Marko Mäetamm is a multimedia artist, who works within the mediums of video, photography, drawing, painting and the Internet. Over the past 2 decades, Marko has established himself as an original and provocative artist, and his work has been exhibited across Europe.
Born in South Estonia, Mäetamm ‘grew up without any artistic influences,’ and did not consider becoming an artist until he was 18.
‘The first time I thought doing something creative was through this friend, who was a great fan of Prog Rock and Heavy Metal,’ Marko explains. ‘And the first time I felt I really wanted to do something visual or artistic was when I was looking at the these Heavy Metal and Prog Rock album sleeves at his place.
‘This was at the beginning of the 1980s, when Estonia was part of Soviet Union and you couldn’t legally buy any Western music in stores. It was all smuggled in somehow, so you had to know people who knew people who knew other people to get access to original albums of any kind of Western music. It was more common to share tape-recorded copies of the albums rather than to have the original vinyl.
‘So, my first “serious drawings” were copies of all of these album covers and bands.’
Marko jokes that these were ‘terribly bad drawings,’ but it was still enough to inspire his interest, and after 2 compulsory years in the Soviet Army, he studied study printmaking at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn.
‘It was still the end of Soviet regime, so we didn’t get much information of what was happening in the world of contemporary art. My first influences were all these great modern artists we had to study—Rousseau, Matisse, Chagall, Picasso and so on. That was until I discovered Pop Art, at the end of my studies, and got really into it.
‘This was all happening around the same time the new wave of Young British Artists jumped on the stage, but then nobody was talking about it in Estonia. So it shows you how huge a gap there was between the art here in Estonia, and international art. It took the whole 90-s to cover this gap.’
Dangerous Minds: How would you describe yourself as an artist and how would you describe your art?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘It is always difficult to describe yourself. It is kind of a tricky thing. We never see ourselves the way like the other people do, even when we look in the mirror we actually see our image in a mirror – the eye that we think is our right eye is actually our left eye for other people and so on. And our voice we hear coming from inside us is totally different from the voice other people hear us talking with.
‘But to try to say something - I think I am quite obsessed by my work and I probably need it to keep myself in balance. I say, “I think” because I do think that it might be like that, I don’t really know. And I think that I may not function as good if I didn’t have that channel – art, to communicate with the world. I have come to recognize this by thinking of my own projects during my career. And how my ideas change. People have asked me if I have a therapeutic relationship with my work, and I have always answered that it is absolutely possible. But I really don’t know and I don’t even know if I would need to know it. I don’t know if that would make my work better.’
DM: Can you talk about some of your projects? For example, ‘Postcards from Paris’?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘I was in artist-in-residency in Paris for 3 months in spring 2011. When I arrived there in the beginning of April, I fell in to some sort of depressive mood. At that time, I also had some difficulties in my life that made me to feel myself very much like I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t focus on anything.
‘To get myself out of this, I started to do long walks around the city. I went out early in the morning and came back late in the evening when it was already dark. I was just wandering around without any purpose. At one point during one of my walks, I noticed a couple sitting somewhere in a park. Of course, people were sitting everywhere, all the time, but I just noticed this one couple. I really don’t know why they made me stop and look at them, but I did.
‘So, I was standing there, looking at them and thinking what could they be talking about at that very moment. I took a picture of them. And immediately, I got the idea of taking pictures of people in all these beautiful parks and creating dialogues between them. Or, making up their thoughts.
‘I hated the idea of Paris as the “City of Love and Romance” and I wanted to show the opposite side of it. Sad and depressed people, together in the middle of beautiful, romantic Paris, with all their troubles and worries and fears and broken relationships. I wanted to show Paris, how it was for me at this moment.’
DM: What about ‘Power Games on Plates’?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘Many of my works are talking about domestic violence. This is the most terrible type of violence for me as it happens in the place that should actually be the safest place on earth – our home. And this violence is caused by people, who we are supposed to trust most.
‘As an artist I don’t really know what else to do but just to talk about these things. I am not a social worker and I don’t have a power to stop domestic violence but I can keep up the topic with my work. At least this is what I can do.’
Marko Mäetamm: ‘In this particular series called Power Games I tried to give a chance to every family member to terrorize the others but also to be the victim. So I tried to bring a little bit of democracy to this violence so it would not be just like one person, mostly a husband, who is terrorizing his wife and kids, but the wife and kids can also have a chance. Democratic domestic violence! I was using snap shots from my own family album, mostly taken in some picnics, to generate these drawings.
