Screams Entombed in Charcoal
exhibition review by Dániel Kustra
Artmagazin, October 2023

In his latest artworks on display at the exhibition Coda in the Einspach Gallery Tamas Dezsö focuses on the relationship of human and nonhuman, as well as the possibilities of human knowledge and interpretation.

The exhibition deliberates on the incomprehensibility of the devastating forest fires in the Sierra Nevada Mountains witnessed in recent years. Since 2020 some one million hectares of forests have perished and the frequency and intensity of the fires indicate a rising tendency. The three works of art at the exhibition – a photograph, a charcoal drawing and a sound installation – are a result of Tamas Dezsö’s experience at the scene.

Within this theme, a far more important task for an artist than attempting to reflect the tragedy itself is to point out something beyond it which addresses our relationship to non-human beings more deeply than superficial empathy – and that is entirely accomplished by Dezsö. The photograph Kings Canyon shows the upper section of a pine tree’s burnt-out trunk as it staunchly rises to the sky with a rocky landscape and a few still living pine trees in the background. The triptych Transcript is an enormous charcoal drawing depicting the waves of the alarm signals of a hundred bird species living in the Sierra Nevada. The sound installation Landscape (Landscape, 2023 by Áron Birtalan, György Cséka and Tamas Dezsö, two-channel sound, electroacoustic composition) is a ten-minute work composed by distorting the sounds of birds living there, whereby from chirping to alarm signals we reach a noise collage of crushing force, hearing the sounds and voices of birds perishing in the fire.

The Anthropocene confronts us with plenty of unexpected, until now unknown natural phenomena, which are difficult to interpret due to our being anthropocentric. Humans are inclined to explicitly separate their world from nature. However, the dualism of civilisation and nature has never been real. The two meet at several points, they affect one another and are ultimately inseparable. The Anthropocene also means the recognition of humans being thrown in nature. The idea of a definite separation from nature can no longer be maintained, yet this does not necessarily mean that nature and humans belong together. All the elements are as alien from one another as anything is from human beings in this complicated system of relations. The appearance of belonging together is in fact the network-like entanglement of beings. The arrival of the Anthropocene has also meant the untenableness of the anthropocentric worldviews held until now, such that there is nothing left to hold onto which could interpret the world around us with analogies that are consequential of our own culture. Nature evades our framework of interpretation used so far, disclosing a new and so far alien face. It truly becomes obvious that it has always been so distant in its unexpected alterity. In my opinion the most important task of the arts today is to show the world in its own alienness and thematise humans’ embededness in nature alongside their alterity from it.

The first step in creating such a post-anthropocentric perspective is perhaps to point out the alterity of non-human beings, the distance from them and the lack of any kind of collective experience. At the exhibition each work operates with different systems of symbols and indicates the limits of its own mediating abilities. But even together they do not aim to provide the entire realisation of cognition. They rather highlight its fragmented nature.

Kings Canyon is almost a symbolic image. The destroyed soil cannot be seen, only the ever thinning tree trunk as it rises towards the sky, as if it was trying to flee or as if itself were a sound being silenced. The pine tree withdraws into its death, emphasising that it is ultimately unknowable. Transcript finely unfolds the locking in. The charcoal seems to truly encapsulate the last cry of the perished birds numbering many thousands. However, to bring it to the surface we need a mediating human system of signs. But the triptych remains silent. Tamas Dezsö only indicates that there is or there used to be something on the other side of the signs. This play with silence is also based on personal experience. In a recent podcast interview with the artist it was mentioned several times how oppressive the silence of the burnt out forest was. The sound installation is perhaps an attempt to expel silence: it replaces the absence caused by the unimaginable with imagination. Birds cannot flee from forest fires of this magnitude. In Landscape the distortion of bird sounds, their transformation into something else, appears as a new phenomenon which is the result of the customary sounds encountering the anthropogenic effects. Their sound amalgamates with the fire and becomes an incipient noise. Their customary existence ceases and it unfolds in a new alterity once more for the last time. A new, horrible sound is formed which is a deformed hybrid of a machine and a bird sound, an alien arrangement of which we have not heard before. And it is exactly the lack of earlier experience that shows that the everyday bird sounds which we are used to are also alien.

Furthermore, Landscape also points out that the fire – just like a mechanical modulation deforming the sound pattern – operates as a system that breaks open and rearranges everything which conserves the alterity of non-human beings into something that can be never known. It’s as if the fire absolved the screams innate in everything that’s living, only to lock them again like a combustion product for ever. Then the bird sounds visible in the Transcript get free from the universal silence soundlessly. Yet Landscape has the strongest effect when the recording stops and we remain in the gallery gazing at the rendered, unknowable bird sounds.