Orange Jumpsuits

John Keane: “The piece in the show was one of a series I did using imagery of the, the orange jumpsuit. Now, the jumpsuit had sort of cropped up in my work years before when I'd, I'd done some paintings about Guantanamo and I wanted to address the imagery coming out of Syria and the barbarous executions going on in the desert. It was an extraordinary, clever, theatrical piece of propaganda used by ISIS to use this hugely symbolic orange jumpsuit, which had become notorious through Guantanamo, turn it around and use it, ironically, in a way to torment the tormentors, uh in, in what was, you know, extremely successful propaganda that really did manage to, uh, capture, well, it sort of lodged a shard of fear really into, into the Western psyche.

Anyway, and in uh, the executions which, uh, I didn't want to address in any sort of graphic sort of visceral, voyeuristic way, but to allude to it and I hit on the idea of actually using a jumpsuit, but a jumpsuit without a person inside, and I'd, I basically bought a jumpsuit on eBay and photographed at various attitudes, which was suggestive of the attitudes of these wretched people who we saw paraded before us, before they were subsequently murdered. So that that was really the, the origin of. It felt intensely important to me that, that I needed to do this, but it's a fine line to walk, I think, to evoke and use this imagery to make it, you know, somehow potent, somehow powerful, but without just resorting to graphic horror. War, conflict and violence have been an abiding theme over, over the last sort of 25/30 years in my work. I suppose actually what, what I mean, having been in the Gulf War in 1991, I mean, looking back on it, there is a direct, direct line of consequence from, from that conflict to where we are now, which obviously you can only kind of chart that in, in retrospect. From time to time through the years, whilst I've also looked at other areas of conflict, the Middle East has, uh returned as a theme just because it's happening, and we are today where we are, it's a lot to do with where we were then. I think it's interesting, um, whilst art is not, doesn't have to, it's not documentary necessary, it is, it does represent a subjective individual’s view, it's somehow instructive that whenever you read a piece or, or, or watch a documentary about something so much of that is, well, so often they use some work of art to illustrate to, to lead you into something that it, that it is sort of seen through it, and you can say that with visual art, with poetry, with, with novels, with films as well, they somehow crystallise and isolate how people feel or felt about what was going on at the time and that enhances understanding. I always used to think what you know, even when I, as I was doing it, what is the point of doing this? What, what effect does it have? Uh, it never, you know, stopped a bullet in the barrel or anything like that. But the older I get, the more important I think that art is, the creative process in humanity having a conversation with itself and this is a very important aspect of human behaviour, is the way we treat one another, using violence for political, religious purposes, um and in the end, it does contribute to this ongoing conversation and for me, you know, living in the era that I do, the whole canon of work that has preceded me as an individual, that I've looked at and responded to and has affected and influenced me. I think yes, it is important, it's fundamental and it is very much identifies who we are and how we look at ourselves.”

War, conflict and violence have been themes in John Keane’s work for 30 years.

He was a war artist during the Gulf War in 1991 and has continued to explore these issues through his work in the years since that experience.

In 2015-16, he worked on a series of paintings focused on imagery connected to Islamic State and the murders of those it held captive.

It felt “intensely important” to him to create a work touching on these themes but he was sensitive to using the imagery without resorting to “graphic horror”. 

The series of six paintings - Float, Fall, Bound, Kneel, Jump, and Confess- depict an orange jumpsuit in poses suggestive of the positions of the prisoners who were held captive.Bound is on display as part of Age of Terror: Art Since 9/11 at IWM London, which explores how artists have responded to conflicts since 9/11.

When he first showed works from the series, he was surprised at some of the reactions people had to them.

“One thing that surprised me, the big jumpsuit paintings, many people saw Guantanamo before they saw the ISIS thing which is interesting…that it still had that resonance…I think it’s always good that things aren’t too obvious, that there’s room for nuance and subtlety and ambivalence as well,” he said.

Although his working methods have changed and developed over the years, some things about his work have remained constant.

“I think my preoccupations have remained the same. I mean my preoccupation is basically why do people, how do people, justify killing other human beings in pursuit of some idea, some politics or some religion to make the world supposedly a better place while in fact making it so much worse.”

Bound was on display at IWM London as part of Age of Terror: Art since 9/11 between 26 October 2017 - 28 May 2018

Image: Bound, 2015 © John Keane. Image courtesy Flowers Gallery London and New York.

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IWM London, Age of Terror Exhibition
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Age of Terror: Art since 9/11

IWM London
26 October 2017 to 28 May 2018

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