In just over 24 hours’ time, Alison Jackson, the BAFTA winning artist, will take a member of public onto the stage of a London theatre and turn them into a celebrity. Well, kind of – Jackson won’t actually be making the punter famous. Instead she’ll turn them into a dead ringer for an existing A-lister.
Jackson, now 48, has been doing this for 20 years – just not live. Her pictures are well-known: hyper-realistic posed photographs appearing to show monarchs, world leaders, plutocrats and A-list egos at their most embarrassing or private moments. The Queen in her marigolds scrubbing the dishes. A purring Berlusconi massaging the shoulders of Angela Merkel. That sort of thing.
Over the past five years, she’s exhibited in Tel Aviv, Paris, New York and London – most recently at the Royal Academy’s 150th anniversary exhibition. While she continues to get plenty of mileage from the Windsors, her most subversive pieces are those which prick at the pretentions of celebrity virtue-signalling. One of the images in her latest book, for example, shows Angelina Jolie choosing from a line-up of different infants.
Now she’s embarking on a live tour and inviting wannabe lookalikes to get involved – political ones included.
‘I’ve already got three Corbyns,’ she says, when we talk politics at a plush West London apartment. ‘I need a Rees-Mogg though. Could you help with that?” she asks (and if anyone can, it’s probably The Spectator). She praises Brexit for having opened up the cast of recognisable faces – ‘Tusk and Juncker – it would be amazing to get them,’ she says. ‘God, I hope a Juncker shows up at the theatre’.
But her biggest bet, unsurprisingly, has been on the man in the White House. In the run up to the election, Jackson spent tens of thousands of pounds parading Donald Trump lookalikes around America, staging White House scenes in which fake Trumps showered bikini models with fistfuls of greenbacks. The television networks loved it.
‘I was one of the first people to predict he’d win,’ she says. ‘Hence why I always had him in the Oval Office.’ But she was quietly pleased by it too, I ask, given the huge boost he’s given to her own profile. ‘Well… in a way, maybe,’ she says, watching her words slightly.
For years, Jackson has plugged her work as exposing the dishonest of photography – something that seems more relevant than ever in the Trump era. We discuss some real life examples: the smirking schoolboys of Covington or, from the other side, the infamous footage of Clinton fainting – both of which were used mercilessly by online partisans. Does she worry about her own images might be used – could her Trump pictures (which include the President posing with the Ku Klux Klan) be utilised by the troll factories of Saint Petersburg to stir radical tensions on social media? Actually the idea isn’t so far-fetched: ‘that photo actually ended up in the news in Pakistan – presented as real, of course,’ she explains.
‘I don’t want to be seen as contributing to fake news,’ she says. ‘But what I’m doing is exposing the seductive nature of imagery: the way images entice us to believe something is true. It’s a very deceitful medium.’
And what about the line between real and fake in Jackson’s own work? I’m struck by a photo in her digital archive, sitting in the middle of her ‘real’ portraits (Jackson is also a portrait photographer): Benedict Cumberbatch, looking playfully squiffy as he pees into a giant pan in a restaurant kitchen. That can’t possibly be real – can it? And, if so, why haven’t I seen it before?
She says it’s from a lunch. ‘Ben got into the kitchens at The Ivy, stood up on the counter, and we quickly grabbed the soup vat for him to pee into,’ she says. ‘Of course it’s not real pee,’ she says, ‘but it’s a great picture nonetheless.’ Forget the pee, though, is it really Cumberbatch? She insists it is. The truth, apparently, really is stranger than fiction.
Alison Jackson: Double Take is at the Leicester Square Theatre 5-7th March