Book Review by Stephen Bull
Published by: Bluecoat Press
In some ways the work of photomonteur Peter Kennard has turned full circle. When he began making politically charged paintings in the sixties he seemed to be aiming for the small elite of a gallery audience. The escalation of the Vietnam war and the revival of a radical European Left in 1968 led him to reconsider his medium. Paint retained a seductive quality, perhaps inappropriate for the revolutionary revelations of unsavoury events that he now felt should be shown.
The medium he turned to, photography, can be seductive too, but when chopped up and mutated into photomontage, a sometimes dirty, cobbled together quality emerges. Often you can spot the join. Thus as well as revealing political wrongdoing, photomontage can also disclose its own constructed nature. To Kennard's most obvious predecessor, the German photomonteur John Heartfield, working against the rise of fascism in thirties and forties, this aspect of photomontage was liberating. It suggested to the readers of the left wing magazines in which his montages appeared that rather than being the work of a unique genius, forceful and challenging images could be created by anyone.
Kennard also brought his imagery to the masses. In the seventies and eighties his most famous anti-nuclear montages appeared on posters and postcards, in papers and paperbacks. The most successful were the most simple. The ones that could be appropriated and reproduced. Crushed Cruise, his powerful 1981 image of an isolated fist bending a flaccid missile, was taken up by CND and appeared on placards and badges. Such symbols seemed ideal for the forms of protest that occurred throughout those decades.
While Kennard continues to make work for such reproduction, the nineties have seen him concentrate once again on deliberately presenting his work to a more selective art audience. Perhaps this is a reflection of changing times. Possibly, in the era of New Labour, marches and placards can all too easily be dismissed as archaic forms of protest. Maybe the use of galleries and posh publications is a more direct route to reaching the unconverted.
Photomontage often relies on a combination of incongruous elements and there have been few recent sights more incongruous than that which confronted visitors to Kennard's show Welcome to Britain at London's palatial Royal Festival Hall in 1994. The expensive cafes and soporific jazz quartets found themselves drowned out by a huge wooden tidal wave of shattered placards and scattered pallets that covered one side of the Hall. On closer inspection it became apparent that the piled up debris was haunted by the vague, shadowy traces of hands, bodies and faces. Accompanying text and recorded poetry related these vestigial images to the unseen (or ignored) homeless people who sleep on pallets and scrape an existence together in the area around the Hall.
For Kennard's 1995 exhibition Our Financial Times (which emphasised the links between the arms trade and third world debt) the placards reappeared, filling the Gimpel Fils gallery. It was as if the ghosts of those eighties protesters had marched through, leaving their splintered signs behind. This time there were also pictures on the wall, framed in roughly-hewn wooden boxes. Here the phantom hands materialised again. But while in Welcome to Britain they were transparent and waving for help as they sank into the detritus, the hands had now become more tangible talons, desperately, angrily attacking the pages of The Financial Times upon which they were printed.
Hands, an effective symbol in any visual medium, have always been a common motif for montage. In an early Heartfield poster, made for the Communist party, a hand with fingers spread wide reaches out towards us. The pictures primary intention is to grab our attention. A further point is to suggest the hand as an instrument of unity and power: 'The hand has five fingers! With five you seize the enemy'. It acts as an all-embracing icon, bringing together the Communist party and the viewer on the other side, invited to join. This image was used on the cover of David Evans and Sylvia Gohl's 1986 survey Photomontage: A Political Weapon. Four years later Kennard chose to reproduce his montage of two hands clasped together across the Berlin wall on the front of his first major book Images for the End of the Century.
The claw-like hands from Our Financial Times have now resurfaced on the cover (and virtually every other page) of Kennard's new publication UNWORDS. This small but sumptuous volume is divided into four sections, each featuring snatches of text snatched at by the hands. The first articles are taken from the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The next segments words are extracted from resolutions made by the UN Security Council to aid the Bosnian people. On one double page here a hand convulses violently into a dark, bloody blur. The Financial Times reappears, this time alongside The Wall Street Journal for the third section. Finally, all the previous texts are combined and the hands become buried beneath a palimpsest of words and figures. Both image and text suffer. The UN's words, proven ineffective and linked to market forces become meaningless empty rhetoric; 'unwords' in short. The hands fail to grasp the words they reach for. They struggle and disappear, like the millions of massacred Bosnians still unnaccounted for, or the unavenged anti-Shell activists murdered by the Nigerian government. Yet, as we strive to hold open the tightly bound pages of the book our own hands seem to join with those on the paper.
Unwords is packed with such parallels and paradoxes. After turning the pages of the book, with its reproductions of newsprint and what look like unfixed photocopies, it almost feels as though our fingers should be dirtied, stained with ink. But the high quality paper means that this is far from the case. Unwords is both seductive and repulsive. Its lavish production belies the disturbing nature of its subject. Yet the qualities of the book encourage continued reflection on the issues. We are living in an age where the British government resorts to crude photomontage in a shallow attempt to make the leader of the opposition look like the Devil. Compared to such diabolical drivel, the thoughtful arguments of Unwords and Kennard's other recent works are infinitely more persuasive in their depth.