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Peter Kennard’s Research Takes Photomontage into Twenty-first Century

Everyone will know the work of leading exponent of the art of photomontage Peter Kennard – from the bold, monochrome hand-crafted images that defined protest imagery for the CND and Greenham Common generation, to his digital representation of the self-publicising ‘soul’ of prime minister Tony Blair, produced in collaboration with Cat Phillipps.

Peter Kennard is a political artist, whose work responds to social context – in particular, to war and conflict – deconstructing the operations of the media in the reporting of events. He examines in particular what Noam Chomsky calls ‘the management of consent’, exploring and critiquing the circulation of mass-media images – particularly those produced in relation to war and conflict – by using images from press and television news and thus engaging in a critical strategy for testing matters of public interest such as image rights and news management.

Kennard’s work demonstrates a deep engagement with the way that ‘the news’ is constructed. Using the technique of photomontage (which has a history of political narrative that dates back to the early twentieth century and artists such as dadaist Hannah Hoch, constructivist Alexander Rodchenko and anti-fascist photomonteur John Heartfield) and bringing it up to date, moving between media and reworking production methods with what he calls ‘materiality and depth’ to create uniquely powerful results that inhabit a space between the digital and the handmade. His collaborative digital images push the boundaries of technology, using flatbed scanners and image manipulation packages with a hand-crafted photomontage approach. ‘We do what you’re not meant to do with digital stuff, like pouring dust all over the flatbed scanner…’, he says.

The question of how to achieve the precise concentration of meaning offered by the technique of photomontage in the context of the restless media environment has been addressed in works such as The Haywain with Cruise Missiles, produced as a response to the impending arrival of US cruise missiles at Greenham Common, and Photo Op – an image combining a news photograph of then prime minister Tony Blair taking a ‘selfie’ with another image of a billowing cloud of flames, described by the Guardian as ‘the definitive work of art about the war that started with the invasion of Iraq in 2003’.

Recently, Kennard has extended his practice as an image-maker to explore the effects of online animations, video works and installations in public spaces. In 2013, the Arts Council funded a collaborative residency with Cat Phillipps at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, which coincided with the Imperial War Museum’s group exhibition Caught in the Crossfire: Artistic Responses to Conflict, Peace and Reconciliation. Here, the ‘War on War Room’ operated as a photomontage workshop over a two-week period, with Kennard and Phillipps achieving direct impact by working with different groups in workshops, including disenfranchised people such as students excluded from school or individuals from refugee communities. The resulting mass of digital and manual assemblage, signage and placards was exhibited in the museum’s transitory spaces and entrance to the Caught in the Crossfire exhibition.

Kennard has a strong commitment to various forms of collaborative practice, exemplified in his work since 2002 with Cat Phillipps, which includes the ongoing exploration of new forms of digital configuration. He has also realised opportunities to work with different social groups at home and outside the UK. This has taken him to sites of conflict, further extending his research methods. A visit to produce work in Palestine in 2007 led to Kennard and Phillipps’ studying photographic collections of pre-1948 Palestine, together with an exchange with political activists and scholars in the region, resulting in a work made and shown in Bethlehem. They were later commissioned to make a large mural for P21 Gallery, London, exhibited in 2011. This explored the history of the Palestinian people in the twentieth century through public and private photographic images.

Kennard’s works seek out the widest social and political impact, often drawing attention from and through the news media and those engaged in conflict resolution. In 2009 Kennard and Phillipps were commissioned to recreate Control Room as a vast mural for the exhibition Embedded Art at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. The show’s curators, artist group BBM, describe this artwork as being ‘vital’ to the conception of this landmark and experimental exhibition exploring the threats to public life since 9/11: Kennard’s ‘artistic language… has an immediate, accessible and intelligible impact on the general public. His ability to work with complex politically controversial topics and incorporate findings from contemporary news and factual reports, in order to make them understandable to audiences both within and beyond the artworld, was essential’.

Kennard understands art as a mode of production – of an object and a message – and his artworks are by no means produced solely for the art market. His approach to the publication of his images is to create what has been called ‘image-events’, activist moments when the images themselves become the subject of public or media attention. As well as disseminating the image of Photo Op, Kennard and Phillipps projected an animated version of the image on to Central Hall Westminster before Blair was due to speak at the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war.

His art can take the form of single works, series of works and narrative forms, such as his five books published by academic and non-academic presses. In @Earth (Tate Publishing, 2011) aimed to make a completely non-verbal narrative using photomontage, in a widely accessible and easily disseminated form. It was the first artist’s book commissioned by Tate, ‘…in the belief that art has an impact on everyone’s lives and that Peter Kennard’s art has a particular message that is important to communicate in contemporary contexts’.

Kennard’s work has featured in 19 solo and 41 group shows in Europe, the Middle East, North and Latin America between 2004–13, with a major retrospective Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist opening at the Imperial War Museum, London, in May 2015. His work has been acquired by galleries and museums of international standing, including the Scottish National Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, Imperial War Museum and the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, which supported the latter purchase, stated: ‘It’s important these works go on public display to help provoke thought, debate and dialogue.’

The impact of Kennard’s research on public opinion is recognised by the political groups, charities and NGOs that regularly commission images for campaigns, including Amnesty International, the Greater London Authority, Greenpeace and Nakba 60, and his ongoing research in the Middle East has led to further commissions by agencies and charities that seek to promote public understanding of the role of the media in transmitting the effects of conflict. He says, ‘I don’t believe that art makes change. I think art allied to organisations can be the visual counterpart for change.’

The reproduction of Kennard’s work in the press and other media contexts is evidence of its sustained and long-lasting impact on the operations of the media. His research has achieved significant impact on public opinion and sustained impact on the operations of the media in representing war and conflict. Kennard says, ‘The work of artists becomes more and more important as the world is increasingly bombarded by vacuous corporate imagery. It’s vital that art doesn’t become elitist and decadent by removing itself from everyday experience.’

Work by kennardphillipps (Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps) is currently on display in Afterimage: Images of Conflict, Galleria Civica, Trento, Italy, 26 October 2014 – 1 February 2015

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is at the Imperial War Museum, London, from May 2015