This winter I lived most of the time in my studio instead of at home. I had said goodbye to my wife and kids, took my over-life-size suitcase and, catching the last tram, went to my studio. Somehow I felt very depressed but I didn’t really care, as the whole winter had been extraordinarily depressing for me.
My flight was very early in the morning. Or rather late at night. I had bought a yoghurt and one banana for breakfast but I couldn’t manage to eat any of it. I felt a kind of panic. I remember having a similar feeling when I went to London for six months in 2006. So I was sitting in my studio looking at my yoghurt and one banana and I felt like yuck. Later in the airplane, I became hungry of course and I couldn’t understand how I could be so stupid and not eat anything before.
It was total spring in Paris. Especially compared to the weather in Tallinn – cold, icy permafrost, and hills of frozen dirt.
Although my residence was just around the corner from Gare du Nord, I still managed to get lost. I took an incredibly long walk in my winter clothes and I was dripping sweat when I arrived. But that is very typical: I always get lost.
So I was wandering around with my huge bags containing everything I thought I would need for the next three months.
My room in Recollet was OK, kind of a live-work space. Nice cute attic room on the sixth floor, right under the roof. You could take an elevator or you could take a narrow round staircase. It had a strange ceiling: lots of massive brown wooden beams holding up the roof, and they looked really ancient. Later, I discovered that somebody had carved on one of them, counting days and weeks, and it made me a bit scared. Anyway, this labyrinth of beams became quite a problem for me at one point. They became like some kind of living organism above my head, able to influence my mind. In the end, I was almost having conversations with them.
At first I had no idea what to do in Paris. Or – I had one. I had started one series of pictures at home and now I thought I could just finish it. It was about a father who is a hunter and is hunting his wife and kids at home. My idea was to make 30 drawings altogether, similar to another series of drawings I had made earlier. I thought 30 drawings was a good idea.
I have two cameras. One is a litte older and not too good, and the other one is newer and it should be quite good. The smaller one is very handy and easy to use and it actually takes quite good pictures. But the bigger one makes much bigger files in case I want to print them out. So it is always difficult to decide which camera to use and therefore I keep carrying both of them with me. So I walked around the city every day – two cameras in my bag. And when I found something to take a picture of, I took a picture with both of them.
It was somewhere in a park the other day. I saw two people sitting very close to each other, like lovers, and talking. I was wondering what if it was not actually how it seemed. What if they were not even friends at all? What if there was something very serious and bad going on? We like to think of Paris as the city of love and romance, where people are supposed to have only a good time, where there is no place for sadness or other bad things. At this point, I started taking pictures of seemingly happy people in parks and creating different kinds of dialogues I imagined they might have. It became a set of works called Postcards from Paris, kind of antiromantic scenes of the life of Parisians. And so I walked through almost all the parks in Paris with my two cameras during one whole month.
Nights were somehow depressing in this room, with all the beams hanging above my head. Every evening I had many glasses of wine plus some beers if necessary to fall asleep and I never got up before noon. I had a gigantic chestnut tree outside my window which was in bloom in April and pigeons really liked these white flowers. So the first thing I saw each morning when I opened my eyes was the fat grey pigeons climbing on the tree and swallowing those beautiful white flowers. They were far too heavy for the branches and it didn’t seem at all normal to see them so high off the ground. But they were really clever and when I’d try to take a picture of them they’d immediately disappear into the foliage.
The winter before I left Tallinn was one of the most stressful and darkest I had ever had in my life, and I had picked up some strange stomach problem that rapidly got worse when I arrived in romantic Paris. I had an incredibly unpleasant feeling in my lower stomach and bowels and the only thing that made me feel better was keeping my body in a horizontal position. Paris of course would be the best place to die, especially in spring and especially for an Estonian artist. And I was thinking of all those stories of those Estonian artists who moved to Paris to get famous but ended up sleeping in the street and dying of tuberculosis or simply starving to death at the beginning of the last century. And my poor stomach only got worse. Eventually, I had to go to the doctor, although I tried to postpone it as long as I could. The doctor gave me some pills and asked if any of my relatives had died of intestinal tract cancer and I said that no one had. Later, it turned out that some really had, and that made my mood even more apocalyptic than it was before.
