An estimated 5 million people visited the poppy display at the Tower of London last year which commemorated the 888,246 British servicemen who died during WW1. Arguably this visually stimulating spectacle provoked an abundance of selfies but failed to ignite any critical discussion around contemporary attitudes to war.
This month also celebrated Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Yet those traditional tokens of military valour: polished medals and the national flags inevitably raised at such events – are soiled and shredded in a retrospective of Peter Kennard’s work at The Imperial War Museum. Said to be “Britain’s most important political artist” Kennard exposes the bones-and-barbed-wire side of war which critic Johnathon Jones would have preferred to see fill the mote.
After the First World War the Dadaists used photomontage to express their anxiety and disgust at the mass slaughter of mechanised warfare and the widespread propaganda of the early Twentieth Century. Similarly Kennard uses this process and its associations with radical politics (whereby two images are spliced together to create a third meaning) to highlight injustices within contemporary politics and society. It is pertinent to see these images today because they reawaken public consciousness on the political decisions that are now being made behind closed doors.
In the 1980s Kennard created anti-nuclear art which was widely circulated on posters by the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) as well as in newspapers such as The Guardian and The New Statesman. These days the protest movement against nuclear weapons is largely ignored by mainstream media which instead pedals a discourse of terror. Yet the statistics at the end of the exhibition remind us why Trident was such a contentious issue: According to CND, each of our four nuclear submarines is 8 times more powerful than the Atomic bomb, which killed 140,000 people when it was dropped on Hiroshima.
Furthermore while governments talk cuts and austerity Greenpeace stats reveal the total cost of replacing Trident at an estimated £130 billion - enough to “fully fund A&E services for 40 years, employ 150,000 new nurses, build 1.5 million affordable homes, build 30,000 new primary schools, or cover tuition fees for 4 million students.” In Kennard’s poster of a gambling table with the caption “Welcome to G8” each player guards their precious nuclear missiles – the message is simple but direct. Investing money in murder is a lucrative game for some.
Although Climate Change is said to be a bigger killer than Terrorism another CND stat states “nuclear weapons get five times as much public funding in the UK as renewable energy.” Kennard’s 1985 image of a factory explosion spurting oil from the Earth’s crust is a depressing reminder of these skewed priorities. Kennard says of this image “I always believed that it’s ok to show the edges, not to clean the image up too much and make it smooth, like an advertisement. An advert is about smoothing out reality and this work is about showing the disruptions.”
Walking through this exhibition you realise how the decontextualized imagery of the media, the gloss of advertising and life’s distractions easily mask the realities Kennard exposes in his art. The strength of this work lies in its proliferation into those channels yet often it seems like the protest movements that arose during the sixties, seventies and eighties petered out and are now shrouded in an uneasy silence. Perhaps in light of continuing atrocities committed against humanity and the planet this timely exhibition will inspire a younger generation to pick up the baton of protest and not stop running till the issues raised by this work are no longer relevant.
Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist @ Imperial War Museum until 30 May 2016