In a world where image is everything, it becomes easy – even essential – for artists to manipulate the truth
Someone has altered my Wikipedia entry. The good stuff is still there about me being “informed, enthusiastic, evocative and humorous”, but a new bit has been added, pointing out that, in 2006, I was “hoaxed” by the artist Jamie Shovlin, who entered an installation for the Beck’s Futures exhibition devoted to the obscure German rock band Lustfaust. I lavished praise on Shovlin’s piece. And I even suggested that he should win the award.
It’s all true. I did write about Lustfaust in this paper. I did like Shovlin’s piece. And I did say it should win Beck’s Futures. Indeed, it wasn’t until I read in my amended Wikipedia entry that Lustfaust “had never existed outside Shovlin’s fiction” that I realised I had been duped – two years after the event. Now, if you imagine I am squirming with embarrassment as I own up to this, let me assure you I am not. Shovlin’s charming shrine to Lustfaust, packed with wacky memorabilia and ranting written tributes from their fans, felt totally credible. Nobody can know about every obscure electro-noise band that ever recorded an album. What possible reason could anyone have to make up a fictitious history for a fictitious band?
In Shovlin’s case, I suspect no noble moti-vation. The show opened at the end of March, so perhaps the creation of Lustfaust was an April fool’s gag. You, as a reader, are in a better position to know what was done to me, as a critic, than I am. Yet one thing is crystal clear: Shovlin must be applauded. Not because he fooled a gullible critic – that’s easy – but because he warned you, reading me, that you, too, need to be extra-vigilant these days about what you read and hear. Reality simply cannot be trusted any more.
I once did an interview with David Hockney in which he grumbled at length about this situation and drew my attention to something he termed the “Stalinist tendency”. He was referring to Stalin’s notorious decision in the 1930s to have Trotsky airbrushed out of important photographs of the revolution, to make it seem as if he wasn’t standing next to Lenin on key occasions, when, in fact, he was. In real life, Trotsky could not be erased from history – although Stalin’s assassins did eventually succeed in sticking an ice pick through his head in Mexico City – but his removal could be achieved in photography. All that remained to be done for Stalin’s methods to work fully was for a world to be created that was thoroughly reliant on images for its sense of truth: our world.
Hockney may be wrong about smoking, but he’s right about images. Whoever controls the image controls modern history. In today’s media world, the power of the image is almost limitless. So we need those who best understand that power to police it vigorously. Which, of course, is where art comes in. Art’s domain is the image, too. And if the image isn’t doing what it should be doing – recording the truth – then art has a creative duty to patrol and protect that domain. We need rustlers-turned-sheriffs, hackers-turned-security chiefs. We need artists as we’ve never needed them before. So, has art risen to this challenge? Is it vigorously policing the world of the image? Is it hell.
An outburst of London exhibitions on or about this subject proves that the topic is an active one, but that art is disinclined to tackle it seriously. Instead of seeking to police the tampered image, art currently seems as keen as any Stalin to join in the fun. All the shows I saw last week make it less, rather than more, clear what is real and what is not.
Alison Jackson is a battle-hardened warrior in the image wars. Ever since she produced that scarily convincing portrait, in the Snowdon style, of Diana and Dodi holding up their new baby, she has successfully pursued a noisy career – on television, in Taschen books, in galleries – as a champion tamperer with the unreal reality of celebrities. Who can forget her ersatz Sven dropping his pants to reveal a pair of Union Jack Y-fronts? Or the fake Camilla grabbing a crafty fag on the royal loo?
Nicely timed to coincide with the result of the Diana inquest, Jackson’s new show at the posh Hamiltons gallery, in Mayfair, continues to offer us unlimited access to the private worlds of celebrities. Tom Cruise stands next to David Beckham in a Los Angeles toilet and enviously compares lengths. The Queen does the washing-up at Buckingham Palace. A staggeringly realistic Prince Philip admires a photograph of a staggeringly realistic Marilyn Monroe masturbating in bed.
The best of these fake-celebrity invasions are genuinely funny and real-looking. Jackson is a skilled and nuanced exploiter of lookalikes. But is anything of any heft being investigated here? In her latest series, she adds an extra ingredient of confusion to the mix by including real celebrities in false situations. Thus, the Elton John whom the Queen is happily crowning is the real Elton. As is the Tom Ford who is carefully shaving a P into Paris Hilton’s pubic hair. Paris and the Queen are fake: Tom and Elton are not. Since only knowing celebrities will involve themselves in such gags – acting as the fake Elton is a very real Elton thing to do – I fear Jackson has now wandered across to the wrong end of the courtroom. Instead of questioning celebrity, she is feeding it.
On the other side of London, in Kentish Town, a new gallery called Spring Projects takes a less jolly walk through the mine-field with a brilliant installation by Mat Collishaw. Collishaw is an undervalued Brit Artist and former boyfriend of Tracey Emin (that’s why he’s undervalued: trying to have an art career when you are Tracey’s boyfriend is like holding a match next to the floodlights at a football stadium) whose taste for candlelit Victorian moods has previously resulted in a back catalogue of dark and nostalgic costume dramas. In his new show, however, Collishaw seems to have slipped, David Tennant-style, into a war zone. Bombs are going off. Babies are crying. Blood is being splattered. Something terrible has occurred.
The sight of near-naked children shivering on a front line is an uneasy and startling falsehood. Walking into Collishaw’s spooky installation, I was reminded instantly of that famous photograph from the Vietnam war of the little girl rushing naked into the street because American napalm had set her clothes alight. That particular picture was real. But we now know that lots of celebrated war photography was not. The great Robert Capa staged his dramatic image of a loyalist soldier being hit by a bullet in the Spanish civil war. All sorts of accusations have been flung around about Joe Rosenthal’s definitive picturing of the second world war conquest: the American flag being raised on Iwo Jima.
Collishaw’s installation is technically dazzling. As you walk into the dark room, a series of flashes illuminates different sections of the twisted frieze of frightened faces and bloody bodies that surrounds you. An unconscious child is being carried to safety. A family huddles together. The images seem to linger on the walls in a ghostly fashion, an effect created by projecting them onto phosphorescent paint, which traps them for a moment, then allows them slowly to disappear. It’s a weird and spectral effect, as much seance as war zone. Outside, a series of faded black-and-white daguerreotypes of the same models, preserved in velvet boxes, like Victorian keepsakes, continues the falsehood and completes the sadness.
Over at the Hales Gallery, in London’s East End, Bob and Roberta Smith present a working-class diary full of cheeky insights done in the style of traditional canal-barge decoration, or the writing on an English pub sign. I have long been an admirer of the plebeian passions of Bob and Roberta Smith. Their tone is excellently Hogarthian and earthy. So, imagine how confused I felt when I finally discovered that Bob and Roberta Smith were actually a conceptual artist called Patrick Brill.