‘Later I decided to print these images on plates just to have a stronger relationship to “domestic.”’
DM: You looked at your own family with ‘Another Day With My Family’ can you tell me about that?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘This came from the idea to record our daily family life at home so that my wife and kids would not notice it. And I think that this idea was strongly related to the fact that I had just bought my first video camera. So, I installed the camera in the corner and kept it there for days to get people used to it. Sometimes I turned it on and then I turned it off again. My wife doesn’t like being filmed and the kids start acting differently when they are in front of the camera so, I really wanted them to forget the presence of the camera in the corner. And in the end, they really didn’t mind anymore and they never cared if it was recording or not. But I didn’t really have any idea what to do with all this footage…
‘Around about the same time, I wrote this text. It was actually inspired by what my friend, also an artist, had said about how he feels about his family. It was something like: “I always hate it when they are around because then I am not able to think and work. But when they are not around I always miss them”.
‘When he said that I felt it was very similar to my own life and feelings about my family. Although it didn’t make me feel very happy I still had to admit that I had had very similar thoughts. We all want to be good and to care about our dearest ones 24/7 but it is not always that simple.
‘So the fact that my friend had told me about his thoughts about his family, made me think about my own family and this made me just to write this text Another Day With My Family.
‘Now, I had two things – this honest yet very pessimistic text and the footage of my family, and at one point I decided to combine these two elements in one video. I thought that they would really work together.’
DM: Our relationships with each is one theme of your work. What was the thinking behind ‘Ants’?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘The story with Ants is a strange one. Somebody asked me to decorate his racecar for one event. I hadn’t done anything like that before so, I wanted to create the image that would be original but not to difficult to replicate, one that would be easy to put onto the car. Also, I didn’t want to just make a nice pattern, I wanted it to be my kind of thing, something that reflected my interests and work. Then I remembered one image I had done years ago – a view of Tallinn from above with small people running around, and I decided to make a new version of this.
‘For me the idea of these colorful drawings of people killing each other in streets links very much to contemporary globalization where we, no matter how much we try, still can’t seem to tolerate each other’s differences on so many levels. We say nice words about the European Union or tolerating minorities but how we all act is something completely different. Why is this? That’s the idea in Ants.
‘In the race car the image worked quite well, too – from a distance it was just a beautiful colorful landscape but then, when you look more closely you see what is really going on. Like in real life.
‘I have some works which I feel very important for developing my work in general. They are kind of landmarks for me. And some works are more like filling gaps between these landmarks. I don’t know how it looks from outside, I’m sure it looks different. One very significant work for myself is definitely the video No Title which strongly shook my understanding about myself as an artist and how I should progress.
DM: What happened?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘Some years ago I was teaching drawing in Estonian Academy of Arts just to get some regular income. But the money was very poor and we couldn’t even afford to move out from my wife’s parents’ flat. We just had our first baby so it was a difficult time.
‘One day the Rector of our Academy called me and said he wanted me to take up a dean’s post in the Department of Fine Arts. He also said he wanted me to make a lot of changes in the department as the whole study system had to be changed following some new European regulations.
‘Normally, I would have never said “yes” to this job as I didn’t have any experience in managing something like this. And to be honest, I never had any great interest or ambition in doing something like this. But I felt it was the only chance to get better conditions for my family as the salary was 10-times more than what I was earning. So, I decided to say “yes.”
‘Well, that got me to a vicious circle—I went to a bank and took a bank loan for 25 years and we bought a flat, I had a full time job and I really didn’t know how to do what I was supposed to be doing. I practically didn’t have time to go to my studio anymore, and if I had then I felt guilty because it was time I should have been spending with my family instead. My friends kept saying to me that I had made a big mistake in taking this bloody job and that now I really had to say “good bye” to my artistic career.
‘I felt like I was in a deep shit. My head was full of worries about my job, about my family, about my future life and about having a bloody bank loan for 25 years.
‘Then one night I had a very vivid dream in which I met a scientist who offered me a way out of this struggle by bringing my wife and kid to him and he could make them disappear. So, I will get my freedom back to start making my art again. This dream was very realistic and very detailed. When I woke-up, I was completely horrified. Horrified at myself because I knew it was my own bloody subconscious, which was deliberately working in full tilt when I was asleep. I felt like I had reached the darkest corner of my own mind, the alien’s nest full of cocoons of horrific creatures waiting for their time to get ready to do their terrible deeds.’
