The medium of life in fact is a huge garden

Interview with visual artist Tamas Dezsö
by Katica Kocsis for kultura.hu, October 2022


Examining the issue of identity, Tamas Dezsö’s exhibition Hypothesis: Everything is leaf  in the Capa Center presents the similarities of human and vegetal existence. One of the most important statements of the works, which are exhibited as a wunderkammer, is that every living being is of the same matter and similar structures as a human being. In other words, everything that lives is a temporary station of an immense metamorphosis.

The exhibition in the Capa Center examines the connections between the living world and human beings. Can the scientific and philosophical aspects of this issue be separated?

They cannot, nothing can be separated from anything; everything meets and is intertwined with everything. Today we already know that not only is our scientific knowledge deficient, but also by their nature the measurements and their results are false or at most imprecise. Correspondingly, a large part of our scientific knowledge is constructed: it does not show reality and classifies living beings arbitrarily. I am concerned whether it is possible to include the non-human worlds and actors into our thinking in compliance with their own significance. Whether it is possible to dismantle the favoured human viewpoint.

How did the work on display at the exhibition come about?

It required five years of which a large part was, of course, spent on reading and learning. Each of the works displayed here expresses my experience of understanding. The fact that it can all be seen at this exhibition is due to curator István Virágvölgyi, who followed the work with attention from the beginning and invited me to exhibit the images, statues and installations at the Capa Center.

Walking round the exhibition I pondered all along over the questions “where did we come from, who are we, where are we heading?” How does the work reflect on those issues?

Of contemporary evolutionary theories Emanuele Coccia’s theory of metamorphosis is the closest to me. According to him, the significance of metamorphosis enables the same life to exist in different bodies in time and space, and this connection links all living beings. Moreover, it even connects the living with the inorganic. After all, the matter itself, the particles of the Earth move around in different living beings and the inorganic. The bacteria, fungi, plants, animals and we ourselves are one and the same life, for we have one ancestor of which all of us are transitory states, mediatory media.

The title of the exhibition comes from Goethe who himself investigated the identity of plants as enthusiastically as you.

I very much like Goethe’s ideas about the relationship of form, shape and prototype. His contemplation about metamorphosis and the origin of life can be regarded as Coccia’s archetype of metamorphosis. In his book Metamorphosis of Plants and his poem of the same title Goethe’s statements are as if they were made today. Although he didn’t go beyond an anthropocentric position, almost new-materialist ideas appear in his works examining vegetal life, its rules and the essence of life itself.

Right in the middle of the climate crisis the exhibition raises ecological issues, for example in the case of Forest.

What interests me in such a perspective presentation of the forest is context. There are worlds both of microscopic size and existing in other periods associated with the image. And man is originally a being confined between these two extremes, while being unable to really comprehend either. We cannot take in or feel the significance of the temporality of the forest, not to mention the infinite number of dramas which take place there. The picture shows a sixteen-million-year-old forest on an island, in which everything – matter and species constituting the forest – has been replaced many times. Constant supplantation also belongs to the internal world of a forest and the never-ending drama.

Human identity and vegetal existence – how do the exhibited works relate to these issues?

My main source of inspiration about the issue of human identity was Derek Parfit’s 1984 book Reasons and Persons. His reasoning and revelations about personal identity are absolutely captivating. I connected human and vegetal identity because of John Locke, who, in the short introduction for the chapter Identity of Vegetables in his magnum opus of 1689 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was the first to write about vegetal personal identity, namely the temporality of plants, their survival in time. I think the parallel as a thought experiment is absolutely appropriate, since human beings and plants are constituted by the same matter, which is arranged by life into a working system. It is rather ludicrous that western philosophy has ignored vegetal existence almost completely for thousands of years. It has simply not noticed that the surface of the earth, namely the medium of life is actually a huge garden. The air itself is part of this garden, since the atmosphere is not originally given, but is continuously being created.

The issues of metamorphosis are also exciting and are raised most emphatically in the series Variations on the Self.

Yes, Variations on the Self raises the question of self identity most directly, i.e. what criteria are needed for a living being to remain identical to itself throughout a given time despite constant change? My friend the sculptor Gergő Ámmer carved the bust of Wittgenstein from a rock then shaped it back to the amorphous form of the rock. We planned each phase of the work carefully, documenting them. Then we gathered the small rock, which can be seen in the last picture, all the broken down, knocked off particles of Carrara marble and the resulting dust. All this can be seen in the exhibition. In principle the whole work can be put together in a reverse order.

If identity is so easy to shape, existence is also fragile and at the mercy of outside circumstances. How is it worth relating to that?

Honestly speaking, I don’t have a clue. It sets my mind at rest that I can deal with these issues because the constant trials and hopeless attempts to understand produce the illusion for me that I sometimes understand something, so I am somewhat in control of the situation.

Is man a grain of dust if we look at him from the perspective of the whole?

I don’t know if the human being is or isn’t a grain of dust in the great entirety. Yet it is sure that he has caused significant, moreover planet-size changes to the detriment of others and himself. The crisis experienced now includes many other components, but the role of mankind can no longer be questioned in the whole picture. Neither do I really know what the essence is, because I don’t think that there would be any final sense of anything. Yet the word essence can only be interpreted in this sense.

The works of your present exhibition are strongly approaching fine arts. You have come a long way from photo reports.

It would be strange if I did the same as ten or twenty years ago. I try to learn, observe, develop, and the work clearly mirrors that. It is neither the means nor the medium that interest me, but rather what I want to understand at that point and what I can think over freely.

Several series, statues and installations are displayed at the exhibition. Would a single photograph be too narrow a frame to present your message?

Yes, I try to subordinate the work to the original idea and choose some kind of medium for that. And the mixture of media reflects the heterogeneous character of thinking better.

I’ve read the following about you: “He finds picturesque order and beauty in a disfigured world with an incredible eye.” Is it important for you to evoke delight by your photographs?

No, of course, art does not aim at delighting the eye. For example, we find the work Garden beautiful because we find the leaves and organic forms beautiful. My role in that is practically zero. What I only did is to have turned the image in colour into negative. It is a very simple gesture. It is this simplicity which was important for me, namely the effect which in this way has an impact on further examination. The feeling of depth suddenly disappears, forms become stronger, the surfaces, the rhisomatic proliferation dominate the image; it all has the effect of being too much and incomprehensible. While all the components have the same significance, we are looking only at a garden which people left alone a few decades ago and the plants grow unhindered.

What is the task of art today?

We could talk about the task of art for years, but even my own relationship to art is complicated. I think I like artistic representations best in so far as I feel time and that someone has got far in the process of thinking, so that they would bring something back from there, from the ends, so to say. My work is a kind of recording, an interpretation and, most of all, an attempt. I very much like how Henri Bergson refers to philosophy as an attempt to surpass the human condition. I have no intention of comparing myself to Bergson, but the constant and often hopeless attempt to surpass the human condition as an artistic programme is very close to me.

How are you continuing to develop the intellectual sphere of ideas you have started here?

I am extending the work presented at this exhibition and continue to study the connecting possibilities of philosophy, sculpture, installation and photography.