The centrepiece of Dean Kenning’s new show ‘Psychobotanical’ is ‘Untitled (Rubber Plant)’, a kinetic sculpture made of silicon. On a waist-high plinth, two perfectly white, tendrilled sculptures are motorised to interact with each other in a way which seems both random and imbued with human gesture – somewhere between the wavy wind-sock creatures you see outside MOT garages and a gallery-friendly ‘Day Of The Triffids’.
Despite the inanimate nature of silicon, and the non-human nature of plants, it’s impossible not to describe ‘Untitled (Rubber Plant)’ in human terms. In an essay commissioned to celebrate the new show at Matt’s Gallery, philosophical writer and thinker John Roberts says they: ‘square up to each other or dirty dance for territory and perhaps for sexual dominance’, the rubber is fauna come live, despite the fact we can see and hear the basic mechanics of the thing. Kenning calls it a ‘fleshy logic’; the desire to read movements as our own, the desire to see intelligence – or at least artificial intelligence – in certain textures and gestures.
This is one threshold where the ‘psycho’ meets the ‘botanical’. This intersection is a preoccupation of much of Kenning’s previous work, which he is said to have ‘tumefied’ for this new show. To tumefy is to become swollen. Organic things become swollen, as do brains, egos, the matter of thinking. It is a curiously precise word for all this stuff.
The sculpture is also accompanied by three paintings, each on a different wall of the 3x3x3 exhibition space. The paintings are diagrammatic in their style, something of a recurring theme in Kenning’s practice. Philosophical terms, line drawings of bodies and irreverent captions form the basis of his psychological universe. ‘Are You Human’ (2019) features three human forms labelled BODY, SUBJECT and CULTURE, line-drawn in style and each illustrating the qualities of ‘Chemistry’, ‘Experience’ and ‘Language’. They are charming – take ‘Experience’, which has a belly-full of musical notes and hearts for eyes.
‘Where Do You Come From’ (2019) is an image which takes on the tone of a self-help pamphlet investigating the possible origins of artistic ideas. It’s a testament to Kenning’s skill as visual storyteller that all options depicted (‘the artist’s head’, ‘the materials, processes + contexts’ etc.) seem strikingly well-observed, and at the same time, utterly silly. The humorous streak takes a darker turn in ‘My Animal Friends’ (2019), which compares the animal to the machine through the visual metaphor of the lab rat vs. the robot. This is a ‘joke’ best viewed rather than described.
In the essay, Roberts talks about Kenning as having created a sort of ‘synthetic Life 2.0’ in ‘Psychobotanical’, a version of existence bound up in the concerns of our environmentally threatened world, one in line with current ecological thinking which seeks ‘solidarity with the non-human’. If so, Kenning’s artistic solidarity is one which is deeply concerned and full of generosity.