Marko Mäetamm: ‘But then I thought about the dream, and despite my own horror, I knew I had to make a piece of art about this dream. I was convinced that this would change my life and my career. I suddenly understood that this is exactly what I must talk about as an artist—about my personal struggle and about all these problems I couldn’t get out of my head. I knew that so far as an artist I had been just playing around with ideas that were actually no importance at all.
‘And that’s when I made this video No Title, and I showed it in my solo project in Estonian Pavilion in Venice Biennale in 2007 together with four other works. And since then I have been working with all sort of domestic things about my family life that is all more-or-less driven by events in my personal daily life.
‘No Title was a very direct result of this dream and it really helped me to find my artistic content. It is an endless source. I really think I wouldn’t be where I am now without that terrifying dream years and years ago.’
DM: Can you talk more about your inspiration—what else inspires you? What starts an idea off?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘As I’ve already said–-it is pretty much my own life and all that comes with it. The idea has to have some connection with me, otherwise I don’t really see any need to produce it.
‘Of course, I could make up stories out of the blue, just using fantasy and imagination but why on earth should I do that if it has nothing to do with my own personal experience?
‘If the work is based on personal experience, it is like keeping your feet on solid ground. It gives a sort of credibility to your work and you can always say: “I know what I am talking because I have been through it.” At least this is how it works for me.
‘It is always hard to tell where the ideas come from because you only notice them when they have already arrived. You just need to keep your antennas tuned on what is going on with you, and around you. And then it happens. It can be anything. It could be some word somebody has said to me, some conversation, an argument my with wife, some article in the newspaper, some emotion, some movie, or some lyrics—I listen a lot of music and it often happens that some lyrics works as a trigger for me. But I have recognized that I am more productive when I am not in a very positive mode. I need to have some problem or something troubling in my life to create something. (That makes me to think that I must have very disturbing life as I have been quite productive so far…..)’
DM: How important is humor to you?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘I had a great problem with humor at the very beginning of my career. People always found my works funny and I didn’t like it at all because I really wanted to be serious. At one point, I started to realize that there was no way out of it. Even if some single work was quite serious, the whole thing still looked somehow funny in the end. It was a pointless to fight it and then I started not to bother for it anymore.
‘But I have never really had any attempt to accommodate humor in my work, it just appears there somehow. Or, maybe it’s just what is not funny for me is funny for many other people and vice versa. An Estonian art critic once said about me that I have a very bad taste and a very bad sense of humor and this is what helps me to create these works. Who knows? Maybe it’s true.
‘But in the end I am very happy about the humor in my work as I see how it really helps people to deal with all these different themes, some dark, that I touch on in my work. And it means I don’t have to spend time making my work humorous, it’s just there and comes out like that. And I can just take care of the other side.’
DM: What are you working on just now?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘I just recently took down my last project which I exhibited in 2 galleries in Tallinn. Large, about 3metres x 2 meters, comics paintings on canvas. Last summer I suddenly felt I needed some change what I had been doing and exhibiting for years—cross media installations with all different elements in it like animation, three dimensional objects, photography, painting, text. I felt that I needed a little break and just concentrate on one thing. So, I decided to spend my winter in my studio in Tallinn and just paint.
‘Talking about comics - people have often said to me that my works are very graphic in style and why haven’t started drawing comics or graphic novels. But them in a way, I do—my works use narrative, and there’s a lot of text, and I make quite comics-like animations.
‘Presently, I am working on some stories which I wanted to animate but I haven’t yet found the best way how to do it. But it is a good time to take the plunge and actually make my first, very own, real comics in my life. (Of course, it will all be about miserable and neurotic family life – something that I think I know best!)
‘Now, I am working on some new ideas, some of them will be again with comics and some of them I am planning to do in animation. And, I am writing short stories, which I hope will come out as a book at some point.’
DM: Which works are you most proud of?
Marko Mäetamm: ‘I think my work is quite eclectic considering to some other artist. I often need to change the medium to feel myself fresh and awake, so it is quite difficult to compare my projects done in different times. At the same time all these different works and projects are strongly connected, growing out from each other so they have been all equally important for me. There are definitely some works which are my favorites but probably more because of the process of making them, not that much of the works themselves.’
See more of Marko Mäetamm’s work here.