John Keane, Gulf War Artist

Soon after the start of the Gulf War on 2 August 1990, painter and photographer John Keane was invited by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London to be Britain’s official war artist for this new conflict, forged in the disintegration of the Cold War. At first refused accreditation by a suspicious Ministry of Defence, due to his record of painting an unflattering portrait of war, the 36-year-old Keane eventually travelled to Iraq, where he was embedded with the British army. The artist later spent five days in Kuwait, in the aftermath of the US-led liberation that brought the Gulf War to an end on 28 February 1991.

While stationed in the region, Keane took photographs and made a video diary that captured the daily lives of citizens, soldiers, medical staff and journalists against the backdrop of major military operations and the machinery of war. Keane later recalled, “My aim was just to be a sponge – absorb and record as much as possible. I didn’t know how I might react. The whole experience was very alien and disturbing. Like a dream that I awoke from on my return.” Alongside the more traditional subject matter for a war artist, Keane also photographed items such as an abandoned shopping trolley containing rocket warheads on the streets of Kuwait City, palm trees bent over like tortured humans, and a smiling child giving a V sign in front of a marauding tank, revealing his keen sense of irony and eye for seemingly innocuous and easily-overlooking details that in their quotidian mundanity reveal the strangeness of war.

 Upon his return to the UK, Keane used this photographic material as the basis for a series of paintings that aimed not only to address the conflict, but also reflected on the media coverage of events. Paintings such as the series Scenes on the Road to Hell – so named after photos taken on Basra, Highway 80, which became known as the “Highway of Death” after the Allied forces attacked retreating Iraqi troops in the last days of the war – brought together material from several images to tease out their disturbing and ominous nature. Through the application of lurid colours, smudged and dripping, Keane distorted the scenes and created a visual world has been compared both to Goya’s epic print series The Disasters of War and The Scream by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch.

John Keane’s Gulf War pictures were first exhibited in London in 1992, where they were met with surprise at their apparently subversive content. The painting Mickey Mouse at the Front became a particular subject of discussion and more than some outrage. At the centre of the painting, the famous Disney cartoon character sits grinning on a Kuwaiti beach covered with excrement, surrounded by the decimated palm trees and rocket-filled shopping trolley, and in front of bombed-out city ruins. While The Sun newspaper branded it “sick”, and vilified Keane for his perceived slight to the families of dead soldiers, the scene was a realist tableau, composed from Keane’s photographic images and visual memories from his time in Iraq and Kuwait.

Keane, John, b.1954; Mickey Mouse at the Front

Since his Gulf War project, John Keane has continued to travel to conflict zones and to engage with traumatic subject matter, producing paintings that record campaigns against illegal logging in the Amazon, life in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Chechen War and the rise of Islamist terrorism, and the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. The artist understands the Gulf War as the bridge between Cold War and War on Terror, “the opening salvo on a war that is still going on, being waged with greater ferocity than we could ever have imagined.”

You can see John Keane’s Gulf War photographs on the Imperial War Museums website, while his paintings are displayed on Keane’s website.

Images: All images by John Keane. Top – Photographs from The Gulf War 1990–1991, part of the John Keane Collection, Imperial War Museums; Middle – Scenes on the Road to Hell 1, 1991. PVA on paper, 150 x 85 cm; Bottom – Mickey Mouse at the Front, 1991. Oil on canvas, 173 x 198cm. All images courtesy John Keane and Imperial War Museums.

Exhibition: Dreamworlds and Catastrophes

Recommended by ESPIONART in 2015, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey is home to a vast collection of nonconformist Soviet art that was secretly amassed and brought to the United States by the late American economist, Norton Dodge. The latest exhibition at the museum focuses on fantastical and nightmarish scenes conjured up by Soviet artists at the height of the Cold War, inspired by the rapid technological developments in support of the Space Race and nuclear proliferation.

Sherstiuk Cosmonauts Dream

Dreamworlds and Catastrophes: Intersections of Art and Science in the Dodge Collection features more than 60 paintings, sculptures, and photographs produced between the 1960s and ’80s. The title is a nod to the book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (MIT Press, 2000), in which Susan Buck-Morss defines the collective Soviet experience as a “dreamworld,” where the constant barrage of utopian propaganda clashed with the realities of a struggling nation.

Mikhailov Sots ArtSimilarly, the Zimmerli exhibition compares unsettling imaginings of a brave new world on earth and beyond, as in the hyperrealist fantasy of The Cosmonaut’s Dream by Sergei Sherstiuk, with works such as Boris Mikhailov’s Sots Art photographs, which reveal the underlying paranoia of artists living in the shadow of the nuclear threat. The exhibition also includes examples of kinetic art by Valdis Celms and Francisco Infante-Arana that show an attempt by some Soviet artists to emulate and appropriate aspects of military and space technology.

