Mocking the eyes and pricking the conscience
Forever fusing the fantastic with the apocalyptic, gallows humor with moral purpose, shock tactics with consummate artistry, old-school London southpaw Peter Kennard remains the John Heartfield of contemporary British photomontage.
His new picture book, Visual Dissent, celebrates 50 years in business; ringing each year with text marking the global benchmarks of outrage, all prized through its huge back catalog. It’s a dense, angry, funny, and catchy book: awesome imagery flowing in a relentless stream. Each is a hot critic, its austere visual equations soldering often denied causal links between hunger, poverty, war and advanced capitalism. The results can be difficult to dislodge from his brain.
With little ceremony, he ignited in 1969, excoriating Kissinger and Nixon, who intensified the general bombings of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – a neo-imperial paradigm he traces through the 1973 coup. supported by the CIA in Chile in Afghanistan today.
With equal fury, he marks Bloody Sunday in Derry and the Birmingham Six, Guilford Four and Maguire Seven legal scandals. At the time, he worked with the Troops Out movement; and his montage protesting the use of rubber bullets is a fair howl of anger.
Kennard clearly distinguishes collage (“where often the fragments deliberately don’t match”) from photomontage, the deliberate construction of an image. He describes many self-invented methods; making models and photographing props and, long before Photoshop, laboriously working “rough” through trial and error in the darkroom.
Some are very literal metaphors (“I have been accused of rendering images that ‘bleed”), like a child of African famine as a roulette chip: the idea of Western elites playing with the lives of entire populations. Its visual vocabulary and branded devices are constantly updated: intercontinental ballistic missiles; macabre gas masks; his always elegiac skeletons; the photograph of the Earth taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts, which he repeatedly abused; its magnifying glass revealing hidden realities such as, to illustrate “2018: Capitalism”, the sprawling favela seen through the glittering skyscrapers of a financial district.
Kennard operates at the crossroads of art and activism, taunting the eye with a form of political advertising to subvert “corporate imagery” that has “slipped off billboards to invade every crack and crevice. of public space as well as our conscious and subconscious minds ”.
It has been at the heart of almost every major British protest movement; carrying placards and posters of CND activists and women of Greenham Common for campaigns against the invasion of Iraq, austerity and climate disaster.
Always berating war and state violence, he was the main exhibitor at the great Art the Arms Fair last week, held to protest the vast biennial international arms fair for defense and security in London, a shindig organized by the government for ministers, officials, arms dealers and military delegations from regimes such as Bahrain, Turkey, Israel, the Philippines, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and, just title, the Hong Kong Army and Police.
Kennard has always ridiculed politicians, especially conservatives: his hilarious John Major as the Mona Lisa; or the astonishing hideous Maggie Regina (Thatcher’s head grafted onto Queen Victoria), a “failed montage”, Kennard laments, as Thatcher “rather approved”. Many of these originals now reside at the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum, Victoria & Albert and even the Imperial War Museum, which hosted Kennard’s one-year retrospective in 2015-2016.
Yet he barely makes a living from his job; instead of earning a crust as a part-time political art professor at Royal College London, while also detailing several “insidiously subtle forms of censorship” in public art institutions. He prefers his images to proliferate in non-artistic public spaces: published anonymously with fellow activists or disseminated online for use, for example, at the 2013 G8 meeting in Enniskillen. Some are perennial: His ‘broken missile’ mount for CND reappeared 36 years later to mark the £ 20 billion upgrade of the Trident nuclear weapons system in 2007: while his insectoid, Cold War Union Mask , was reused to challenge the invasion of Iraq.
The text contains little real biography, other than, say, visiting the library at Paddington with his father and being impressed by the wooden lecterns carrying open journals, sowing his long fascination with newsprint. He always imprints haunting images on the index pages of stock prices, often torn apart by the desperate clutches of the poor. Some are over-painted, like German Expressionism: “distressed” images of children in the reticule of killer drones; or the faces of refugees without mouths projected onto a photosensitized canvas which he then pushes back with paint, making them look like accusing specters.
Oddly enough, he nowhere mentions Cat Phillipps, his close collaborator since 2002: an alliance that has launched many iconic works (like the snickers selfie Tony Blair against the hellish conflagration of the Iraqi oilfields) seen during their extraordinary exhibition earlier this year. year at Tallaght’s Rua Red; or their spectacular show alongside Seán Hillen at the National Archives of Photography in 2010, when they plagued the place with burnt wooden exhibits of human plunder in Iraq, decorated with pages from the Chilcott Report.
But another book is planned from their joint work, while Cat spends a year in Denmark. They have certainly proven that they are a great duo. We see changes in Kennard’s work after 2002: entering the digital realm and working on a large scale, like his huge “photo-paintings” of modified military medals; their starry ribbons tear or tear; the medals were replaced by helmets marked with counts, the bandaged heads of children, hooded prisoners or the detritus of aerial bombardments.
Eccentric in common sense, Kennard’s spirit breathes through these pages, most notably the photos of him walking the busy streets of London pushing his “quick-response” News Truck (a “large metal street vehicle, filled with giant newsagent screens ”) at the London Stock Exchange to mark the collapse of Lehman Brothers with a fleeting street display.
Although Trump has undermined the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Paris Agreement, Kennard optimistically denounces actions like the Extinction Rebellion. In college, he sees more and more students engaging in political work or collaborations outside the art market; even internationally, especially in Africa. “Corporate control over our societies,” he concludes, is more powerful than ever. “But so is resistance.”
This is all very encouraging.
Visual Dissent, by Peter Kennard, with 75 color images, is published by Pluto Press