Head Of State

Cat Phillipps: A head of state came at a point soon after the New Labour government brought in anti-terrorism legislation into domestic law in the UK. The work is... it's very much raising a point that the government's foreign policy towards the Middle East and specifically the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it was curtailing civil rights in the UK. So we were trying to raise the point that there's a really serious domestic impact in UK territory for UK citizens born out of aggressive foreign policy elsewhere in the world. And we were trying to bring those two, those two geographical, separately oppressions into one space and so we put Tony Blair's - who was the head of government at the time - we put his portraits central in their work.

Peter Kennard: I mean the work is about the surveillance of our society I mean that that's why with Blair there's an enormous, slightly crazy blue eye that's staring out at us which is his eye....we've got surveillance coming, we've got it's got Charles de Menezes who was shot by the police. So it's about mis-surveillance, surveillance, being imprisoned in this system that they invented to combat the war - what they call the war on terror - which was a completely nebulous term that didn't actually mean anything but it did mean that like, as Cat said, that domestically there was these very, very tight laws were brought in and much more powers given to the state. Making work with Cat, the actual discussion and argument which is what making political work is about...but usually one has it with oneself. But working together has opened up a whole new area of work for me in a sense that we're always pushing each other so you do push much more into other areas of work.

Cat: I think we work very much as a conversation and that's the whole point of us collaborating together is that there's a dialogue in the making. So when we're making a piece of work that dialogue quite often becomes an argument actually about a subject.

Peter: The sort of chaos of that image which is which is something that probably if I'd worked on a sort of idea about what was happening at that time on my own it would be much more structured and probably deader in feel I mean the fact is it creates a liveliness of response.

Cat: I would have said in terms of what images get selected to go into the work is the, it's the results of having arguments over what are we actually, what's the actual subject that we're facing up to here and what are the key points that need to be focused on or shown or described in a work.

Peter: In a sense you know what we do is about collaborations, collaborating with an audience in the sense we want people to respond to to our analysis of what's going on...well it's not really analysis, it's a response you know we make the work in anger. That's how we started, we got together because of the invasion of Iraq and we went you know like millions of people went on the demos against it and then it happened and you saw this awful destruction of this country happening and so there's a, in a sense the way this picture is it is a response to that destruction and that...and the destruction of Iraq coming back into Britain so that's why it's got all this torn and fractures and breaks in it.

Cat: We're making work very much for the public and we're making work with material that is mediated to the public already in some other context or some other framework so maybe something that is a government statement might be an inspiration point but because we're working with material that is already public, it's very important that we work on platforms or in places that are available to the public. 

Peter: I mean there's always been this divide art or activism or but I think art now is seeing it is a form of activism. Even people that are making very abstract works or whatever, it's someone's vision against the way 
the world is going which is totally corporate and totally about profit. 

Cat: It's also something that a computer or artificial intelligence can't do. I mean I'm sure there's a scientist out there that would love to prove me wrong but I think what would be produced would be devoid of human perspective.

Peter: We've done workshops together with young people and older people and a whole different groups and they've got something, you know they've all got something to say that and when they make a visual statement it opens up their their own feelings about, about what's going on in the world so art is is is really vital in terms of responding to a world that gets more and more technological and more more corporate.

Cat: It's also, I think art is a very, it's incredibly powerful and I mean that's key to the why. I don't think art is ever going to not be needed in the future in from all different perspectives and not all good ones but it's a it's a very key part of how we negotiate and discover things because it's all about changing perspective. 

Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps began working together under the name kennardphillipps in 2002, collaborating to produce art that responded to the build up to and aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Both attended anti-war demonstrations and their collaboration saw them create works that reflect their opposition to the conflict such as Photo Op (2007), in which former Prime Minister Tony Blair is depicted taking a ‘selfie’ in front of an explosion,  

“We both had this deep need, desire, to make work to counter…I don’t know, British foreign policy which sounds insane right, just to try and counter military action with artwork but, I don’t know, that’s the position that we take as artists - that it is a very valuable and powerful way to operate against military might and violence and policy,” said Cat.

In the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London and with the backdrop of new terror legislation introduced by the government, they began work on head of state (2007).

It features central image of Tony Blair alongside CCTV cameras and images representing some of the people and issues that were in the news at the time. It includes photos of campaigner Rose Gentle, whose son Fusilier Gordon Gentle was killed in Iraq; former home secretary John Reid  and Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot and killed by armed police in July 2005.

Both Cat and Peter believe art has a powerful role to play in conversations around conflict.

“Art has been really important in the Imperial War Museum because you are looking at all these weapons and there’s a sort of  text with them but then you look at a work that actually responds – you know, Paul Nash or whatever it is – actually responds to the war. Art is absolutely integral to having a building, a museum like that to show how people respond - either artists who were in the wars or artists like us who are working with material from wars,” said Peter.  

head of state by kennardphillipps was shown at at IWM London as part of Age of Terror: Art since 9/11, an exhibition exploring how artists have responded to conflict since 9/11.

Image:  kennardphillipps Head of State 2007

Age of Terror

David David Cotterrell, Gateway II, 2009 Courtesy of Danielle Arnaud Gallery and the artist
© David Cotterrell / Danielle Arnaud Gallery

David Cotterell on Making Art in Afghanistan

David Cotterell went to Afghanistan in 2007, spending time with British forces and documenting the medical treatment of casualties and their journey away from the front line to medical treatment back in the UK.

View of gallery showing marble surveillance stand and figures
IWM London, Age of Terror Exhibition
Exhibitions and Installations

Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

IWM London
26 October 2017 to 28 May 2018

Indre Serptyte
Contemporary conflict

Indrė Šerpytytė - 9/11 and the Age of Terror

Indrė Šerpytytė's work 150MPH is partly the Lithuanian-born artist's way of processing the events of 9/11 and partly a monument to the people who lost their lives in the attacks on the Twin Towers.