A Quiet Life

The hut has a notable place in the history of human thought and culture.1 A celebrated example is the cabin where the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau lived for three years (1845–1848) and wrote Walden or, Life in the Woods. In Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883), Nietzsche describes the main character’s encounter with an old hermit who ‘had left his holy cot to seek roots.’ In 1914, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein sought solitude in a not-so-humble cabin in Norway to ponder the limits of language and the mystical nature of existence. So did Martin Heidegger, who in 1922 built for himself a timber-shingled cabin in the Black Forest – a retreat that would go on to have a formative influence on his life and philosophical work.2 Le Corbusier, Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl, all chose to work in a hut in splendid isolation. Similarly, the hermit’s hut is a prevalent theme in the poetry of the Japanese poet and Zen monk Ryōkan (1758–1831), evoking a life of renunciation of material and worldly pleasures.

Vasilis Vasilakakis’s new exhibition A Quiet Life reflects the need – the quest, if you like – for a simple life in a world falling apart. Is a quiet life feasible in a society in constant crisis, in an age of vain temptations and useless information, in a distracting, disorienting environment of relentless tension? What should an artist’s stance be? What kind of art reflects and responds to this kind of life? Ultimately, what kinds of images does an artist produce who, going against the grain, has decided to lead a quiet life? These are some of the questions raised in Vasilis Vasilakakis’s exhibition.

Produced over the last three years (2019–2021), Vasilakakis’s paintings emphasise unmediated experience and vision. The artist paints objects from life, on a 1:1 scale, without changing their essential nature. His images are staged yet free of ornamentation – as in Pop Art, for instance – and are produced without the mediation of photography. ‘I was interested in bringing back into painting an element, now lost and ignored, of a peculiar experience. At that moment, you have a profound experience involving the image, the object. When there is the mediation of photography, it begins to turn into something else,’ the artist points out.

The objects painted by Vasilakakis are humble, trivial, almost indifferent: a pear, a plate, a ladder, sticks (‘sometimes they invade a space you are not sure about’), bones (‘lots of bones’), a fish, a ball-shaped piece of wood with a graft, an apple, a log, a strip of paper tape, a cloth on a pole, suggestive of a banner, onions, an orange with toothpicks stuck in it (‘which takes on an animal form but is actually a toy’), a rotting quince, a book, a turnip (‘turnip purple’), a wooden beam, a broomstick, a roof tile, a used spoon (‘I would choose an object and then select my paper, the size’), a piece of wood that caught fire, a tube, a reed wrapped in white cloth, a bar of soap, a piece of a bag, a shepherd’s crook (‘I started off with the measure. The inner human measure. I’ve done it before. A life-size piece of wood’), a series of quail droppings and eggs, each with different splashes of colour (‘I would wait for the quail on my balcony to lay eggs and then I’d paint them’). All works are painted in oil on paper; some – the larger ones – are mounted on panel.

The concept explored in this series is the harmonious relationship between the artist and the image. Is it possible for the image to coexist with the painter without disturbing him? ‘Not to offer resistance to what he himself is, nor cause distraction. To make it possible to simply be with the image, live with it. That was my original thought; that’s how this whole thing started. In a cell, say. It was essentially the contemplation of a hut,’ Vasilakakis explains. One such image, perhaps characteristic of the show, is Hut (2020–2021), ‘the incomplete model of an anchorite’s hut, a martyr’s retreat’. In this exquisitely simple picture, which exemplifies the ascetic mood sought by Vasilakakis, a wooden structure made of light-coloured wood seems to float against a black background. In this unfinished drawing of a hut, the viewer recognises the origins of architecture and at the same time, in the anchorism it epitomises, a metaphor for life itself. In addition, hidden in the grain and knots of the timber of this unfinished hut is Diego Velázquez’s Christ Crucified (1632): Vasilakakis has extensively studied the imposing verticality of this cross, and it is to his conversation with Velázquez that the cruciform elements seen in his paintings owe their existence.

Seeking ‘the shudder of inner experience’ (which Georges Bataille praised), Vasilakakis avoids looking at the works of his contemporary fellow artists and turns for inspiration to theological texts, such as the Synaxarion and the Evergetinos. He is interested, as he says, in folly for Christ’s sake, ‘holy folly’ – the ‘cherished humility’ and ‘death of individuality’ which monks such as the saints Andrew and Symeon championed and practised in their lives. These ascetic fools, who lived in caves or tiny wooden huts, experiencing visions and miracles, inspire the artist by their struggle to subdue egoism and human vanity. 

Vasilakakis’s exhibition at the Arts Centre is divided into two ‘fields.’ One is ascetic, anchoretic, ‘a state of mourning’ as he explains. The other is devotional – involving praise and prayer. A Quiet Life is a contemplative exhibition, highlighting concepts lost from our vocabulary and lifestyle, such as humility, patience, restraint, silence and love. The silent paintings of Vasilis Vasilakakis propose viewing things in a way that takes us straight into the dark forest: ‘We are only totally laid bare by proceeding without trickery to the unknown. It is the share of the unknown that gives the experience of God – or the poetic – its great authority,’ Bataille reminds us.3

Christoforos Marinos
Art Historian
OPANDA curator of exhibitions and events

Translated by Dimitris Saltabassis

1 See Apostolis Artinos, The Heterotopia of the Hut, Smili, Athens 2014 [in Greek].
2 Adam Sharr, Heidegger’s Hut, The MIT Press, 2006.
3 Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, translated and with an introduction by Stuart Kendall, SUNY Press, New York 2014, p. 5.