Dreamworks and Catastrophes continues at the Zimmerli Art Museum until 31 July 2016, with admission free. And if you move quickly, you might be able to catch the special exhibition celebration planned for 14 April, to include a curator-led tour of the display and guest lectures on Cold War art and politics.

Images: Sergei Sherstiuk, The Cosmonaut’s Dream, 1986. Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 79 inches; Boris Mikhailov, from the series Sots Art, 1975-90. Gelatin silver print handcolored with aniline dyes,  42 x 43.5 cm.

Venice Biennale Highlight #3: Hope!

Considering the current conflict ravaging Ukraine, it’s no surprise that the country’s national pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale is highly policised. Within a confined glass cube on the waterfront, on the approach to the Arsenale, a host of young Ukrainian artists present works in response to the crisis. By combining them under the title of Hope!, curator Björn Geldhof announces the intention that the exhibition be viewed as aspiration for a positive and united future, with the transparent housing equally suggesting hopes for a new open and honest Ukraine following years of political intrigue and corruption.

The most eye-catching work within the cube is the performance piece Synonym for “Wait” by four-man art collective Open Group. During opening hours throughout the five and a half months of the festival, a member of the group will be sat at a desk in the centre of the room. He stares at a wall of nine monitors relaying footage from a series of security cameras installed outside the homes of young Ukrainian men who have been drafted into the army. In sympathy with the soldiers’ families, each Open Group member will be on hunger strike throughout the period of his observation, as they await the men’s return.

A number of other pieces are made up of photographs and collages constructed from newspaper contents, suggesting frustration with the media coverage of the conflict. Perhaps the most haunting of these works is Blind Spot. It comprises a series of photographs by Mykola Ridnyi, tantalisingly concealing and revealing details of urban destruction, alongside poignant verses by the celebrated countercultural poet Serhiy Zhadan, which relate injustices committed against individual Ukrainians caught up in the present turmoil.

In front of the pavilion is a smaller glass box containing the smashed and scorched concrete and metal remains of a bombed apartment block. The installation by Nikita Kadan provides a shocking reminder of the brutality of the conflict that continues to rage in these artists’ homeland, and reveals the challenges to their hope for peace in Ukraine.

Image: Top – Open Group, Synonym for “Wait”, live streaming video and performance, 2015; Bottom – Nikita Kadan, Difficulties of Profanation, 2015. Marble, steel, glass, earth, bean plant, glass and wood, 160 x 160 x 370 cm. Courtesy PinchukArtCentre.

Venice Biennale Highlight #2: Paperwork, and the Will of Capital

Among the tightly-packed displays in the cavernous main exhibition hall of the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale, Paperwork and the Will of Capital: An Account of Flora As Witness by US artist Taryn Simon stands out as one of the most thought-provoking and carefully-crafted artworks.

Simon’s installation explores the overlooked role of flowers as a form of soft diplomacy. The artist at first appears to be presenting them as silent witnesses to the establishment of international treaties and governmental agreements. Yet her focus on these objects gradually transforms them from innocent observers to conduits of complex political meaning, both as symbols of national identity and gestures of peaceful objectives.

In a series of vitrines, Simon presents a photograph of a floral arrangement from a particular meeting and a detailed analysis of its contents alongside a pressing of replica flowers. As these floral tokens degrade, mirroring the gradual disintegration of the contracts they have represented, Simon reveals the ability of even the most innocuous objects to be coopted as forms of propaganda in the interest of political and economic gain.

Image: Installation shot from Paperwork and the Will of Capital: An Account of Flora As Witness by Taryn Simon, 2015, in Room 2, Arsenale, 56th Venice Biennale.

What & Where: The Guard Who Jumped the Berlin Wall

What: Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer (Walljumper), 2009
Where: Brunnenstraße, Berlin, Germany

In June 2009, a few months prior to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new sculpture appeared on the streets of the German capital. Mauerspringer (Walljumper) by Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders depicts a life-sized East German border guard named Conrad Schumann, in the midst of his daring escape to West Berlin on 15 August 1961.

Schumann was just 19 years old when he became the first GDR soldier to officially defect to the West. His escape came on the third day of construction of the wall he had been sent to guard, at this point little more than a low barbed-wire fence. As his colleagues were distracted trying to keep back a throng of bystanders, Schumann made his break for freedom.

