Her lookalikes are a hoot — but there’s more to Alison Jackson than meets the eye, says Waldemar Januszczak
It all looks excellently real. So, in every practical sense, it is real. Our eyes are there to see things, and what they see they wish to believe. That is what Jackson depends on for the success of her work. It is also the crux of her existential problem. Her dilemma, in a nutshell, is that she presents convincing snippets of reality in order to question our acceptance of this reality, but so appealing are her snippets that nobody questions them. Instead, they laugh heartily at the fantastical sights Jackson unveils for them in her remarkably naughty films and photographs.
So, reader, my piece has only just kicked off, and already we have strayed into a deeply problematic perceptual offside. We need an action replay: we must wind back and remember the origins of Jackson’s war. Who is she? Why is she doing this? How did she get close enough to Sven to watch him having his way with Ulrika on the stairs? As I remember it, Jackson burst into our consciousness in 1999 with a notorious image of Lady Di and Dodi al-Fayed cradling their newborn baby. It was done in the style of Caravaggio — dark and moody — but it looked scarily, magically, voodooishly real. Diana, in particular, was surely the real Diana: no lookalike could look quite as alike as this? It was only a year or so after the princess’s death, and the country was still populated by huge numbers of easily offended Diana-adorers who imagined they were as close to her as they might be to a sister. That’s how it was with the Queen of Hearts. Out of some magazine pictures and a few carefully staged television appearances, Jackson created an exceptionally intense familial bond with most of the nation.
“When Diana died, I couldn’t understand why people were mourning her when they didn’t know her,” explains the leggy and surprisingly sloaney Jackson, draped across a leather settee — well turned out, a class act. “So I thought, ‘If I make an image that looks like Diana, how will people react to it?’” Not well, was the answer. This paper, for instance, refused to reproduce it when the fuss broke, as Jackson recalls with a hearty guffaw, and Ann Widdecombe ran around the Commons demanding explanations and seizures. How tasteless, how revolting, chorused the nation, at the sight of a half-Arab addition to the royal line nestling in the arms of their favourite fictitious princess.
Coming out of the darkroom at the Royal College of Art, where she was studying for a mature degree, having already spent 10 years working in television, Jackson encountered her first mob of paparazzi. Oh, how offended everyone was. Treason, they shouted. Off with her head. So why aren’t they offended now, she puzzles, thinking back to the amusing docudrama, screened earlier this year, Tony Blair: Rock Star, in which our premier’s embarrassing guitar past was paraded so cruelly before the nation. Or what about the other celebs — the Beckhams, the Eltons, the Camillas — who showed us their knickers in her award- winning Doubletake, for BBC2? Why did they seem fair game when Diana did not? Because something critical has changed. In 1999, we were still inclined to trust what we witnessed in the media. These days, we aren’t. Jackson remains the same, but her audience is different. “Today, we know that we can’t really trust anyone.
And we don’t really know what’s going on. People can’t get a grip on what’s real any more. Imagery only tells us a partial truth — if any truth at all. Photography is particularly deceitful.”
So, she sees before her a world in which all of us are less likely to fall for things we watch or hear. And she’s right. The real tragedy of New Labour is not the betrayal of so many societal hopes, or even the relentless warmongering that led to Iraq. Terrible though they are, these were, perhaps, reversible actions. But the systematic undermining of the public’s faith in its government — the lies, the deceptions, the machinations — is not reversible. What was broken by the Alastair Campbell years can never be mended. New Labour has taught more Britons than ever not to trust. It’s an enormously unhelpful bit of education, and its historical implications could be seismic.
So, the very least we can do to acknowledge the scale and seriousness of the New Labour betrayal is to laugh at phoney Tony posing with his false guitar or, in my favourite of Jackson’s faux photographs of him, horsing around with Cherie in Cliff’s pool in the Caribbean, trying to pull off her top. It’s a fake image, yes. But it doesn’t look fake. And that makes it a valuable insight into the truth about Tony. “I’m interested more in the public perception of the person than in the actual person. That’s my point. What I feel about what I’m doing is that we live our lives through media and images. And that this filters into the public imagination. I’m the mirror that throws back what exists in the public mind.”
So, when we watch Sven prancing about with Ulrika on the stairs of her mansion, or listen in on the special FA meeting convened to review his salary demands, we are actually tuning into our own fantasies. In the world of media, there’s no real or unreal. There is only what feels authentic and what doesn’t. As Jackson puts it, huffily: “If the viewers are shocked by these images, they must be shocked by their own minds.”
We’re in an edit suite in Soho, watching a very rough cut of a film that everyone in the building calls Sven, but will be presented to you next month, on More4 and Channel 4, as Sven: The Coach, the Cash and His Lovers. Even in the bitty form I catch it in, I can tell it’s going to be a hoot. The first image we see is of Sven and the boys — Becks, Rio, Wayne — bouncing in a communal bath, holding aloft an unmistakable gold pot while the soundtrack informs us that We Are the Champions. Yes, reader, we did it. We won the World Cup.
What’s interesting is how good this playfully contrived prediction makes you feel. That’s how images work. It’s how they gain their power, and why so many interested parties are squabbling over control of them, including Jackson herself. Seeing is believing. Magicians and politicians have always known this, and now the rest of us know it better, too. The Sven film moves to the boardroom, where an oafish set of FA managers unveil their plan to install a foreigner as England coach. And, as Sven makes his first trip into Geordie country to test his accent against that of the locals, a range of real opinions is heard from an excellent cast of real witnesses: Ron Atkinson, Faria Alam, Max Clifford. At least, I think they are real.
The episode with the Fake Sheik is re-enacted in a brilliant blur of bikini babes and poolside indiscretions. The phone goes. It’s a livid Victoria Beckham, screaming down the line from Madrid: “I’m not going to Aston Villa — wherever that is.” The financial shenanigans are lively but, let’s face it, it’s not why we’re going to tune in. We’re tuning in to see Sven in the box with Ulrika and Faria and Nancy, and Jackson doesn’t disappoint. The funniest sequences are the half-glimpsed action scenes on stairs and kitchen surfaces. “I know you have some Sweden in you already, but would you like some more?” whispers Sven to Ulrika, as he penetrates her defences.
“It’s tempting to play just for the humour. So I’m always trying not to do that. Because I think it takes away from the reality headf*** that I’m trying to address,” says Jackson. A team of no fewer than 20 assorted experts, from journalists to psychologists, was consulted before she started filming. And nothing is revealed here that hasn’t already been revealed elsewhere.
“It’s not designed to aggravate Sven or Nancy. There’s no intention to upset any celebrities. This is the story of Sven as we know him. And if this image is more powerful than the story in words, then that would be an interesting thing,” she concedes. Indeed it would.