British artists go after Tony Blair…

There’s a new Twitter account (@TonyBlairWatch) that wants to keep an eye on the former Prime Minister. What’s particularly interesting for me is that the account owner has chosen kennardphillipps’ 2005 work Photo Op as their avatar.

Image

From my research I think this is probably the most widely-disseminated, most used and most recognised art image to have come out of the UK in response to the war. It’s been exhibited many times, used on the cover of a major book on art and politics and the National Theatre appropriated the idea behind it in the publicity for its 2009 production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (take a look here). I understand that a version of the work has been acquired by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which would confer upon it a particular kind of art world legitimacy.

All this suggests that despite rumours of its demise and supercession by other tactics, photomontage still has the potential to affect, whether or not what it does is quite what its creators have in mind (which is often something along the lines of Pablo Picasso’s famous statement that “Art is the lie that tells the truth”). I’ve seen this image’s ability to affect in a small way when giving talks: when I show it there’s usually some involuntary laughter and then a pause while people wait to hear what I have to say about it (I’m more interested in how they feel and what they think at that moment). For theorists of affect and aesthetics, the moments between the image appearing, the laughter and the pause are hugely significant.

Unsurprisingly, Blair has often been a target for British artists. Three interesting examples are sculptor Michael Sandle’s Iraq Triptych, which won the Hugh Casson Prize for Drawing at the 2007 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition; War Boutique’s Guff War II, which consists of camouflaged helmet and body armour with a poppy, a T. Blair name patch and a BP logo; and David Gentleman’s popularisation of the word Bliar in his designs for the Stop the War Coalition.

Just as protestors seek to follow Blair wherever he goes, so too will images made by artists concerned with his actions in taking the UK into Iraq in 2003. These now form part of the visual archive through which the war, its causes and consequences will be remembered, represented and contested.

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