"Pure and dirty" was how John Berger described the political artist, Peter Kennard's work. As I headed for Norwich Art School, where Kennard and Cat Picton Phillipps are resident artists (for the EAST international exhibition until 20th August), I recalled some of his iconic images and knew what Berger meant.
The first thing you notice on entering the basement room are the images themselves. Startlingly direct and at the same time oddly familiar. Familiar because many of the photographs come from the pages of newspapers and are juxtaposed in surprising but powerful ways. Familiar, also because Kennard has been making these photomontages for 30 years and they have seeped into our unconscious minds.
Peter Kennard, Broken Missile (Photomontage)
Peter Kennard, Defended to Death (Photomontage)
Then you notice the room and how these images are displayed. They are festooned informally amidst a busy clutter of magazines, newspapers, photocopied images and in the midst of all this the artists working, chatting informally, and helping visitors explore their creativity. This is not just about clean finished displays, but you see work in progress as the artists attempt to de-mystify art and reveal the route of exploration and struggle that goes into the finished item
One of the most uncompromising works is "Know your Enemy", a photomontage, shows the backs of George Bush and Tony Blair, shoulder to shoulder, entering Downing Street and behind them on the pavement is the image of an Iraqi prisoner, bound and enclosed in a net, lying helplessly on the ground as a soldier punches him. War is "dirty" says Kennard and the shocking honesty of these images give them a kind "purity". In a society where the reality of human suffering becomes "collateral damage", he says he is "ripping apart the veil" and "putting what is really happening". In that naked honesty, there is certainly a kind of purity. He is showing it "as it is", but his work is not voyeuristic, it is clearly begging the next question - what can we do?
This collection called "War on War" assumes that the majority of global opinion is not represented in the media or the visual arts. He says you get a largely "homogenous voice" in the media and that questioning voices are marginalized. While many have found a voice through the internet, we also need to see our expression in real physicality, actually out there in the environment. Kennard has achieved this by creating many of the iconic images of the anti-nuclear movement, most famously the broken missile caught in the CND symbol, used widely in the 80's in protests against the bomb. Another is his infamous "Haywain with Cruise Missiles", based on Constables original.
The V and A has bought a set of works called "Award", which shows a collection of military medals with the ribbon disintegrating. Another is a petrol nozzle becoming a gun, an amazingly economic expression of the relationship between our oil dependent lifestyles and war. Black humour surrounds the image of Tony Blair, a huge smoky explosion behind him, capturing himself on a camera phone, grinning widely, oblivious to the destruction in his wake.
He and Cat added their voices to those in the recent anti-war marches. These creative and vibrant events are largely ignored by the mainstream media, but Kennard says what is really dispiriting is how the politicians completely ignore them.
He asks, "What do people do with the frustration and despair?" There is a lot of anger about and he has witnessed this, especially since the London bombings. Cat explains that people are coming into the studio and saying "this is exactly what I am thinking". When she is in her private studio, she is often shocked to come out and "find much of the city carrying on as if there was nothing wrong". Her time as an artist in residence has been very affirming of people's real concerns about war and injustice.
Peter Kennard is doing much to democratise art by bringing it into the streets, and allowing it to act as a counter to the pervasive advertising in our public spaces. For the whole of his career, he has been a maverick, telling the truth in a way that few other artists have dared. His ambition is clearly to speak out against injustice and killing in all its guises. At this time when so many people want to see killing, in all its forms, war and terrorism, come to an end, it is hopeful to know that there are artists like Peter Kennard and young artists, like Cat Picton Phillipps, speaking out.
You can join Cat and Peter and members of CND "shadow painting" outside Peter Mancroft Church at 8 pm, 5th August, in remembrance of the 60th anniversary of dropping the Atomic bombs, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.