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Ten commandments and one big wall full of cries for help

Valner Valme (4/2022)

Valner Valme reviews Marko Mäetamm’s solo exhibition "The Ten Commandments".

 

28. IX–17. XI 2022
Riigikogu Exhibition Hall
Exhibitions at Toompea Castle are made in cooperation between the Estonian Artists' Association and the Chancellery of the Riigikogu
Curator: Elin Kard


Marko Mäetamm's series "The Ten Commandments" (1996) is perfect for the Riigikogu. The Parliament of the Republic of Estonia currently includes a party that imports messages from Vladimir Putin, a party that stands out for its high level of corrupt people and criminals, and in fact: whichever one of these five parties is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone... Not that they don't already do that; thankfully, it is mostly at each other, although the people sometimes also take a hit.

Fortunately, Estonians can enjoy free elections, democracy and a country of their own. This blessing (and burden) has not been granted to all people everywhere. Democracy is also the theme of Mäetamm's cautionary exhibition. I'm not about to lay down a political chart detailing which member of which political party has violated which of the ten commandments, but the idea of the exhibition is sown in fertile soil: politicians, as the election draws nearer, remind yourselves what you should do!

 

 

 

Marko Mäetamm
The Ten Commandments
1996
acrylic on plexiglass, each 150 x 130 cm
Photo by Stanislav Stepashko
Courtesy of the artist

 

 

 

Not that I believe that politicians would learn much from Mäetamm's works. Can you picture the kinds of election posters his show (or rather the Bible) would inspire? I present to you a selection of hypothetical slogans (with comments in brackets):

"Thou shalt have no other gods before [insert party leader's name]!"; "Thou shalt not commit adultery!" (Unless it's an electoral alliance?); "Thou shalt not steal!" (Unless you don't get caught?); "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house or wife!" (It's all common resources, right?); "Remember the sabbath day!" (Just keep the lights off one day a week and we'll get to the welfare state in no time.)

I made several circles between these pillars, and with each one, I was more and more convinced: the poster-art neo-pop of the nineties is the best match for the Riigikogu. Mäetamm's acrylics-on-plexiglass paintings should be on permanent display in our national stronghold. His particular social critical narrative, on the one hand, and his universalising seriality, on the other, work so well in this environment you would think it was made for this space in the first place.

While we may consider ourselves immune to advertising, we still end up buying well-known products, blindly trusting the names we hear thrown around. Through a similar process, Mäetamm's display of the ten commandments will haunt state representatives. The black "Death Eater" figures hovering over the white background have both a dark and amusing vibe to them and convey the commandments clearly, but also put a twist on them. The caricatures become signs, traffic signs: go there, drive forward, slow down, stop, etc.

The nineties, the decade this series by Mäetamm dates from, is a time you often hear people long for: ah, those were the days! Yet this is a decade often also associated with gangs and villains! Dynamic expression was predominant in art as well, with a new cultural explosion happening every third exhibition opening (often in a performative form). Or then a spontaneous performance would break out, fuelled by the colourful crowd that had gathered and the quantities of horrible wine flowing in these events – a real bohemian rhapsody.

Meanwhile, members of parliament were putting in night hours at Toompea Castle, binding Estonia to the West one knot at a time. I'm far from putting 1990s Estonian politics on a pedestal, since this was the time when money was distributed unjustly in society, when cowboy capitalism ran over corpses and when everything was done too haphazardly... But it is true that back then, people at least had some ideals. While these may not have been the ten commandments, there was a desire to break out from a closed society, to be free and open and to do everything that had been impossible under the Soviet Union. It was a creative time, also in politics (as politics reflects society).

Now people talk about the polarisation of society, forgetting that the rifts run criss-cross, and there are more than two banks above the chasm over which the hostile camps are posting insults at each other. In recent years, the term "politics" has often been replaced with the expression "party war". That was, until Russia attacked the Ukrainian capital.

Apparently, something so catastrophic had to happen in order for Estonian parties to rediscover Europe, to start seeking a unified narrative. Together, they pressed a button in the Riigikogu that said "Russia is a terrorist state". And yet we are still hearing stories about how the Ukrainians are coming here to take over, about the powerful Putin and other petty tales told by old reactionaries...

This is when Mäetamm comes in and reminds those sitting in Toompea of the basic truths about respecting life and one's neighbour, among other "worn out" moral standpoints. He does this in his own language: through pop, though not through populism. Mäetamm's interpretations of the ten commandments do not speak to the so-called ordinary people who politicians love so much and whose concerns they underestimate; rather, they speak to those in the vanguard. Truths are laid down in black and white, but not in a way that is one-dimensional, thanks to the red line passing through the series.

Another interpretation would be that the artist has called off the orders he gave, using the red line to cross out all art and artistic truth. Here as well, the artist was ahead of his time: the topic of cancelling is more relevant in 2022 than it ever was back in 1996, when everything was allowed (including sexism, machismo, and other sickening forms of oppression).

Is it the commandment that is revoked, or the prohibition? That depends. The question is a semiotic one. If a traffic sign shows a left turn crossed out in red, that means you can't turn left. If a painting says, "Be true to your husband or wife", and this is crossed out, does that mean you should not be faithful?

This is how we reach the level of corruption that describes the minds in the Riigikogu. Laws may be written in black and white, but everything is ultimately a matter of interpretation. What matters in the end... are the votes!

We are all in the same bubble, no matter what we do with the red lines in the paintings: the commandments and prohibitions are contingent on each other. Mäetamm amplifies these signs of commandments and prohibitions to the point of the grotesque, highlighting the accents that usually go unnoticed, fading into the noise of everyday life.

The second part of the exhibition, the series "Dying Man" (2018), which has never before been shown in Estonia, matches both the themes and the aesthetic of "The Ten Commandments". On the wall of the Riigikogu, the artist cries out: "Help!" His call lingers in the air, until a voice from the darkness answers: "Shut up!" While creatives are capable of making art in a freezing attic somewhere, there comes a point in a democratic society where the state apparatus recognises: a) that the artist is also a person; and b) that without culture, there is no country.

 

Valner Valme is an arts journalist and columnist. He is the culture editor for Edasi.org and the web editor for SA Kultuurileht. He also hosts radio programmes.

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