Thanassis Totsikas, A Life in the Woods
by Christoforos Marinos
The radical pastoralism and fiercely uncompromising vision of multi–media artist Thanassis Totsikas, whose “every work is a valid indicator of Greece’s contemporary ideology”
Ever since the beginning of his career in the mid-1970s, Thanassis Totsikas has persistently gone after the ‘new’ in art. This is borne out of historical developments, as his dynamic appearance on the Athenian art scene in the early 1980s coincided with the notion of ‘allagi’ (change) in art, politics and in society. In art, change was marked predominantly by the attempt of art critic Eleni Vakalo to describe the physiognomy of Greek post-war art – indeed, she classified the art of Totsikas as “post-abstract”. In society, change was reflected by the rise into power of the socialist PASOK party. The “post-abstract” dimension in Totsikas must be seen through a hermeneutic prism which will take into account the social parameters of the time as well as his own particular artistic approach. As Haris Kambouridis aptly notes, “every work of Totsikas is a valid indicator of the country’s contemporary ideology”.
Born in 1951 to a farming family at Nikea, Larissa, Totsikas is one of the few Greek artists to have experimented with various media and has displayed an unprecedented pluralism in his creation of images. We could borrow the title of his first solo exhibition in Athens (Desmos Gallery, 1982) and say that his work is a constant “transmutation”, a strong reflection on the appeal of the new. The fact that we are dealing here with a self-taught artist (in his résumé we find transitory stops at the Athens School of Fine Arts and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris) may explain the pluralism in his choice of media. In any case, after thirty years of his creative career it seems increasingly imperative to give some answers about what some people see as the enigmatic attitude of this artist.
As with many other artists before him, from Picasso and Joseph Beuys to Bas Jan Ader and Martin Kippenberger, Totsikas succeeded in establishing a unique and peculiar persona. Throughout his career, the persona TOTSIKAS has been inviting viewers to see the “reality of unbounded thinking”, participate in “building an arbitrary proposition” and understand that “art belongs in the realm of negative disciplines” (the quotations are his). Over the years, this persona has assumed various guises: the artist as collector and maker of musical instruments, motorbikes and ultimately houses; the artist as lone traveller and rambler, who goes as far as India in his quest for the music teacher, the mystic who will bring him closer to the secret of life and happiness; the artist as a hermit who watches cultural developments from afar.
Although Totsikas was active in art since 1974, his work becomes systematic after 1979. In a résumé compiled for his solo show at Desmos, we read that in 1977 the artist once “created in a public place (a square in Larissa) until stopped by the police”. This was actually an impromptu (and unrecorded) performance that reveals the relationship of young Totsikas with habitation: in a single day he took out into the street all the belongings from the house he rented in Defkalionos Street in the centre of Larissa. In Heideggerian terms we might say that the artist had yet to “come to peace”, since he had not proceeded to building.
In addition to Transmutations, the first period in his career (1979-1989), which roughly coincides with the second political phase after Greece’s restitution of democracy, includes murals with Shaman symbols, photographs of ritual places (For Sylvia Plath, 1982), a host of self-portraits and the construction of musical instruments. Many of these works are comments on consumerism, religion and the sacred. Also emerging gradually during this period are elements such as self-sarcasm, parody and humour, which would become major instruments in his work after the early 1990s and influence some talented Greek artists of the younger generation (Maria Papadimitriou, Miltos Manetas and Poka-Yio, among others).
In his works from the 1990s Totsikas deals with his identity and his relationship with technology, the contemporary, nature and dwelling. This category comprises a series of sculptures where light is the main element, installations with incandescent objects (Burning House at Night, 1992), monochrome paintings on metal sheets and slide projections. A decisive factor in his career during this decade is his participation in major events such as Artificial Nature (1990) at the DESTE Foundation, documenta ΙΧ (1992) and his presence in the Greek Pavilion at the 47th Venice Biennale (1997).
The transformation of Totsikas’ persona was ‘completed’ around the end of the 1990s when he built two small cottages at Mavrovouni, Larissa, one by the river and one by the sea, which he uses as studios. The construction of these two buildings represents the culmination of a ‘radical pastoralism’. To critic George Steiner, who coined the term, this pastoralism promotes a policy of authenticity, favours the nudity of the ‘I’ and condenses the true meaning of life as a vital force as opposed to grey knowledge. Steiner cites the romantic poet William Wordsworth to explain his argument: “One impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more … than all the sages can”. It is this pure experience that Totsikas has tried to convey in many of his works, often in provocative ways – above all with the five-part photographic work for the Outlook exhibition of 2003, or with the video he presented at the 1st Athens Biennale, Destroy Athens, in 2007. Starring in both works, in the former he copulates with a watermelon and in the latter he keeps vomiting, out of sickness or revulsion. In the meantime, between 2004-2006, he walked around Mavrovouni with his easel, in the manner of Paul Cézanne, and painted a series of alfresco abstract landscapes of an impressionist type.
The history of art and literature contains other examples of creators and heroes who seemed to share Totsikas’ vision about nature and the landscape. Anselm Kiefer had retired to a farm in Nîmes, France, building a maze of buildings that served as his studio. What Kiefer implies is that these creations were simply an extension of the four sides of the canvas – and one might claim the same about Totsikas’ buildings. Another example is Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage, a deliberate version of Adam’s cabin and a lifetime’s work which, as Peter Wollen aptly remarks, places Jarman within a long tradition of revolutionary utopians and fringe artists. An outstanding case among those visionaries is that of Henry David Thoreau, who spent two years (1845-1847) in a makeshift cabin on the shores of Lake Walden. The distillation of this experience, the famous Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854), is useful in interpreting the pastoralism of Totsikas, his spiritual quest and his decision to live and work close to nature.
The concept of the avant-garde in the oeuvre of Totsikas – an artist who lives and works away from the centres of art, international as well as national – should be interpreted through the element of “stopping” rather than “progressing”. As described by theoretician Susan Buck-Morss, this kind of avant-garde is based on stopping time, lagging behind, accessing a forgotten time, i.e. adopting an attitude that “shatters the calm surface of the present”. According to her, one can find a contemporary meaning of avant-garde in an art which disrupts the global distribution of images and cultural practices in a way that makes us take a more critical look at our everyday life. The model proposed by Buck-Morss is probably the most suitable for approaching an artist like Totsikas, who has chosen to live silently and autonomously, outside the centre of art but in the very heart of its language.
Totsikas delves into the ecstasy of communication but also into the human condition – and his works contribute to a better understanding of it. While most Greek artists of his generation were trapped in a sterile representational idiom, “translating” the works of their foreign colleagues, Totsikas realised his anti-bourgeois vision by showing excerpts of pure experience. The cube, the cylinder, the sphere and energy as well as elements from the countryside of Thessaly have featured prominently in his imagery. Totsikas’ artistic calibre lies in the fact that he can translate the original (even though he does not need to), and that’s what makes his work subversive.