When my wife and kids came to see me, we visited all the places a proper tourist should visit in Paris. For me, the coolest place was Paris Disneyland. I had recently been to the opening of the Venice Biennale and was very surprised at how similar these two milieus were. Both had pavilions and enormous queues at doors and people standing patiently in these enormous queues to get a chance to have a bit of the magic hiding behind the pavilion walls. From the practical point of view, both places are completely pointless but totally monumental and expensive at the same time. The installations are ambitious, complex and obviously very expensive. And the organizers have managed to make us believe that we must come from however far and pay however much money just to have a chance to see it. Some installations in Paris Disneyland would easily fit in Venice and vice versa. But I really liked being in both of these places a lot.
Another time, at Monoprix, when I wanted to buy some food, my card was rejected. I had recently bought some expensive tickets with it and managed to exceed my monthly limit, although it was only the beginning of the month. I didn’t have any cash either so all I could do was just walk away.
As I was not feeling very well, at one point I didn’t really want to go out and hang around any more. I had of course walked all through the city many times by then. Plus I was jogging in the beginning so I had also jogged through the whole city more than once. So I decided to go on and work for the rest of the days I still had left. I started to animate one series of watercolour drawings I had made some time ago. I actually had already the idea to make an animation when I had made this set of works because I thought it would work better that way. But it turned out to be such time-consuming work! In the end, I had around 30 hours of footage and it took me almost four months to cut it all into a 21.30 minute piece of work when I was back in Tallinn.
I hardly left my attic room. Only to go to Monoprix for food and drinks or to the BHV superstore for some art supplies. And every Thursday a cleaning lady came.
I made a trip to London on the Eurostar train and on the way back I really panicked. All of a sudden, I started to think that I was on the wrong train and going to Brussels instead of Paris. When it was boarding I didn’t really follow the signs but just walked with the crowd and, as there were two trains departing at nearly the same time, one to Paris and one to Brussels, I was sure I had taken the one to Brussels. And nobody checked the tickets as I was already in the departure zone. So I was sitting on the train and watching the darkness outside the window and thinking about what I should do if I really arrived in Brussels in the middle of the night. I didn’t have enough money for a hotel and I didn’t have any really close friends there either. What a terrible situation! And I didn’t dare ask anybody, as it would have been too weird to ask in the middle of the journey where this Eurostar was going. I panicked more and more and I felt better only when I realized that we were really arriving in Paris.
Another day I saw a police raid on some guys who were selling small metal souvenir Eiffel Towers on the street. It was somewhere near the real Eiffel Tower, where most of them were wandering around with bundled up Eiffel Towers. The policemen were not dressed as policemen and they appeared from nowhere. It was such a mess; everybody started running. The police spotted one guy and they caught him when he was trying to run into the metro station. His huge bundle broke and the whole street was suddenly full of shiny Eiffel Towers. Terrible clatter and hundreds of tiny little shiny Eiffel Towers.
There was one shop at the end of Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis where a nice hippie was selling all sorts of beautiful stuff from India. I bought something for my wife from her, we had a conversation about different things and I said I was an artist and staying in a residence around the corner. She was curious about what kind of art I did and I gave her my homepage address. The next time I went to her shop to say hello, the hippie said she had been to my homepage and that now I scared her. Then she started talking about some artists she knew and what strange stuff they all did and we ended up with the idea that art is an interesting thing. Then she asked about my recent projects here during my residency and about my next projects, and in the end I bought some interesting things from India from her at half price.
When it was time to come home I couldn’t find a place to buy bubble wrap to pack my stuff. So in the end I walked into the India shop again and asked the hippie. She knew of course and said if I mentioned her name they would even give me a friendly price. The shop was just behind the corner and I didn’t understand why I hadn’t been able to find it myself. And I did tell them her name and they did give me a friendly price. In the end, I didn’t even need all of it so I decided to give the rest of the bubble wrap to the hippie because I was really grateful for her help. She was very grateful too and said “well, let’s do like they do in…” (she named some place but I can’t remember what it was…), and she gave me something very interesting from India in return.
On the last day of my residency, 30 June, I was sitting on my packed bags, waiting for someone to take over the room. I was not sure if I was happy or sad to leave and whether the three months was a good time or a bad time. I was drinking my last beer, looking at my chestnut tree through the window and thinking of the pigeons who had eaten all its flowers in April. Was that bad for the tree or was it just a normal thing? Then I looked at all the maze of ancient wooden beams above my head, and at my beautiful, clean and empty room…
Marko Mäetamm was Lauréat du programme de résidences internationales Ville de Paris / Institut francais aux Récollets in 2011.