A constructed and imagined treat to see a chronological tour of Peter Kennard’s work as part of the Oxford Photography Festival this Autumn. With a range of approximately 230 slides covering work from the 1970’s to present day, it was a feat to fit it into the strict one-hour timeframe of the session at Oxford Brooks.
Many will know Kennard’s work or will at least recognise the symbolism and use of construct even if they don’t immediately attribute it to him. A well-known example being the 'Haywain with Cruise Missiles': an image that had been re-worked in several guises, originally having a dog with a gas mask but later being reduced to keep the key symbolism. An image that was also appropriated by CND, The Labour Party, and staff of the National Gallery in a protest over funding by the arms trade. With a background in painting and more abstract approaches to work, many of the images he produces are raw cut and paste – with real scalpels too, not Photoshop, but nevertheless utilising layering of ideas and juxtaposition to create new meaning.
Kennard made no apology for utilising the work of others and likewise no concern for how others might appropriate his work. He comments on the work of other photographers risking their lives and therefore the need to ensure the work is viewed and ‘gets out there’. We saw several manifestations of the same core image, used and reused to create new meaning and nuance for different audiences and context.
From the work of Heartfield, Hannah Hoch and Dadaism, Rodchenko and constructivism, he talks us through the influences and power of montage throughout political history. Kennard weaves in Walter Benjamin and his stance on anti-fascism – his writing on montage also having had a huge influence on Kennard’s work, particularly on the notion of author as producer.
On the process of accessing images he gives the example of working in print without photographic archives of images of torture – needing a photo of a scientist he uses a photo he quickly takes of the meat porter at Smithfield market to construct the meaning and impression of torture, science, dispassion. A slow and methodical approach to construction of imagery, evident when he states, ‘I spent about 35 years stuck in a dark room day and night doing these things’; the process of making being part of the final meaning; again the artist as maker and producer.
A key message from Kennard’s work is the distribution of imagery, getting the message to the masses. Kennard still works in education and keeps his practice and his pedagogy alive and well. He takes an approach of engagement and not of the artist working in isolation and describes the process of inspiration and production as ‘a social interaction and an interaction with the medium that you work with’.
It is a socially and politically engaging body of work and unfortunate that the actual talk was limited to an hour (later extended by 10 minutes) and didn’t allow time for questions. Within the latter section the audience gets a glimpse of a new approach, one that seemed to move in a different direction, one that brought back the notion of abstraction and visual beauty to the work of political metaphor offering a rich vein of access. Such an example was one of printed hands, drawn in charcoal with newspaper torn to move from two to three dimensional work, created and re-worked, pulling at and ripping pages from the finance section. His work also moved back to three-dimensional in the form of structures and installation, including ‘Domesday Book’, and more recently to painting on sensitised canvas, where the ghost's impressions of faces appear.
Kennard also explored the action of showing political work in galleries and public places and gives the example of a show in The Barbican on ‘Images of War’. There were several images of Chile, exploring barbaric military action and the disappeared. The Chilean finance minister was due to speak to bankers whilst the work was up and the Barbican being partly funded by the City of London meant that the Barbican Director wanted some images removed. The outcome was that several of Kennard’s images were either covered over with a blanket or removed as the gallery installers refused to remove the images. Kennard’s point here was about funding political work, in that it doesn’t really happen, whereas private money will sponsor more ‘appropriate’ work!
There is no doubting Kennard’s energy and engagement with process, message and social interaction. Later work is supported by digital processes, both in print and construction, lending itself to a wider engagement of the act of making and not just the end result, reiterating the need for social interaction in the creation of meaning.
The presentation is available to view via the link below. (Link is only available for a limited period from 14/10/14)
Redeye Member Lynne Connolly is a Senior Lecturer in Photography at Chester University. She attended Oxford Photography Festival as part of Redeye's Festival Bursary Programme.