CHICAGO — Joshua Kent stands barefoot, his palm outstretched and relaxed, in it a mid-size rose quartz crystal nuzzled against a loose pod of soil. The rose quartz was a gift from a patron of Roman Susan gallery, in an attempt to encourage the growth of the small seed in Kent’s hand. Largely informed by a walking trip from Chicago to North Carolina that he took in 2012 without money or possessions, Kent’s newest project, “On the impossibility of a singular hand,” involves less physical strain but just as few supplies. With a flamboyant collectedness Kent is attempting to grow a seed within the palm of his hand while living in the gallery for a week. Although the plant seed is misted regularly with water, Kent, beyond wearing a simple blue button-down and slightly tattered khaki shorts, is surviving only off of what visitors bring him.
The majority of Kent’s seven-day project, then, is based on the audience — and the audience is key, as he sustains his own ability to care for the plant by others’ contributions. Outside of Kent’s artistic practice he drives a truck for a perishable food recovery program in Chicago, rescuing and redistributing food and flowers from markets to local shelters. During the opening of the show at Roman Susan, he set up a brightly colored and abundant offering titled “The Flowers of the Field Are Free,” a collection of flowers, nuts, chocolates, and berries that were saved through the program. The display is intended mainly for those who visit — for them to take from and add to the stock — although the replenished supply will also be consumed by Kent.
“One of the goals of the project is that people come in and they start asking questions about how I am eating and sleeping,” he explained. “I am subsisting off of whatever I experience in the space.” Kent wants his experience to be molded and manipulated by those who pass through, to have details of his survival come up naturally instead of directly asking patrons for assistance. As a result of conversations with visitors thus far, Kent has received a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast from an intoxicated stranger, homemade crepes and Turkish coffee from neighbors of the gallery who had never entered the space before the show, and several offers to stay overnight with him as he sleeps (these are for companionship — Kent has devised a sling to hold his hand upright while he dozes).
I visited Kent several times over the last few days. My preconceptions of the performance had been grand, imagining a strict monastic individual silently holding a pile of dirt, a spectacle removed from the audience, almost like a zoological display. The reality is far different: Kent is an accessible force within the gallery, his hold on the whole endeavor loose. The pod fits naturally in his grasp, his hand acting as a kind of planter for the naked soil. I discovered that the rich brown dirt was planted with a variety of microgreens, and by my third visit was surprised to see more than one bright green bud emerging out of Kent’s palm. He willing passes off the pod to those who ask, allowing others to co-parent the plant and put their own energy into its growth. “I realized that the show could still be very easily be about my own ego, even though all of the language I was using was very communal,” said Kent, explaining that choice. He hopes to keep the show about the communal nature of growth rather than focusing on his singular influence on the seed’s life; his hand alone is not enough.
In that sense, although Kent’s immediate goal is the growth of the seed, he’s also extended the idea of growing to other performances and events throughout the week, inviting several other artists, performers, and lecturers whose practices address community growth to share the gallery space. These include a family-centered artistic exchange, a performance based on biodynamic water, guided yoga sessions, and a community potluck to round out the week (Kent wants to use the seed in the potluck, but hasn’t yet figured out how). A few of Kent’s art objects, a disjointed group of floral collages, brightly painted cardboard sculptures, and a bedazzled ski mask, decorate the walls of the gallery as well, and physical remnants from each day’s events join Kent’s work and stay on view for the rest of the show.
The seed sprouted on the third day, but its birth was downplayed by the artist, who chose instead to focus on the process of the its development. “The seed is important — I think it’s symbolic,” said Kent. “It is visual, but I think it is also very much the beginning to something.” The seed is a spectacle, but it’s also become an impetus for conversation and community; its successful growth is backed by more than just one hand.
Joshua Kent: On the impossibility of a singular hand continues at Roman Susan (1224 W. Loyola Ave, Chicago) through June 21. Kent is living at the gallery through June 8.