Thursday, 10 May 2012

Meanwhile, Back @earth...


...I was convinced that no artist since Rodchenko had produced any politically inspired photomontages. Of course, I have seen my share of collages created by conceptual artists. Melinda Gibson, Toshiko Okanoue, Ina Jang, Eva-Fiore Kovacovsky and Ruth van Beek are some good examples. Their works are aesthetically pleasing, occasionally funny, sometimes dreamy or melancholy. And they are most definitely art for art's sake. But then I came across the work of Peter Kennard. It is quite refreshing to look at work that has such an overt political and social message, work that is really produced to make a statement about the world and everything that is wrong with it. Kennard's photomontages share the same revolutionary spirit as Rodchenko's famous images. As he explained during his talk at this year's National Photography Symposium in London, he got inspired by the explosive mix of graphics, typography and photography of 1920s Russia, as well as by Dadaism and the works of Bertold Brecht. Most of you will have seen Kennard's work without realizing it is his. After all, who does not know this incredible image of Tony Blair photographing himself with a cell phone in his hand and a rictus grin on his face, whilst in the background the desert explodes and an ominously billowing black cloud fills the sky?

Disappointed with painting and disillusioned by the Vietnam War, Kennard took to photomontage as a medium. His career kicked off working for newspapers, where he produced images and photomontages as commentaries on current affairs. The characteristics of the printing presses, the speed of the newspaper industry and the need to convey the meaning of the image loud and clear to the readers have informed his practice. Since then he has been involved in various direct action groups, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Even though quite a few of those protest movements have disappeared since, Kennard has been working flat out to make the visual message as accessible as possible via pop up exhibitions, workshops and artist talks.

And now he has produced a nice little book called @earth. It consists of seven chapters. Apart from the blurb on the back, no words at all are used in this publication. It is a completely visual document. Even the chapter headings are indicated with images. The first chapter presents disturbing images of climate change, and the destruction and pollution of natural resources. The second and third chapters deal with the increasing militarization, the use of torture in the name of security, the gradual encroachment of a Big Brother society, and the failure of organizations such as the United Nations to keep the peace. The fourth chapter deals with a very specific conflict, i.e. between Israel and Palestine. Following this are very critical images of modern-day casino capitalism, and the growing divide between the poor and the rich, the West and the rest. These photomontages are amongst the most harrowing produced by Kennard. They are followed by images dealing with the world's dependency on oil and his earliest works produced for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Interestingly enough, even though it has become common place to state that the meaning of an image is fluid and subjective, that pictures are subject to multiple interpretations, and that a picture  equals a thousand words, it seems to me that there can be no mistaking the meaning of Kennard's photomontages. He uses visual tropes and graphic design elements in a very intelligent way, preventing the images from becoming easy cliches. This is no mean feat. @earth is a j'accuse, an indictment of the modern-day world, one I am ashamed to live in. But it is also a call to arms. It is not too late, things can still be changed for the good. @earth is but one small step in that direction.

Kennard's work is included in many major collections, including Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum. His work has been published in numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Scotsman, New Statesman and Time Magazine. @earth is published in 2011 by Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 85437 984 9.

Karin Bareman

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