Last week, London artist Peter Kennard took some time out of his day to celebrate and reflect on his artistic career, now spanning fifty years. The Gallery at Foyles is hosting Kennard’s latest exhibition of his most iconic works since 1969 in conjunction with his new book of the same name from Pluto Press. Curated by Futurecity with a hands on approach from the artist, this busy selection outlines a timeline of influential events and critical responses. From the Vietnam War to the second wave of nuclear disarmament campaigns, the common theme is of accountability as much as it is of resistance. Kennard takes us through the histories and techniques behind some of his most recognisable works.
Starting out by stacking half-a-dozen large format negatives and printing them as a single composition, Kennard saw an opportunity to more effectively represent the atrocities of war as well as his own experiences at demonstrations in London. Chaotic imagery could elevate the typical journalistic photograph beyond what was capable alone. Photography is a direct form of communication and symbolism is understood on a subconscious level. Kennard’s approach to reusing ‘straight photographs’ for more impactful means was well understood by artists at the time – spawning from the Dadaists of the First World War. As Kennard explained it: “With photography you have seperate images and with montage you bring those images together and you create another meaning. You try to break open the smoothness that is often represented in society, or the distance saying ‘this thing is out there’ and try and bring it into your own lives.”
Ever since challenging the expectation to create solely from the studio at the conservative art schools where he studied painting, Kennard knew the importance of finding inspiration from everyday life. His commitment to producing work from real experience, for real people, gave Kennard a deep understanding of “the media bias towards entertainment, taking people’s mind off it, selling their products,” and nothing has changed in the past fifty years, as Kennard goes on: “the internet is where you find interesting work but that is surrounded by advertising and pushing people to buy all this crap that they don’t need.” Political by design, Visual Dissent cuts through the fog of a society fed dreams of mass-consumption and attempts to lead counter-culture from the front. Kennard “see[s] photojournalism now as very much a counter-activity. It’s countering everything that’s established in our society that is becoming more and more corporate where the corporate world has taken over every aspect of the world we’re in. The voices against that become absolutely vital in terms of artists and photographers and writers creating a counter-narrative to what’s going on.” Counter-narrative, as Kennard continues, is the extent of it. To allow people to understand everyday issues in another context is not a form of propaganda; “it’s not telling people what to do, it’s trying to open up, to show what’s happening.”
Kennard’s practical and sequential process for creating imagery is almost a reflection of the reactionary nature of the end product. There is a continuity between physical elements that presents itself as honest and from our world despite the chaotic result. Grounding images in reality is heavily inspired by the work of John Heartfield’s “images that were very much stuck together but made to look like they had this realistic basis to them.” Kennard spoke about how he created Defended to Death (1983) and Union Mask (2003):
“I looked at that image of the Earth then tried to see what would fit over it – immediately I thought of a gas mask and then I stuck a gas mask on a globe and photographed it. I then looked at it and it had these eye-holes, so then I could put something in the eye-holes, and it had the air bit for the mouth, and the missiles can come out of it. So, it creates a realistic image in that sense, even though it’s completely something that doesn’t exist in the world in that way.”
A similarly hands-on approach was taken in the creation of a trio of images from ‘@Earth’. These grotesque closeups reveal an exaggerated view of the Earth as if it were an alternative universe. Although a different physical process, and with Kennard penning the work as ‘staged photographs’ rather than photomontages, the similarly methodical approach to their creation went something like this: “I made these giant round ice cubes – something to drop into a giant glass of whisky, or something like that – so I filled them with water and with blue food dye. When it had frozen I then poured dust and bit of shit on them, and molasses is what that is, and then photographed it on a black background.” Kennard took the opportunity to criticise the softer approach to visual communication Extinction Rebellion have taken in place of such visceral depictions of our climate in crisis. Although “quite beautiful” Kennard can’t help but see that they are “very difficult thing to engage with” as a result of their reliance on language in place of imagery.
Chaos goes hand-in-hand with crudity, but Kennard explains that his rough, emotional yet methodical, approach is not the only way of going about creating politically critical art. Jeff Wall, a pioneer in manipulated photography, has taken the power out of advertising campaigns and big media projects by using their own perfectionism against them. Based on a conceptual reconstruction of 19th Century art trends, Wall’s work creates an ironic realism where “His work does counter the capitalist world of advertising, but he does it through the quality of his work being the same, or as being as high-tech as the advertising”.
Visual Dissent as close as you can get to the perfect guide to protest and visual-campaign. Whether you work for Nestle or fervently despise them, Kennard has the playbook. To look back at fifty years of unbridled passion on paper is to acknowledge the vast influence Kennard has had; influence to the point where his prevalent style is teasing, or maybe even embracing, it’s own cliche. However, don’t just take it from me: “He is a master of the medium of photomontage” – John Berger.
Visual Dissent is showing for free at The Gallery at Foyles until 31 October.