Jaan Toomik (1961) is a painter, video installation and performance artist, whose work stems from a metaphysical, biocentric and shamanist outlook on the world. His work, mostly nature-poetic and autobiographical, focuses on eternal themes like life and death, religion and spirituality, that tie the human body to the cyclical processes in nature. In his imagery Toomik is a minimalist, often choosing simple tools to achieve meditative repetition and dynamics.
Toomik started out as a painter at the end of the 1980s. His early works include the large-scale Neo-Expressionist paintings “Menstruatsioon” (Menstruation, 1989) and “Tantsija” (Dancer,1990). Influenced by the political situation in newly-independent Estonia at the beginning of the 1990s, Toomik found site-specific performance and installation. During his transition into a post-conceptual artist, Toomik created boundary-probing work commenting on the attitudes and political situation of the time. One of the most symbolic among them is the installation “15. mai – 1. juuni 1992” (15 May – 1 June 1992), exhibited at the pavilion of Eesti Näitused at “Artmix”, the second exhibition by the art collective S&K. The work consisted of glass jars that contained the artist’s excrement, collected between the above mentioned dates, and a description of his menu. By now, the afterlife of this work and the meanings surrounding it, have become a notable episode in recent Estonian art history. At the time when the piece was exhibited, the installation did not cause a scandal, however it became controversial in 1995 when the newspaper Eesti Ekspress wrote about it. “Shitting in a jar” became a metaphor for Toomik’s artistic practice in the media, and Estonian contemporary art as a whole for everything that seemed even a little incomprehensible or disturbing. The work was recreated in 2012 for the exhibition “MÖH? FUI! ÖÄK! OSSA! VAU! The Classics of Estonian Contemporary Art”.
Finding a language in his installation and performance art, that was simultaneously minimal and impersonal in form but suggestive in content, Toomik was among the first artists in Estonia to document their performances in video. His natural-poetic videos were masterfully created, using simple means to convey a mental space, captivating to the audience. In 1994 Toomik created a video installation for the São Paulo Biennial, titled “Teekond São Paulosse” (Way to São Paulo), consisting of a mirror cube, floating on rivers in Tartu, Prague and São Paulo; cities located on the same geographical parallel. This was followed by the video “Tantsides koju” (Dancing Home), exhibited for the first time at Kiasma in Helsinki at the show “ARS 95”, where we witness the artist’s transcendental dance on a stern deck, accompanied by the hypnotic rhythm of the ship’s engine. In 1997 together with Raoul Kurvitz and Siim-Tanel Annus, Toomik represented Estonia at the Venice Biennale, where he exhibited a site specific installation, depicting a “viewing corridor” made of coffins without bases or tops.
One of the best known videos by Toomik is titled “Isa ja poeg” (Father and Son, 1998). The work depicts the artist skating naked on the Baltic Sea, the voice of his son singing a choral in the background. This and many others of Toomik’s works are deeply personal, evoking the artist’s complexes, anxieties and relationships. As a child Toomik lost his father and later also his brother – so death is present in many of his works. The work “Nimetu” (Untitled, 2002) is a video documentation of a performance dedicated to Toomik’s dead brother – we see the artist jumping from nine-metres high. The video “Tantsides isaga” (Dancing with Dad, 2003) shows the artist rocking to Jimi Hendrix’s music on his father’s grave.
In his later work Toomik brings together his experience as an installation artist and documentary-maker. The video “Nimeta (Mees)” (Untitled (Man), 2001) shows the artist Elaan, tramping on a ploughed up field naked, with his genitals tied to a pole in the ground by a long white cord. In the work “Peeter and Mart” (2001) Toomik portrays Peeter Mudist, an artist with Parkinson’s disease. It was exhibited at the Arsenale during the 2003 Venice Biennial, curated by Francesco Bonami. In his 2007 solo show Toomik exhibited documentaries telling the everyday stories of various people (“Maiu”, “Jaanika”, both 2007). Toomik’s first symbolist-picturesque short film “Armulaud” (Communion, 2007), was filmed using a 35-mm camera. The film was shown at the Oberhausen short film festival and screened in Centre Pompidou in 2011. In 2010 Toomik presented his second short film “Oleg”, focusing on memories from the Soviet army.
Toomik’s films have been screened at numerous film festivals. His feature film “Maastik mitme kuuga” (Landscape with Many Moons, 2014) had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. At the 54th International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, “Communion” (2007) received an award. The short film “Fish” (2018) premiered at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran.
Even though Toomik is internationally mostly known as a video artist, he has never really given up painting. This is reflected in his solo exhibitions from the past decade, “Smells Like Old Men’s Spirit” (2015) and “Esimene uni” (First Slumber, 2016). Toomik’s last retrospective “My End is My Beginning. And My Beginning is My End” took place in 2019 at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (curator Viktor Misiano).
Jaan Toomik studied painting at the Estonian Academy of Art (MA, 1991). He has taken part in numerous international large-scale exhibitions and biennales like São Paulo Biennial (1994), Manifesta Biennial (1996), Site Santa Fe Biennial (1997), Venice Biennale (1997, 2003), Berlin Biennale (2006). His works belong to the collections of Kiasma, Museum Ludwig, Moscow Museum of Modern Art, National Museum of Denmark, National Museum in Szczecin, Stedelijk Museum, Moderna Museet, Louis Vuitton Foundation and Nicola Trussardi Foundation, and Erika Hoffmann’s private collection.
Toomik’s last retrospective “My End is My Beginning. And My Beginning is My End” took place in 2019 at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (curator Viktor Misiano). Since the beginning of the year 2000, Toomik has worked as a teacher and professor in the Estonian Academy of Arts (1993–2010). In 2005 he was awarded with the Konrad Mägi medal by the Estonian Artists’ Association.