Ever since the countercultural ’60s, images of Earth photographed from space have become one of our most potent symbols for ideas of community and shared destiny. In ‘At Earth’, Peter Kennard takes this tradition and turns it around, using photomontage to depict the planet as something broken and abused, ripped apart by the divisive forces of militarism, capitalism, and industrialism. Images include the Earth being exploded by a bullet, the Earth as a football – callously booted by a US soldier – and the Earth as a manufactured product, held coldly aloft by robotic factory arms.
In other works, Kennard zooms in, focussing on specific instances of humanity’s crimes, from scenes of violence and torture, through environmental devastation, to armament proliferation – such as the postcard of Constable’s ‘Haywain’ reworked as a missile convoy. The exhibition mixes together Cold War works from the ’70s and ’80s – small, framed, usually monochrome pieces, made using physical cut-and-paste techniques – with recent, seamlessly digital work – large, colourful posters, glued straight to the gallery walls, Georgian mouldings and all. Yet it sometimes feels like certain images would make more sense in their original book format, as part of a long, wordless narrative – this exhibition only featuring a selection.
The best images are simultaneously able to function as concise, self-contained statements: a ticking clock-face that morphs into a CND symbol, or a high-rollers’ roulette table, where the stakes are a Third World child. Yes, the symbolism is blatant: but this is art as agit-prop, and the subject matter is too important to allow for anything other than absolute clarity. To further the point, there are also various examples of Kennard’s paintings, in which people’s faces – tortured, blindfolded, or bandaged – are depicted shrouded in darkness or semi-obliterated, as if such obfuscation were itself a kind of crime.