Jaan Toomik is a filmmaker, video and performance artist, who also does work in installation, and previously worked as a painter. Not only does his work span many genres, but it also addresses a variety of different themes, from the autobiographical, to the strange and alternative sides of life. It is difficult to narrow his work down to one main focus, and the range of material that he covers speaks to the depth of his oeuvre.
In 1989, Jaan stood on the Charles Bridge in Prague with a sign that read, in Estonian, “my dick is clean.” Of course, most would have passed by oblivious to the vulgar message, and the artist commented that many people there thought he was Russian. The phrase is a political reference, meaning that he is politically clean – in the same sense of “my hands are clean” in English. In the Soviet context, the reference is not really to having done anything corrupt, but rather, refers to being apolitical or not compromising oneself by joining the party, for example. This performance addresses the issue of freedom, and the fact that something like this would only have been possible in Prague, just months before the Velvet Revolution and also in a place where no one speaks Estonian, indicates, by contrast, a lack of freedom on the part of the artist in his home country.
The action is somewhat unique in the artist’s repertoire. Many of his films and video performances are autobiographical, for example, Father and Son (1998) where the artist ice skates on the frozen Baltic Sea, while his son sings a religious hymn in the background, or Dancing with Dad (2003), where the artist dances to a Jimi Hendrix song at the grave of his father, who died when the artist was nine. The repetition in these performances gives them a meditative, contemplative quality. The artist said that he had studied Buddhism, and aims to infuse his work with a Zen-like quality.
His work also responds to world events, for example, Dancing Home (1995) shows the artist on a ferry, dancing as the boat sways back and forth, balancing himself, and his rhythm, with the rhythm of the ship. The piece was done with reference to the 1994 ferry disaster, when a boat carrying passengers from Stockholm to Estonia sank, killing 852 passengers. Similarly, Waterfall was made in 2005, just after the earthquake in Sumatra that same year, and shows the artist in front of a waterfall, at times still, and at times with his mouth open, the sound of the waterfall emanating from the background.
From 1981-1983, Jaan did his obligatory service in the Soviet Army, and a number of his works relate to his military past. A very poignant short film entitled Oleg (2010) depicts the bitter realities associated with the army life, where one constantly has to prove oneself. The film tells the story of Oleg, who gets beat up by his fellow soldiers, and eventually kills himself due to the pressure. His friend, Paert, carries the guilt of the suicide with him to his old age, visiting his grave and erecting a tent so that he can continue bunking with his friend, years after his death. Another piece, a video performance entitled Jooks [Run] (2011) takes place in a military hangar, but is more contemplative than narrative. The configuration of the space creates a triple echo of any sound made in it, and the artist said that he wanted to convey a sense of space through the action of running and moving through it.
Years earlier, in the 1970s, Juri Okas made a number of video performances and filmed actions out in nature in Estonia. However, his influence over this contemporary video and action artist was not that strong, simply owing to circumstances. Jaan maintains that Okas’s work was not that well known until later. Since Okas’s work was done unofficially, it was only shared with close friends and acquaintances, and only came to be more widely known in the post-Soviet period. In some ways, Jaan said, artists in the 1990s had to “reinvent the wheel,” because there was a lack of information on contemporary art trends in the late-1980s, when he was studying at the Art Academy. That said, when more information did start to trickle in, he mentioned that the Viennese Actionists made a strong impression on him.
Jaan’s works are certainly as expressive as the Actionists’, but in a much quieter and more subtle way. For example, Untitled (2002) was a short action dedicated to his deceased brother. The artist hangs from a wire suspended between two trees, then falls to the earth, which swallows him up. In fact, he fell into a hole in the earth 8 meters deep that was covered with leaves, and the sound effects made it appear that he was sucked into the earth through a sinkhole. Simply put, the artist’s body returned to the earth just as we all eventually will.
In addition to the themes of life and death, and the autobiographical, Jaan is also interested in exploring marginal elements of society. For example, he had his students create a performance in a prison. In speaking about this experience, he commented that because they were bringing art, and specifically performance, into a non-traditional venue, they had to be even more perceptive and responsive to the viewers’ reactions. It was after this that he was approached by someone from the prison with the idea of doing a documentary about a particular sexual habit endemic in prisons – that of placing small plastic beads under the foreskin of the penis (Invisible Pearls, 2004). Some say that it provides pleasure, and others pain. The beads are made by carefully wearing down a piece of plastic, taken from a toothbrush or other item that is actually allowed in prison. A small incision is made in the foreskin with a blunt tool, and the bead is inserted under the skin, where it remains.
Jaan Toomik’s concise and unassuming actions and videos utilize a minimalistic and meditative approach to convey very poignant sentiments, full of expressive elements. It is perhaps the short and repetitive nature of these works that gives them such strength of impact.