Looking at celebrity: Alison Jackson on

Why can’t you make it through the checkout line without flipping through page after page of pregnant celebs in Us magazine? Alison Jackson knows why. In her work, she photographs the people you think you recognize doing what you really want to see. And in the process, she’s questioning our shared desire to get personal with celebrity culture. Funny and sometimes shocking, Jackson’s work contains some graphic images. (Recorded July 2005 in Oxford, UK. Duration: 17:36.)

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Alison Jackson: A surprising look at celebrity

I’m a contemporary artist and I show in art galleries and museums. I show a number of photographs and films, but I also make television programs, books and some appetizing, all with the same concept. And it’s about our fixation with celebrity and celebrity culture, and the importance of the image celebrities born of photography. So I’m going to start with how I started with this concept seven years ago, when Princess Diana died.

There was sort of a standstill in Britain the day or the moment of her death and people decided to mourn her death in a sort of mass way. I was fascinated by this phenomenon. So I wondered, could somebody raise this image of Diana actually quite crudely and physically.

So I got a gun and started to shoot at the image of Diana. But I couldn’t erase this from my memory, and certainly it was not being erased from the public psyche. Momentum was being built. The press wrote about her death in, rather kind of, I felt, pornographic ways, like which bit of artery left which bit of body and how did she die in the back of the car. And I was intrigued by this sort of mass voyeurism. So, I sort of made these rather gory images.

I then went on wondering if I could actually replace her image. So I got a look-alike and posed her in the right positions and angles and created something that was in, or existed in the public imagination. So people wondered was she actually going to marry Dodi, was she in love with him, was she pregnant, did she want his baby, was she pregnant when she died? So I created this image of Diana, Dodi and their imaginary mixed-race child when she died. And image came out and caused a huge sort of public outcry at the time. So I went on to make more comments of the media and press imagery. So started making reference to media imagery, made it grainy, shot through doorways and so on and so forth, to titillate the public or the viewer further in terms of trying to make the viewer more aware of their own voyeurism. So this is an image of Diana looking at Camilla kissing her husband. And this was a sequence. And this gets shown in sort of art galleries like this as a sequence, and similarly with the Di-Dodian baby imagery; this is another art gallery instillation.

I’m particularly interested in how you can’t rely on your own perception. This is Jane Smith and Joe Blogs, for instance, but you think it’s Camilla and the Queen. And I’m fascinated at how, what you think is real isn’t necessarily real, and the camera can lie. And it makes it very, very easy with, sort of, the mass bombardment of imagery to tell truths. So I continued to work on this project with how photography seduces us and is more interesting to look at than the actual real subject matter. And at the same time it removes us from the real subject matter. And this acts as sort of a titillating thing. So the photograph becomes this teaser and insights desire and voyeurism. Like, what you can’t have, you want more. So in the photograph the real subject doesn’t exist. So it makes you want that person more. And that’s the way I think that, you know, celebrity magazines work now. The more pictures you see of these celebrities, the more you feel you know them, but you don’t know them and you want to know them further.

Of course the queen goes to her stud often to watch her horses to – watch her horses. (laughter) And I’m then I was sort of making imagery, there’s this expression in England that you can’t imagine the Queen on the loo. So I’m sort of trying to penetrate that.

Well here, you know, here’s the image. All this imagery was creating a lot of fuss. And I was cited as a disgusting artist. And, but the press were writing about this, you know giving full pages about how terrible this was, which I found very interesting that it was going full cycle. I was taking, making comments about the press and about how we know, facts and information only by media, because we don’t know the real people. Very few of us know the real people. But it was going back into the press, and they were publicizing, effectively, my filthy work. So, you know, these broad sheets, tabloids, debates were being had all about this work, films were getting banned before people were – actually had to look at the work. Politicians were getting involved, all sorts of things, great headlines. Then suddenly it started to get on front pages. Like I was been asked and paid to do front covers. Which suddenly I was becoming sort of exactable, which I found, you know, also fascinating. Where at one moment disgusting journalists would lie to me to get a story or a photograph, saying my work was wonderful, the next minute there were terrible headlines about me. But then this changed, suddenly.

I then started to work for magazines and newspapers. This was for example an image that went into Tantra. This was another newspaper image. It was an April fool actually, and to this day some people think it’s real. I was sitting next to someone the other day, and I said there’s this great image of the Queen sitting outside William Hill and they thought it was real.

So I was exploring at the time, the hyperbole of icons and Diana and Marilynn and the importance of celebrity in our lives. How the wiggle their way into the collective psyche without us even knowing. And how that should happen. I explored actually, dressing up as celebrities myself. There’s me as Diana. I happen to look like the mass murderer Myra Henley. And me as the Queen. I then continued to make a whole body of work about Marilyn, the biggest icon of all. And trying to titillate by shooting through doorways and shutters and so on and so forth. And only showing certain angles to create a reality that obviously is completely constructed. This is the look-alike, so the crafting elements of this are a completely enormous, looks nothing like Marilyn. But by the time we’ve made her up and put wigs and makeup on, she looks exactly like Marilyn. To the extent that her husband couldn’t recognize her or recognize this look-alike in these photographs, which I find interesting.

