I’m Only Streaming is the first solo exhibition in Latvia by the renowned Estonian artist Marko Mäetamm. It’s Saturday morning, and I leave my children with their father in the park two blocks from the Kim? Contemporary Art Centre. It is a chance for me to spend 15 minutes in the artist’s world of thoughts and ideas, instead of doing housework and being glued to my telephone.
But wandering among the vivid, large-format comics, installations and succinct statements, I feel I have entered a cast of my own inner world. It is as if my idle, disgraceful inner life has been turned inside out, and given a tangible shape. My ‘I’ circles around it like a bedazzled insect. I see myself in the drawings on the wall. I am the clucking wife in Going to the Cinema (2012), who pecks at her husband all the way to the cinema and back. The silence between us lasts for the whole 120 minutes of the film, during which we dive together into a reality created by another person. I recognise myself in the quotation ‘When our kids go to sleep then we usually have more time for each other. We take our computers or phones and start talking […] Then at one point we usually get tired of it, and we go to sleep’ (Usually, 2016). The speech bubbles saying ‘Answer me!!’, where only the number of exclamation marks changes, could be drawn next to my head (2016). This work ingeniously highlights the essence of quarrelling: the loneliness of exclamation marks when they appear in a passive-aggressive way on the smartphone in round white speech bubbles, the convulsive pain and impulses that reflect the desire to dispel the darkness of the unknown.
Mäetamm’s simple graphic metaphors are admirably rich, providing a synthesis of popular forms of expression and current topics in contemporary conversations. He represents an era that started with Pop Art, and stretches right up to today’s internet memes and layers of absurd irony. He depicts the media by taking a look at it from the outside, and letting it become a parody of itself. With his very grounded and illustrative depiction, he provides an honest illumination of the corridors of uncertainty in modern man’s inner world. Mäetamm’s cleverness is not the typical social criticism or vilification of today’s mass culture that is so often found in similar works; his approach has an ironic undertone, but instead of criticising and moralising, he displays an accepting attitude. It’s more mature: ‘This is terribly bad and wrong, but it is still the best we have.’
Mäetamm’s work can easily be recognised by its comic-style explosions, indicative of the generally accepted trivialisation of mass tragedies in the mass media, such as A Bigger Blast (2017) and Skyline of a City with an Enormous Blast (2016). A laconic ‘Babaah!’ is made as the strongest possible comment after an explosion in a world where commenting is the only form of action available. Mäetamm claims that his work is often inspired by the following thought: ‘My ideas often first appear verbally rather than as a visual image, they appear like a sentence someone said.’ His art is very readable, like most of the content on the internet. Therefore, it seems that Trump may have become his new source of inspiration, a comic figure, a president who communicates via Twitter, and whose cynicism is well suited to Mäetamm’s work. Trump is depicted in Book Donald (2016), one of the first works in the exhibition. In it, the artist feels the potential to write a book about Trump, but he decides not to, because he feels it is more important to ask the question ‘Who the hell is Donald Trump?’ Who is this evil dwarf, this hole of all evil, haunting us even in our dreams? Does Trump really embody all evil and stupidity?’
Instead of just expressing social-political criticism, Mäetamm looks for answers introspectively. Not in the outer world or in transcendence, but in the personal core, in family and intimate private life. He illustrates humanity’s sacred nucleus, highlighting its trivial, stagnant and unaired daily proceedings. Behind all the glossy information device interfaces hides a completely normal, non-eccentric, typical family model, characterised by comfortable dressing gowns, worn-out sofas, and a shaggy cat as the only moving being in a room where the humanoids are staring stony-faced into screens, occasionally lambasting themselves with thoughts about whether To Paint or to Masturbate? (2017). Such ordinary settings do not seem inspiring for the creation of so-called ‘high art’, but they are ideal for the creation of Mäetamm’s art. He is obsessed with people’s pointless quarrelling, their inability to live together, to get along, to bear each other. His source of inspiration is confinement: the cage constructed around us by oppressive traditions and social systems, the empirical dullness of human existence versus an imagined age of future visions. Mäetamm does not hide behind incomprehensible intellectualism. He places a family’s micro-misfortunes on the same level as global disasters, so close that the consumption of the media in our private spaces, and the instant availability of information, has created in us the illusion of being influential and important.
With the exhibition I’m Only Streaming, Mäetamm also contemplates how we experience art in an age drowning in information, where knowledge about global disasters arrives as colourful, infantile comic strips in neat, smooth application windows, in between adverts for household products, cat videos, and hundreds of other stirring things. He transforms this aesthetic into concentrated, monumental and technically precise works of art, among which the observer feels like a convivial reader of his/her own personalised timeline. I linger beside each work for a few seconds, enough to read it and feel a reaction. If I were a character in a drawing, a speech bubble would appear next to my head saying ‘Aaargh!’ or ‘Hee hee!’. Then I move on to the next exhibit. Browsing happily among them, I fully comprehend what the artist wants to communicate; there is no hidden ‘big unknown’ behind the works. I move from one vivid space to the next, and agree with it all. In each of the rooms, there is only one uncomfortable exhibit that I try to circumvent and ignore: full-size, realistic human sculptures, one crouching in a bird cage (Self Portrait in Cage, 2015), and a couple sitting on a sofa with paper bags over their heads (Untitled, 2015–2017). On a metaphorical level, these works were like a ‘ghost room’, created by a teen, but they startle me, and I try to avoid them, because of the unbearable dullness they portrayed.
Eventually, I come to an obstacle: next to the twinkling signboard Enjoy Knowing Nothing (2017) is a white door, slightly ajar. Although there are no other visitors around, I dare not look inside. ‘Better not go in,’ I tell myself. ‘The room might belong to technical personnel, and I might get caught.’ I do not want to disobey the rules for art. I choose not to learn the source of the grinding sound filling the room. I sit down like a coward on the sofa next to a plaster figure of the artist and his wife, and watch a cat video from the artist’s private collection: how the animal rages in the entrapment of a flat, eats his smelly, unappetising food, scratches some furniture occasionally, leans towards the camera (Cat Video, 2017). Then two teenagers enter the room, make a quick tour, and walk through the white door. I brace myself, and get up too. The answer is behind the door. What is hiding in the endless corridors of our subconscious? The crazy obsession with browsing. To keep one’s finger on the pulse of the world, without intruding.