Captured on camera by West German photographer Peter Leibing, the image of Schumann with head bowed and arms spread mid-air above the barbed wire was dubbed the “Leap of Freedom.” It was published around the world and rapidly became an iconic symbol of the Cold War. Even now the poster depicting Schumann’s jump remains one of the best-selling items at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Conrad Schumann’s spur-of-the-moment decision to leave East Germany showed remarkable foresight. Following the construction of the Berlin Wall a “death strip” patrolled by armed guards divided the city. Between 1961 and 1989 only 5,000 Berliners successfully crossed from East to West, with over half of them soldiers and policemen.

Watch a short film by Bianca Döring including footage of Schumann’s desertion:

Images: Top – Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer, 2009; Bottom – Peter Leibing, Leap of Freedom, 1961.

The Iconic Image of Che Guevara

When Cuban photographer Alberto Korda snapped two shots of Che Guevara at a memorial service in Havana on 5 March 1960 his photographs were initially lost among thousands taken of the charismatic revolutionary leader. For seven years Korda’s preferred image of the 31-year-old, known as Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerrilla), remained largely unknown. But with Guevara’s death in October 1967 the man became a legend, and the photograph followed suit.

As the image began to be reproduced in the media and distributed in poster format, the burgeoning cult of Che inspired artists to use the photograph as the basis for new works of art. In 1967 Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick produced a stylised poster based on Korda’s image which quickly became a hot commodity. Fitzpatrick’s poster would spawn countless other appropriations and tributes. In one instance the image was even reproduced in a 1968 painting attributed to Andy Warhol. Although it was later revealed as a forgery produced by Warhol’s collaborator, Gerard Malanga, Warhol agreed to authenticate the fake provided he received the proceeds from its sale.

The image is now considered to be the most reproduced in the history of photography. Yet as it has become ever more commercialised, it has drifted further from the spirit of its subject.

The full story of the life of this image, from snapshot to icon, is told in the book Che Guevara: Revolutionary and Icon, published in 2006 to accompany the V&A’s exhibition of the same name.

Image: Top – Alberto Korda, Guerrillero Heroico, 1960; Middle – Jim Fitzpatrick, original stylized image of Che Guevara, 1968; Bottom – Gerard Malanga, Che Guevara in the style of Andy Warhol, 1968.

The Trauma Art of Thailand’s Forgotten Massacre

A brutal but largely forgotten episode from recent Thai history has united several contemporary artists to produce a ‘trauma art’ to comment on the loss of collective memory.

The Thammasat University Massacre on 6 October 1976 was a shocking moment. The violence took place in the midst of an anti-communist crackdown in Bangkok, provoked by fears of a communist takeover following the recent Fall of Saigon. The national police collaborated with right-wing paramilitary groups to stage a premeditated attack on a university campus to quell dissent, as part of a plot to reinstate a military junta. By official count, the orgy of shooting, beating and rape left 46 people dead and 167 wounded. Unofficially, the episode is said to have ended over a hundred young lives. Of those that survived, about a thousand demonstrators were arrested, forced to parade naked and subjected to further violations in public.

Despite the viciousness of the attack on unarmed citizens, none of the perpetrators of the massacre have been brought to justice. The episode is largely airbrushed from history textbooks in Thailand and those making public comment on the event still risk state censorship.

The artistic response to the massacre gained pace in 1996 as public rememberance of the atrocity increased around its the 20th anniversary. At that time painter Vasan Sitthiket created his series Tulalai (Blue October). Recreating black and white photographic images of the massacre, the royal blue alludes to the tacit collaboration of the monarchy, while the dead are made sacred through the use of gold leaf, normally reserved for Buddhist sculptures. The upside-down title represents the skewed collective memory of the event.

Five years later, Manit Sriwanichpoom superimposed Neil Ulevich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of the massacre with the ‘Pink Man’ (artist Sompong Tawee dressed in a bright pink suit) to represent a consumerist society that had forgotten its radical past. Yet despite these interventions, the massacre remains largely forgotten by Thai society.

This complex episode and its effect on Thai art has been explored fully by Sudarat Musikawong in the article ‘Art for October: Thai Cold War State Violence in Trauma Art‘ (2010).

Images: Top – Vasan Sitthiket, from the series Tulalai (Blue October), 1996. Tempera and gold leaf on canvas, 6 pieces, each 1.5 × 1.5 m. Courtesy the artist; Bottom – Manit Sriwanichpoom, Pisat si chomphu (Horror in Pink) No.2, 2001. Colour print, 120 x 174.5 cm. Courtesy the artist.