So all this work is getting shown in art galleries and then I made a book. I was also started making a TV series for the BBC at the time. Stills of the TV series went into this book. But there was a real legal problem because it looks real, but how do you get over that? Because obviously it’s making a comment about how our culture, right, right now that we can’t tell what’s real. How do we know what, when we’re looking at something of whether it’s real or not? So from my point of view it’s important to publish it, but at the same time it does cause a confusion, intentional on my behalf, but problematic for any outlet that I’m working with, so we need a big disclaimer put on everything that I do, and I made a sort of narrative about all the sort of European or Britain celebrities and comments about our sort of public figures. You know, what does Tony Blair get up to in private with his fashion guru. Also dealing with the deceptions that are put about, about, you know, Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, the links are all put about pre-era war. And, you know, what happened, what is going to happen to the monarchy, because, you know, obviously, I mean the British public would prefer William to Charles on the throne. And it’s that wish, that desire, that I suppose I’m dealing with in my work. I’m not really interested in celebrity themselves. I’m interested in the perception of the celebrity. And with some look-alikes, they are so good. You don’t know if they’re real or not.

I did an advertisement campaign for Schweppes, which is Coca-Cola and so that was very interesting in terms of the legalities is highly commercial. But it was a difficulty for me, because this is my artwork. Should I do advertising, at the time? So I made sure the work was not compromised in anyway and that the integrity of the work remained the same. But the meanings changed in the sense that, you know, with the logo on, you’re closing all the lines of the interpretation down to selling a product, and that’s all you’re doing. When you take the log off, you’re opening up the interpretations and making the work inconclusive, opposed to conclusive, when you are advertising.

This image is quite interesting actually, because I think we made it three years ago, and it’s Camilla in her wedding dress, which, again nearly got, we use now, you know, recently brought to her wedding. Tony Blair and Cheri. And again the legalities we had to be very careful. It’s obviously a very big commercial company and so we did this little, you know, “it’s not really them,” was put on the side of the imagery and Margaret Thatcher and visiting Jeffery Archer in jail.

I then was asked by Selfridges to do a series of windows for them. So I built a sauna bath in one of their windows and created little scenes, live scenes with look-alikes inside the windows and the windows were all steamed up. So Tony Blair reading and practicing his speech. I’ve got them doing Yoga with Kara Kaplan, Sven making out with Ulrika Jonnson, who was having an affair at the time. This was a huge success for them because the imagery got shown in the press the day after in every single newspaper, broad sheets and tabloids. It was a bit of a road stopper, which was problematic, because the police kept on trying to clear away the crowds. Huge fun. It was great for me to do a performance. Also people were taking photographs so it was being texted around the world extremely quickly, all this imagery. And the press were , you know, interviewing and I was signing my book.

So, further imagery, I’m making a new book now with Taschen. That I’m working on really for a sort of global market. My previous book was only for the UK market. But I suppose it could be called kind of like humorous. I suppose I come from sort of a non-humorous background, you know, serious intent. And then suddenly my work is funny. And I think it doesn’t really matter that, you know, my work is considered humorous and in a way I think it’s a way in for me to deal with the importance of imagery and how we read all our information through imagery. It’s extremely fast way of getting information. It’s an extremely difficult if it’s constructed correctly. And there are techniques of construction iconic imagery. I mean this image for example is sort of spot on. If, you know, because it’s exactly sums up what Elton may be doing in private and also might be what happening with Saddam Hussein, and George Bush reading the Koran upside-down. For example, George Bush target practice shooting at Bin Laden and Michael Moore. And then you change the photograph he’s shooting, and then it suddenly becomes rather grim, and maybe less accessible. Tony Blair being used as a mounting block. And Rumsfeld and Bush laughing with some Abu Ghraib behind and the seriousness of them or the intellect of Bush. And also commenting on the behind the scenes, well as we know now, what goes on in prisons. And in fact George Bush and Tony Blair are having great fun during all of this. And really commenting, you know, based on the perception we have of the celebrities what Jack Nicholson might be up to in his celebrity life. And the fact that he tried to, he had a bit of road rage and golf clubbed a driver the other day I mean it’s extremely difficult to find these look-alikes, so I’m constantly going up to people in the street and, and trying to, you know, ask people to come and be in one of my photographs or films and sometimes asking the real celebrity mistaking someone who looks like the real person, which is highly embarrassing. I’ve also been working with the Guardian. So on a topical basis a page week, in their newspaper, which has been very interesting working topically. So Jamie Oliver and Schoolden. Bush and Blair having difficulty getting inside Muslim culture. The whole hunting issues. The royal family refusing to stop hunting and the tsunami issue. Obviously Harry. Blair’s view on Gordon Brown, which I find very interesting. Condi and Bush. This image, I’ve decided to show, I’m having reservation about it. I made it a year ago and it…just how meanings change and what a terrible thing that has happened. But the fears lurking around in our minds prior to that. That’s why this image was made one year ago. And, you know, what it means today. So I’ll leave you with these clips to have a look. (Music)