whom life unfolds as a conflict between idealism and reality. Since the ideal simply does not want to be realised on earth, he has plenty of reason to pronounce, with a single nihilist stroke, all earthly life today as meaningless and ripe for destruction, since after all it is "nothing" – if we are to believe one of Mäetamm's earlier comic strip paintings "The Chemistry of a Situation "If I Was God"" (1998).
The fact that Mäetamm is not God or theÜbermenschdoes not mean he cannot rebel against the world from God's point of view or do God's work on earth, or at the very least rebel against the most everyday aspects of life on earth. His own "Jesus-positive" problem is that as a world improver he is also part of the "nothing" and also destined for destruction... What would the family man, running in his everyday hamster wheel, do if he ever reached theÜberwelt? Look for a new wheel?
Maybe we could claim that the fundamental rebellion against our preordained role in society is the foundation for Mäetamm's art practice, but this would be superficial. Mäetamm goes further. As a self-proclaimed servant of God relentlessly chipping away at his own position as artist and family man, he turns the arrows of criticism towards social ways of thinking that purport the opinion that social roles, father and artist included, are given by nature and not open to debate, much like mortgage repayments.
With false humility Mäetamm assumes the prescribed social roles and asks logically correct questions of his family to highlight their stereotypical, theatrical and artificial foundations. He asks his partner if she really needs to shave her legs, while he, Mäetamm, is sitting on the toilet ("Legs", 2013). In the end his partner presents an equally balanced enquiry by questioning whether Mäetamm needs to sit on the toilet precisely when she wants to shave her legs. This is a palindrome, a phrase that reads the same backward or forward, of the ilk of "A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!", which contains issues of the canonized idealized beauty (the woman shaving her legs as if in response to the man's demand for beauty), the impossibility of harmonious family life (the bathroom as the "pit stop" for the regular servicing of a marriage, and into which it is not possible to model accepted family values) and the uncomfortable marriage between culture and nature (the man talks accusingly about beauty and tact, while sitting on the toilet; the aim is hair removal – a step towards the cultural sublime and defecation – the unavoidable urge of nature) not to mention the imbalanced power relationship between the man and the woman.
Mäetamm models various moral and aesthetic values as an awkward conflict. He places his own alter ego at the epicentre and then walks away. We note that Mäetamm is perpetually "under refurbishment" and is constantly enquiring about the workings of his own actions. He takes apart his own limbs and thought patterns and puts them back to together again, ending up in an ever deepening moral mess – which appar- ently is the aim. To quote Emil Mihai Cioran, "The fault of any salvation teaching is that it destroys poetry, the aura of unfinishability. The poet would betray himself if he tried to save his soul: salvation is the end of the song and the death of the spirit. /.../ We can cultivate our pains, tend them like a gardener, but how can we become free from them without losing our foot- ing?" (A Short History of Decay, first pub 1949.)
So, Mäetamm time and again steps into the noose to tend to his garden of hurt, to expose his existentialist entanglements and draw pathetically funny caricatures of them. Their light- hearted comic strip form suggests what happens at the end of the CV – eternity turns the page to see what else is happening in the world.
Johannes Saar, art historian and critic.