Are we Flowers?

exhibition review by György Cséka
A mű, november 2022

An imposing exhibition rich in ideas and raising many issues marks a turning point in the career of artist Tamas Dezsö, whose work until now has been defined by press and documentary photography. His new period outlines the character of a consistently thinking artist who, having exhausted the possibilities of a given way of seeing and thinking, is able to perform a radical shift and to fundamentally transform his identity and his attitude to art. Hypothesis: Everything is Leaf can be visited up to 23 December.

“Are we flowers”? [1]
Yes and No.

If we want to express, that is to interpret the answer provided by Tamas Dezsö’s exhibition, or more precisely the answers to my question in the title, a number of responses can be identified. The exhibition arranges the works around two interlinked themes and foci: identity and the relation of the human being to nature and the environment, namely to the nonhuman.

Dezsö’s exhibition’s entitled Hypothesis: Everything is Leaf is unique from several points of view. It is relatively rare to encounter a work or an exhibition contrasting with the appearances and trends of the art world, one which is not based on a few searches on Google supplemented by an apparently positive curator’s text employing a few elements of the current theoretical discourse, but one which raises the artist’s own concerns and artistic conclusions following meticulous, diverse and deep research.

In addition, although at present its theme is a hot topic to such an extent that practically every other exhibition, conference and study moves around or touches on the Anthropocene, the ecological catastrophe or the subject of natural and vegetal existence, it does not prevent Tamas Dezsö from having original ideas, proposals of themes and questions.

Since it involves a rather large theoretical background (suffice it to say that the authors and philosophers quoted or referred to include Bergson, Descartes, Goethe, Heidegger, Leibniz, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein), the exhibition could  have placed itself in a very difficult situation, as it is not easy to avoid theory overpowering images, with the result that artistic work could  be degraded or may become purely didactic and illustrative. However, although everything is present for an excellent alibi, the work avoids the potential pitfalls with grandiose elegance and professionalism.

That is because Dezsö prefers not to declare anything. He does not want to expand over the boundaries of the works and he does not use them as a means for communicating his ideas and drawing ultimate conclusions.

The quantity of information set in motion and the theoretical background, the heterogeneity of media and the diversity of the entire exhibition rather raise questions, point out problems and contexts, and shift paradigms instead of providing ready-made answers. This open and in a certain sense interactive character may inspire the viewer to undertake further research and investigation, a future search for the highlighted themes, facts and images, as well as fact-checking.

Furthermore, the exhibition has an archival feature, which the curator’s text refers to as wunderkammer. Besides the three-dimensional installations, the subjects of two-dimensional representations also display great diversity. Some have direct natural objects such as a hedge or a forest, and some where objects of images themselves are represented as pictures, such as a section or a microscope slide which can also be regarded as a picture. The objects used and the themes encompass a large time scale. They range from the 19th-century world of science to the present, for example to a forest in the Azores (Forest [afterimage] 2018). The objects on display and the manner of displaying them somewhat resemble a presentation of scientific research, and alongside all its richness, it is minimalist, precise and matter-of-fact. A cold, reserved objectivity which basically defines western science can be felt. The artist’s subjectivity and personality don’t intervene, putting themselves forward. Neither does the formal variety of groups of artworks bear the trace of a single author’s mark or style.

The heterogeneity and the certain creative fragmented nature of the exhibition arise from the fact that although each work is organically connected to the others, i.e. it moves in the same context, in its form and use of materials, as well as its medium, they all have a high degree of independence. It is not a series of works that deal with the given problem but individual works arranged in islands. It is as if each work changed a bit in the conceptual and formal directions, that is they reset thinking but do not vary the given issue in an already shaped formal and aesthetic system with a degree of more or less automatism. Dezsö’s works do not put together the big picture from mosaic blocks or pixels, yet they offer a glimpse of its several possibilities.

