Jaan Toomik - Beyond Classification

The art of Jaan Toomik calls for the contemplation of the parameters of art, which in spite of their distinctness, seem to be consisting of contradictions and polarities, such as manifest in the problems of the personalness of the artist's subject, his contemporaneity and the media he uses. Considering Toomik's art in the light of these concepts, we notice how the meanings of the concepts start to fade. We also notice how ridiculous and hopeless is our desire to solve the mysteries and disclose the covert aspects of the nature of the artist. Not reaching the essential, we are left floating on the surface of a flux of words.

These parameters of art appear, as a rule, together with their negations, their opposites: individuality with collectivity, contemporaneity with timelessness and media in connection with both of the aforementioned. Media seems to belong to an altogether other category of concepts, nevertheless it is closely connected to the parameters of personalness-collectivity and contemporaneity-timelessness. The artistic media comes in question when we consider the extent to which it determines what the artist says. In the case of Toomik, a surprising conclusion might be drawn: his art is/is not contemporary, the media he employs determine/do not determine the message of his works.

Jaan Toomik does not fit into a box, he is difficult to package. Nevertheless, he has experienced considerable international success. In spite of the narrowness of containers and the unreliability of transporting firms he is well transportable.

The personalness of Toomik's works, their connectedness with his personal experiences, is as visible as it is questionable. He dissolves himself in his works only to find himself again through the eyes of the spectator and the interpreter. In his video installation "Way to São Paulo" the spectator sees in the end of a long corridor a projection of a shiny floating cube which reflects its surroundings as it had reflected the spectator if he would stand closer to it. Here, two implements of narcissism, video and mirror, are put into use, while the physical presence of the artist, any introspective reflection of faces and bodies, is being avoided. Instead of the reflection of a body, the personality of the artist, his person from birth until the completion of the piece of art, becomes apparent both in the title of the work and in the axis Tartu-Praha-São Paulo, the places where the cube was floated. These places form a straight line, a line of fate that connects the continents with the mortal body. All this is not immediately visible, yet it is there. As linear, infinite mutual reflections of mirrors and the images of the cube. It would be to the point here, to mention that Tartu is Jaan Toomik's native town.

At the 1995 Saaremaa Biennial Jaan Toomik projected on the moat of the local medieval citadel images of pond water and ocean waves. Here, the slightly masochistic introspection typical to Estonians, which on this occasion is manifest in the contrast between the waves of the "big world" and the stagnant water and badly smelling vegetation of the periphery, is not most important. The work is not a depressive investigation of the sooty ceiling of a peasant cottage, under which the dwellers stoop for so long that they are no longer able to draw themselves up even under the open sky. Under this ceiling they spend most of their lives; their beds are so short that they can only lie in them crooked and hooked. Even when out in the open air, they are apt to conceive that the low grey carpet of clouds is a solid ceiling under which one has to crouch so as not to strike one's head against it. Such pictures of gloomy, economically depressed compatriots rise before our eyes as we attempt to reach the core of Toomik's work in the light of our national property - the autumn and winter depression.

However, it seems that from the aspect of the artist, this approach, being too self-evident, is not very productive. The valence, if there is such at all, is rather the opposite: an ambition directed elsewhere, toward the conquering of something great and elevating oneself and pond water into ocean fluid. With this comparison, Toomik is rather probing himself than affording any explicit answers or standpoints so much wanted by his compatriots. Artists are often harnessed to the cartload of national self-consciousness, expected to be responsible for something and to bear obligations, which, according to unwritten laws, they, as the representatives and speakers on behalf of the others, are supposed to take upon themselves. Toomik does not let himself be touched by all this, yet he remains watchful of criticism, which often proves to be mere repetition of his earlier portrayals.

You ask, what he is like now, moving from exhibition to exhibition, watching from the window of an aeroplane land drawing either nearer or moving further away, where there are new conditions, curators, colleagues and acquaintances? If he would only know it himself. Perhaps he has a plan, a schedule: arriving-departing, accommodations, addresses, or a fax, or a memory of an encounter that took place years ago and which is the only thread that leads through the labyrinth...

Video installation "Dancing Home", exhibited at ARS '95 in Helsinki, is the recording of Toomik's experience of the mystery of arriving-departing; typically of Toomik it is done in an introversive manner. It was an autumn day when he sailed from Hiiumaa to Rohuküla, depressed and tormented by some inner problems. He was looking at the sea and felt the monotounous sound of the ship carrying him away. Suddenly he noticed that the sound of the motor starts to have an effect on him and something in him is beginning to resound in tune with it. Unexpectedly even to himself, he started to dance and found all his earlier problems and distresses disappearing. He felt one with the sound. His distinctness from other people started to decrease and he attained an unusual feeling of freedom. This was a good enough reason to realise the work.

