Jaan Toomik, one of the most renowned Estonian artists in the world, makes his return to Riga after a 10-year-long absence. His second major personal exhibition “Theatre of Gestures”, curated by Andris Brinkmanis, opens its doors to the public on February 15th, 2018, at the Mūkusala Art Salon.
The open space of the main gallery hosts a selection of recent paintings, sculpture, film and video works conceived by Toomik between 2008 and 2018. New and older film and video works are displayed alongside a less familiar part of Toomik’s artistic output: his paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptural pieces.
Born in Tartu in 1961, Toomik joined the painting department of the Estonian Academy of Arts (1985-91) after completing his obligatory army service (1981-83), and proceeded to gain recognition and notoriety in the local art scene. His international artistic career took off in the mid-90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he became recognized as a performance, installation, and above all, video artist.
His iconic videos, such as Way To São Paulo, shown at the São Paulo biennial in 1994, and Dancing Home, first screened in Helsinki at ARS ’95, laid the foundations of Toomik’s practice, which traces and transcends linguistic, geographical, and autobiographical borders. Toomik’s seminal work Father and Son, made in 1998, portrays the artist skating naked on the frozen Baltic Sea to the soundtrack of his then 10-year-old son’s singing of religious choral. The video is now part of many private and public collections, and has been written about in many art history manuals on Eastern Europe.
In recent years, Toomik’s interest has shifted towards cinema. His short films – Communion (2007), Oleg (2010), and Landscape with Many Moons (2014) – have brought him recognition and prizes at festivals in Oberhausen and Rotterdam. He is famous for his work with time-based media, and painting – where his artistic career actually began and which he has continued to do throughout his career – remains the lesser known of Toomik’s activities.
The “Theatre of Gestures” exhibition attempts to reconcile all these different aspects of Toomik’s output into a temporary “montage” within the exhibition space. More personal and somewhat raw paintings, comical sculptural pieces, drawings, prints, and a series of video and film works coexist on display, assuming a character similar to that of the singled-out frames or props for a possible film or theatre play.
“Theatre of Gestures” departs from the Latin etymology of the noun “gesture” (gerere – bear, wield, perform), meaning a movement of a part of the body, used to express an idea or a meaning, or an action performed to convey an intention. This nonverbal form of expressivity is at the core of almost all works of the Estonian artist, irrespective of the media and shape they assume.
In the 1940s, film director Sergei Eisenstein used in his film editing the concept of mise en geste (transposition of character into gesture). Bertolt Brecht similarly introduced his theory of gestus into the field of theatre – where illocutive gestus becomes something that we find behind each act of enunciation. Toomik proceeds in a similar manner, isolating in his works sets of singular gestures that then become particular non-linguistic (unspeakable) figures of speech, silent gags, exposing the artificiality and arbitrariness of the symbolic construction of reality. To put it differently, with Toomik one has to traverse the path not from words to deeds, but the other way around: from deeds, actions, and movements, from the body, its manoeuvres, affections, and passions, to consciousness and language, showing how enunciations are frequently “inflicted”, without previously being pronounced, learned, or comprehended.
As Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote in his famous essay Notes On Gesture, “An age that has lost its gestures is, for this reason, obsessed by them. For human beings who have lost every sense of naturalness, each single gesture becomes a destiny. And the more gestures lose their ease under the action of invisible powers, the more life becomes indecipherable.”
When confronted with Toomik’s non-Aristotelian actions, it is justly difficult to discover empathy, compassion, or identification with his subjects. Frequently they appear disorienting or rather alienating. Instead of that of a poet, Toomik assumes a posture which reminds us that of a philosopher in front of an experience. He problematizes and questions the obvious (instead of describing or interpreting it). While showing the everyday, irrelevant, absurd as such, the artist deconstructs the very myth of “naturality” and allows the complex net of social, cultural, and power relations – that lay behind and determine our most common actions – to emerge.
This reveals the extremely mediatic nature of our “social networked” reality, foretold by Guy Debord in his seminal Society of the Spectacle: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
Past and present, individual and collective, memory and history, social and political dimensions merge in Toomik’s work to reappear in the form of his singular gestures as a kind of one-act theatre piece, that we recognize, but may hardly interpret. Rather than producing images, Toomik produces gestures, as no words can adequately put in question that complexity which we have in front of our eyes.
Heiner Müller, in his diary Wars Without Battle: Life in Two Dictatorships, described the moment when the Berlin Wall came down as a moment when two different temporalities converged – that of the Soviet bloc, which was trying to artificially slow down the course of history, and that of the West, which kept on forcedly accelerating the course of history – creating a schizophrenic vertigo. The eye of this vertigo is exactly where Toomik found himself to depart from – rendering him aware of both the ephemeral and concrete nature of history.
The displacement and estrangement that is acted out in Toomik’s works, similar to the feeling one gets after reading Kafka or watching a gag by Chaplin or Keaton, in the very end brings up the Husserlian question – not who am I, but who is I? Not who are we, but who is this “we” that we always take for granted?
Toomik’s recent solo exhibitions and screenings include: A Theatre of Gestures, curated by Andris Brinkmanis, The Mūkusala Art Salon, Riga (2018); How the West Was Left, curated by Anders Kreuger, Central Market, Tallinn (2017); Film and video retrospective, 63rd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen (2017); First Slumber, Tallinn Art Hall Gallery, Tallinn (2016); Smells Like Old Men's Spirit, Temnikova & Kasela Gallery, Tallinn (2015); 84 HRZ Gallery, Munich; Werkstattgalerie, Berlin (2014); Galleri Sult / Skur 6, Stavanger; Orton Gallery, Helsinki (2013); ARTRA Gallery, Milano; Pop/off/art gallery, Moscow (2012).
Curated by Andris Brinkmanis
In collaboration with Temnikova & Kasela Gallery
Supported by the Estonian Cultural Endowment