The introduction to the exhibition, the inderwelt (2021-2022) triptych – a slap in the face of daddy Heidegger – already shows how the entire exhibition operates. We encounter three large-scale photographs with the same background and with the image of an insect on the right and a different one on the left, while there is a mirror-like oval something in the central photograph. From the inscription on the wall we learn that we are looking at something that we could not basically see and we would not see it as we do now. A fairyfly, one of the smallest insects in the world, is imperceptible to the naked eye, while the small mirror-like object is a highly polished piece of a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite which hit the Earth several thousand years ago. The background in the photos, which is reminiscent of a starry sky, is purely dust, since the photograph of a microscope’s glass plate is reversed into negative making the stains of dirt visible in this enlargement and this size.

On the one hand, the three images open up a dazzling temporal dimension with the meteorite, as well as with the insect species that has lived on Earth for a hundred million years, while on the other, it presents the alienness that surrounds us and is invisible to us, those living or non-living matters which we ignore because of our limited anthropocentric attitude. We practically don’t even have a way of communication with the nonhuman, thus we do not hear the voiceand the language of the nonhuman and neither do we understand it.

The theoretical and practical framework of Being-in-the-world (In-der-Welt-sein, Martin Heidegger) is defined by our blindness to our nonhuman environment.

Having positioned ourselves in our comfortable and hierarchic dichotomy (I vs. nature, man vs. environment, subject vs. object, where the first is always emphatic) we have subdued what is not us in such a way that we haven’t the slightest idea what not us is.

Yet, the environment/world has appeared and become visible to us in the form of an irreversible ecological catastrophe. It has appeared as a ghost or an apparition which is frightful because, on the one hand, we cannot undo what is still happening with the planet in the name of capitalism, we cannot even temporarily drive away or overcome the phantomand, on the other, we have neither the tools of thinking nor the words to understand it, because besides presenting itself the phantom retreats into itself, draws itself away from us. As Michel Serres writes: “Global history enters nature; global nature enters history: this is something utterly new in philosophy.” [2]

Dezsö’s triptych is a mirror held to humankind. It shows that concerning cosmic perspectives and the dimensions of time we are nothing, we are tiny and have no grounds or right to feel superior. There is no difference between us and a fairyfly or a piece of stone. And once we dehumanise ontology, i.e. decapitate it excluding the anthropocentric hierarchy, we get flat ontology (Levi Bryant), in which with a radical coordination a human being, a plant, a stone and dust having got on the same level are obliged to enter into a dialogue with each other.

Headlessness can be a basis of the dialogue with plants, as Márk Horváth put it in his exhibition opening speech: “In so far as we work out the philosophical and aesthetic conceptualisation of the radical viability of plants, we ourselves can learn to think in a vegetal, headless way. It is precisely the absence of head which may make a vegetal way of life interesting, even attractive for us.” [3]

So flowers we aren't.

However, opposite the triptych we can see a marble block on a pedestal, a piece that can be regarded as a part of the pinnacle of the exhibition, Variations of the Self (2018-2022), which brings in the issue of identity. We like to imagine our identity as solid, constant and focused, like a core which practically stands opposite the world, the environment and nature, something which is significantly different from everything which is nonhuman and therefore it is obviously superior due to the mind and the ability of thinking. However this identity is purely a construction.

Identity can rather be imagined as a temporal and spatial process, which permanently changes and even if we are not willing to take notice of, it is in interaction with everything it is closely bonded with and inseparable: with its world, with all the living and non-living which is not itself. There is no point whose permanence, immobility we could indicate.

In his works Tamas Dezsö presents resemblances and analogies of how similar the identity of a headless living being can be to ours. To what extent can a several-hundred-year-old forest or hedge be regarded the same over time. After all, it has no component or entity which would not have been replaced. The world is a complicated rhizome of processes, which cross, are in harmony and contrast with one another, of stepping over boundaries, deaths and births, a single permanent metamorphosis from which human beings were able to get away for a short time, to separate themselves or rise above only with the help of the primitive schemes and construction of western metaphysics.

