CRITICISM - Hanno Soans. On Jaan Toomik. – Estonian Art 2002, no 1
Jaan A sudden shift towards interpretive description is badly needed to avoid some sticky clichés art professionals and the general public in Estonia have about Jaan Toomik. In order to broaden my own point of view, I visited his last major exhibition, together with Florian Feigl from the German experimental theatre group Showcase Beat Le Mot. As the work of Feigl's group often focuses on the theme of bodily mutation in dialogue with social understanding, he approached Toomik's works with a keen, but somewhat distanced, eye. This article is born out of dialogue with his comments.
Through distanced eyes
In four video-installations, which were presented at the exhibition Jaan Toomik in the Tallinn Art Hall last November, the artist focused on men in different environments. Two men were shown in nature and the other two indoors, as if referring to the urban environment. This bias of nature versus the urban environment found continuation in different rhythms within the video loops. In the video-installation Man, occupying the central place within the composition of the exhibition and shown as the only piece in the largest room of the Art Hall, we could see a naked man reduced to the state of a helpless creature. Bound to a stake with a long piece of cloth tied to his penis, he was walking in endless circles in a huge muddy field.
Only his socks and a pair of poorly fitting shoes - the last signs of civilisation - connected his obvious physical efforts with the social sphere. As a result of his penis being bound, his body became somewhat mutant, as if castrated. The work was originally made for the Estonian Energies group exhibition in Vienna, W.U.K. and marked a certain site-specific homage to the themes related to Vienna Actionism, important to Toomik in the late 1980s and early '90s. The video, called Untitled for Vienna, was here exhibited as Man. Although Toomik himself stressed that this change in title was not important, the task of testing the position of gender-specific masculine constructions in dialogue with, or as an answer to, feminist art was indeed stressed in the local context. In the videos in which men were shown indoors, there is a man who suffers from a nervous disorder (in Peeter and Mart) and who cannot prevent his limbs from constantly moving in freaky unexpected spasms. Another man (in The Viewer) watches a movie and has a hard time eating popcorn and drinking Coke as his (alcoholic?) hands are heavily trembling. The fourth video (called Jaan) shows a man running through the frame somewhere at the seaside, his movement coinciding with a rough wave coming to the shore. This surprisingly short video of only a few seconds has longer black fadeouts alternating with repetition of the action. This is the only one of the four videos in which we ca see Toomik himself, with the baggy green hat he has been wearing for the last couple years. Toomik here is an everyday Toomik, but nevertheless the comparison to a soldier/warrior in the process of training, comes to mind. In Toomik's case it is the mystic-warrior of Castaneda dealing with the mental state of being prepared for whatever comes along and not the standard European concept of a dumb soldier serving passively. As the videos showing men in nature seemed to maintain a steady repetitive rhythm, the others showing men in an urban environment were dominated by the chaotic movements of their protagonists. The variations in the looping pace also seemed to stress the utter physicality of the men depicted. The loops were comparatively short, thus giving the impression of finality to the situations - each man was caught in his special situation and was left with no obvious way out.
Man Doesn't the motive of a creature tied down by his penis to his piece of 'property', to the 'agrarian lot' he is aimlessly 'cultivating', allow us to speak of a reactivated socio-existential dimension in Toomik's art? Yes it does, and as some of his new works seem very dark and macabre. the question arises as to whether Toomik has settled into an utterly misanthropic view, or whether a somewhat romantic utopia exists as another way out for an interpreter. We can interpret the way Toomik shows these four men as a reflection on the situation men have led themselves into through the self-induced dogmas of male stereotypes - besides the image of the training warrior/soldier, who has given in to the pace of his surroundings, all the other video-images convey hopelessness and despair, at least on an instinctive level. Man here is either physically tormented and incapable of self-reflection, as is the man in The Viewer, or able to reflect but reduced to the status of mere body, as is the painter in Peeter and Mart, or totally enslaved and dehumanised by his humiliating mission in the empty field, as in Man. The opportunity for romantic interpretation is afforded by the video with the running man. It was exhibited in the vague rhythm of fours - the image lasts for one-fourth of the loop, with three-fourths devoted to black-out, and then the image reappears. The stressed absence of the image insinuates the moment of choice - you could ask what is 'Jaan' doing while you can't see him? The characters of the other video-works are bound in endless repetition without any break.
In the four paintings exhibited, Toomik explores the self-reflective countermoves to the harsh physicality of the videos. The Cloud, showing a small shady human figure in the midst of a huge undefined whitish landscape, might be taken as a clue. Here Toomik is also emphasising the man-made condition of painting, by keeping a bit of canvas unpainted at the bottom of the picture. Having an imaginary dialogue with the romantic tradition and its obsession with the sublime, this small and somewhat humble painting seems to question the role of man in the man-made world, to resituate the human experience, and tune it to alertness, in the same way as in Jaan.
His Sound and His Fury
Toomik has worked years to attain a certain state of calm alertness in his works, allowing him now to claim things about human beings in a seemingly natural way, like a wind blowing by. Much of his strength lies in that position. He directs his videos as if offering natural descriptions of certain inevitable processes. They could easily be described as process works documented with a camera, but at a certain point the image and the sound of his videos interact, bringing whatever is shown at the moment very close to the viewer. With this in mind, I would like to turn my attention to something less apparent: the sound, which is often an integral part of a video-installation. The sound of a rusty swing in Man creates a flashback of a happily uneventful childhood afternoon, and this image starts to work somewhere in the back of your mind. If you still remember something about swinging, you could say that it is just an aimless pastime. Correct! But it is also an activity making you very much aware of your body. Actually, you cannot be doing much more at the same time you are swinging. You are limited in your movements, but paradoxically you still feel free! You can be very absent-minded, dreaming, and still your body has to be very focused on what you are doing. Although this might not reach the conscious level at once, as does the image of a man tied down by his penis and forced to make endless circles in a muddy, ploughed field, the sound constitutes another plane of associations, time both denying the finality of the image and at the same revitalising its misery. The nostalgic touch of the sound cries out for lost childish free-floating energies, for libido not yet turned into a vehicle of repression.