"Dancing Home" was exhibited in Helsinki passangers' port, not in traditional exhibition halls. The "outsideness" and intermediate position of the work goes surprisingly well together with travelling, the constant changing of places - also an intermediate state of being. In this state we often come face to face with ourselves. While travelling, we are free from the social relations and the chain of relationships that surround us in our habituary environment.

The "liberating dance" of this installation is a primeval behaviour, in which the patterns of social behaviour are being abandoned and one returns to one's body - the only space that belongs completely to oneself. This body is the only "ship" which we sail our whole life. It is also a space in which learning to live may take longer than one lifetime.

At the 1995 Dionysia Festival in Tartu, Jaan Toomik projected after the sunset an image of flames from inside a dilapidated house onto the screen covering one of its windows. A few moments later the flames were devoured by real fire, fire consumed its recorded image. Fire destroyed fire, living fire destroyed the projection of fire. Underneath this combination there lies a wisdom: pain can be eliminated and cured with pain, by facing it. To revive pain is most frightening, but psychotherapeutically also most fruitful. The excruciating feelings and situations are being faced again, so that they would not haunt you any more, that they would turn you loose. Such has been the case with the memory of Jaan Toomik's late brother Tõnu, which has become part of the artist's works, which he evokes again and again and than examines. Mourning always comes as a response to bereavement, the loss of a part of oneself; it pervades the works of Toomik as a continuous stream - a wish to restore the former situation. Every creator is concerned with calling to life again paradisiacal innocence and wholeness. However, the fulfilment of this wish is impossible, as the intent to fulfil it is never-ending.

In these works any personal experience has dissolved, yet still findable - only through the eyes of the spectator and the interpreter. The personal in his works touches the masses.

The personal is clearly manifest in the works where it has been seemingly left out. At the exhibition "Container 96", held in Copenhagen in 1996, Toomik exhibited an untitled installation which could be interpreted as a challenge to narcissism. It was composed of sturgeons in a basin and projections that were cast upon them. The work was certainly not an expression of the green mentality. Neither does the juxtaposition of the true and the seeming, the real sturgeons and their video projection, constituting the opposition of reality-unreality, seem to be of any importance here. It might have been inspiring at the beginning of the work, at the genesis of the idea. Later, the artist becomes more interested in discarding his self, in concentrating on the things outside him, the things that do not personally concern him, and answering for the existence of others. The sturgeons were in a basin in a container; onto the bottom of the basin an image of the same fish was projected. The projected fish became mingled with the real ones, fascinating and confusing the spectator. It is unlikely, though, that the fish themselves were deceived by this illusion. Unseparable from the presentation of the work, decorating and consummating it, is the story of an artist who transports by plane (and not in containers) live fish which later settle in the Royal Aquarium of Copenhagen, (for some time still in the container of the "Container"). Toomik himself claims to be more concerned with the space that comes into being between the real and the unreal and the tension that such opposition creates. The real world contra the illusiveness of pictures is an age-old subject.

Such antinarcissist manifestations, especially the ways how the artist has tried to avoid self-exposure, also reveal a good deal about the artist. The artistic media are invisible here, the technology is of secondary importance. If it was to be stressed, also the aeroplane should be part of the exposition. Technology shows through as water and if we should wish to withdraw from studying this work, we could just identify it as "a piece of video art". The more problematic "installation with sturgeons" would be beyond the reach of traditional classifications.

The work "The Sun Rises, the Sun Sets", exposed at the Warsaw exhibition "Personal Time" and in Cologne, marks Jaan Toomik's return to the risings and settings that he was in to some years ago. Then he presented them on bottles that were connected to each other by necks so as to resemble "hourglasses". Now, the early morning and late night moments were shown in a vibrating projection on the surface of water. Onto the image dropped water from a medical drip, reminding of the flux of time and clinical emergency situation experienced in the environment of the blinking and dripping facilities of an intensive care department. At the time, when all this can be accomplished with digital equipment, Toomik is using an already forgotten material.

Similar collisioning of technology and primeval matter occurred also in the video installation that Toomik exhibited at Rauma Biennial. There, he projected upon the wall of a granite cellar a picture of a religious procession.

The questions of personalness, contemporaneity and media, to which we seek definite answers, seem to dissolve in these works and become irrelevant. It is difficult to find common features in Toomik's works, it seems that the artist has attempted to avoid any features that would become distinctive of him.

Writing about an artist is, in some respect, like stepping through him. First, understanding what he wants to say, then, pointing out what he has not attained and not succeeded in saying, but what is nevertheless concealed inside him.

Raivo Kelomees

Translated by Liina Viires