Variations on the Self demonstrates the process-like nature of identity such that in photographs it renders the stations of carving and then disassembling the bust, and if we look at them thoughtfully the start and the end are the same. Thus we can see that the Self is not a single point, a single condition, but the totality of a temporal process from the moment of birth to death. It is a far richer, more living, variable and more open system that we imagine ourselves to be. The subject of Dezsö’s illustrative example, the model of the bust is Ludwig Wittgenstein, the sharpest and most radical critic and curtailer of the (empty) language and (false) constructions of western metaphysics.

Another illustrative example of identity’s constructive nature is the Descartes-like Larvatus Prodeo (2015-2022), in which 25 forms of faces, masks created with curved wire can be seen in 25 images. Each resembles one another since a recognizable human head, a face can be seen, while at the same time each is different. The photographs are like the protective masks of baseball or ice-hockey players, i.e. the face masks of catchers/pitchers and goalkeepers or elements of those. The Latin title is a prominent quote by the young Descartes from his notebook or diary with the meaning “I advance masked”. The Self can be perceived as a series of masks and constructions. After all, one can never be transparent for oneself, no one knows himself entirely, every part of himself, thus he continuously and instinctively makes up for the shortfalls and blind spots, and substitutes them. He constructs ever new identities, and ever new faces which/who, however, naturally hides from his own glance and reflexion.

Each face has constant elements, since otherwise you would not recognize yourself, yet the permanent elements and their position continuously change. If we could reflect on ourselves at each moment of our life, that is we could simultaneously live and concentrate on what we do and feel with the same intensity, and really thoroughly observe and see what we are at any given moment, we would realize what can be seen in Dezsö’s work Equisetum (2019) – although from a distance it seems that there are no identical horsetails in the picture, thus there are no two identical moments, two identical Selves.

There are only differences. We can see a horsetail field, a forest, yet it is not one but millions of individuals in constant change and transformation. Although every image and segment made of the plant represents the species, it also shows the image of a single specific and inimitable individual.

The construction and shortfalls of our perceptive organs and notions do not make possible either a really precise observation, a close interpretation of matters and signals, or their understanding – understanding what has nothing to do with us. We are unable to understand what/who does not have a language, self-consciousness or a nervous system in our conception. We are not prepared to see not only mirrors and the reflection of our own constructions in the mirrors, but to see something radically and incomprehensibly different, which is itself phantomlike for us. The headlessness of a plant, the fact that it has no comprehensible face for us, is the first image of a dark ontology in contrast with our metaphysics of light partly rooted in Christianity.

So flowers we are or (could be).

Perhaps the most beautiful and compact metaphor of the exhibition is All the Molds Crack (2022). It comprises a glass bell, a wonderfully beautiful, translucent form created by human beings, in which a rose must have been placed, in particular a cut off, dead flower torn away from its habitat and put under the glass bell jar for aesthetic reasons. A thorn of this dead rose pierces the glass. The something that can no longer be ruled, which is no longer a purely romantic background, a field of golden age fantasies, which is no longer nature that we must save and guard from ourselves and about which we still think that its being only depends on us, breaks into our world – precisely into the consciousness of our world.

The significance and substance of Tamas Dezsö’s work, which is far-reaching in several senses of the word, rich in ideas, raising several issues and reinterpreting a number of them, is increased in a certain sense by the fact that it marks a very important and radical turning point in his artistic career. The artist’s work has been defined by press and documentary photography and he has achieved outstanding success in that field. The new era of his career outlines the character of a consistently thinking artist who, having exhausted the possibilities of a given way of seeing and thinking, is able to make a radical shift, to fundamentally transform his image and identity, his standpoint about art. Dezsö’s exhibition clarifies and interprets the metamorphosis of his career and identity. His work prolifically responds to and resonates with the artist’s (professional) biography.

Flowers we are.
Yes or no?

[1] KURTÁG György: The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza op.7, 1963-68, 1976

[2] SERRES, Michel: Natural Contract, p. 4, translated by Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson

[3] HORVÁTH Márk: Opening speech, 27 October 2022, Last accessed: 5 November 2022