Saturday 22 June 2019


Touching on current debates around artificial and plant intelligence whilst evoking horror film props and prosthetics, artist Dean Kenning’s mechanised science fictional sculptures playful enact his Promethian attempts at bringing matter to life
A pair of plastic protuberances bump together awkwardly to the laboured thrum of obscured machinery which creaks and groans as if to say ‘I am exhausted, please look after me.’ Sparring flaccidly, the two tentacular figures atop the podium are caught between desperate caresses and a flailing battle for an impossible victory. Brief gaps punctuate the rounds of the doomed dual, in which the white limbs fall trembling into stillness and the space becomes silent; the voyeuristic guilt of the claustrophobic encounter somehow less pronounced.

Untitled (Rubber Plant), 2019, mixed media kinetic sculpture

Dean Kenning’s exhibition at Matt’s Gallery extends the artist’s ongoing series of kinetic sculpture into a quasi-botanical realm. The rubber plant on display here is a much meatier incarnation of the nervously wobbling plantoids that appeared in the artist’s 2007 Berlin and 2009 New York shows. His motorised practice aims, in his own words, ‘to develop a compulsive aesthetic and a pseudo-autonomous art object by bringing matter to life’.

Kenning’s Renaissance Man sculpture of 2017 is one memorable experiment in this vein. A grotesque reimagination of the artist as a ‘mechanised animal’, the figure’s hollow aluminium body gyrates methodically up and down in a strange quadrupedal press-up. The metal arms strain in a convincing mimicry of muscular movement and exertion, and the swaying hair attached to the modelled face subtly animates the inert technology.

Kenning’s sculptures are overtly and proudly mechanical but, through an emphasis on kinesis, draw attention to the ease with which technology reflects the natural and human world around it. Like horror film props and prosthetics, a frightening reality is brought to life not by visual verisimilitude alone, but through the uncanny performance of familiar motions and sounds. Conscious movement tends to signal a nervous system identifiable as alive, yet a lack of recognisable movement, as plant neurobiologists remind us, does not signify a lack of intelligence.


My Animal Friends, 2019, enamel and gloss on ply

On three of the four gallery walls are colourful diagrammatic drawings picturing various routes through questions of origins and values. Kenning has previously used triangular and Venn diagrams to map out his observations of neoliberal crisis and the rise of right-wing populism, and these works offer a similar visualisation of critical thinking through drawing. Asking Where do you come from artwork? he reflects on the creation of the aforementioned rubber sculpture, illustrating different potential moments of conception, from the artist’s mind to the transformative gallery space. These two origins are captioned in a theatrical tone to imply a scepticism regarding the ahistorical, while the remaining two options of materials, processes + contexts that make it up and the naturo-social world it represents seem more sincere suggestions, embedded in cultural production. With this question of how matter is brought to life Kenning weaves his practice together with current debates around both artificial and plant intelligence, questioning human beings’ uncertain autonomy and status within these networks.

Where Do You Come From Artwork (2020), enamel and gloss on ply

‘Life’, in inverted commas, is also interrogated by philosopher John Roberts in an essay specially commissioned for the show. Roberts perceives in old, outdated machinery the fundamental truth that technology never really arrives at its destination. The resultant uncanniness or ghostliness of said technology detached from its usefulness (in rationalising and organising human needs and desires) is what he deems Kenning’s refunctioning of old machines and parts to be concerned with. The impotent silicone rubber figures of Untitled (Rubber Plant) can never resolve their fight (or flirtation), and in this failure is revealed the truth of technological progress; what Roberts terms the ‘death-drive of technology’. The machine is forever locked in self-destructive limbo, unable to die as it is upgraded and adapted in a human-dictated process of evolution. Kenning’s rubber plant is given a new, synthetic existence, but it is a far cry from the rogue, super-intelligent and antagonistic plant-life of science fiction.

Untitled (Rubber Plant), 2019, mixed media kinetic sculpture

Kenning ponders this longevity by mapping the vital heat of an animal onto a drawing of Renaissance Man. The result playfully disputes Descartes’ 17th century theory of animals as automata, directly comparing a rodent: ‘ZERO HEAT = DEATH’, to a machine: ‘ZERO HEAT = MAX. EFFICIENCY’. In his analysis, Roberts brings burgeoning anxieties around being outlived by our creations, whether these be kinetic sculptures, plastic bags, or AI, to bear on current ecological thinking and a probable ‘future world of thinking and self-organizing plants and other life-forms’. He (somewhat abruptly) carries his sense of the futility of mechanistic movement into an argument against an assumed ‘solidarity’ between human and the nonhuman. He suggests instead an ‘immanent violence of the human-indifferent human-created nonhuman’ and that therefore there ‘is no harmony with nature waiting for us, even if we get through this current global ecological crisis.’ Unless, he states, humans were to put aside their egoism and offer themselves up to nonhuman lifeforms, as foodstuffs…

Although Roberts’ essay provides a compelling navigational tool, I cannot help but recoil from his pessimistic philosophising of the post-anthropocentric conflict that apparently awaits us. For me, his analysis misses an optimistic message implicit in Kenning’s work; that however uncomfortable, ugly and unfamiliar, there are lives that exist outside human aims, desires and value-judgements. And by working through the uncertainties, and inner conflicts such lives provoke in us, we might better equip ourselves to accept and accommodate these differences.

Abigail Ashford

Dean Kenning
Matts Gallery
London SE16
8-30 June 2019

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the work. It is not simply pessimistic to foreground the possibility that other agents in a network emerge as sadistic, say, or somehow pathological in their relation to us. Technology, in fact, is indifferent to the cruelty it causes, in the way of bureaucratic or other predatory animals. Denning's pieces say a lot about distinctions. It makes me think that some kind of Human exceptionalism (of a new sort) might be in order.