How sad, therefore, and how telling, that our own musical giants, a Gareth Gates, say, or Girls Aloud, even the lofty Darius, are so hugely unlikely ever to protest about anything. When you manufacture mindless pop stars, you manufacture mindless compliance. The real sound of the underground these days is a depressing hush.
I’m going on about this here not because I have forgotten my duties as this paper’s art critic, but because, more than ever, what is true of the music biz has become true of the art biz. The two ex- indisciplines are coming together at the edges to form a single comfort zone of youthful and cowardly cultural inactivity, where the only politics that matter are the politics of partying.
Just as there are no protest singers any more, so there have been no protest artists of note for a very long time. Scanning the British art horizon for the descendants of Hogarth, the sons of Goya, the daughters of dada or the kin of Käthe Kollwitz, for anyone who is willing to pop their head above the parapet and attempt a Guernica or a Death of Marat, I can only see Alison Jackson.
Jackson sprang to prominence soon after the death of Princess Di, with a magnificently provocative image of our beloved queen of hearts with her Muslim lover, Dodi al-Fayed, and their secret baby, a dark-skinned, curly-haired, un-English-looking scamp, whom mum and dad are keeping quiet with a cuddly toy, as mums and dads do. The unlikely royal family photo, in the style of Snowdon, was astonishingly convincing. The likenesses had been achieved not with digital trickery, but with carefully presented lookalikes.
So convincing were they that the image appeared to penetrate beyond the flip Zelig level on which such visual deceptions usually operate and to plunge deep into the voodoo layer, where stand- ins and surrogates are more dangerously potent than the subjects themselves. I found it to be a work of real transgressive power. Diana and Dodi’s baby, you felt, had it in him to crack the kingdom in twain.
Of course, there was much tut-tutting at the image, and the usual outrage in the Tunbridge Wells area. But the raw truth of it was that Jackson had successfully located and agitated a very painful British nerve. The fantasy of our fair princess breeding with this dark Egyptian playboy was social, racial, religious, cultural, constitutional and political dynamite. As Hogarth, Rowlandson and Cruikshank had done before her, Jackson was exercising her ancient artistic right to annoy the pants off, er, the status quo.
Jackson’s latest determinedly naughty act, unveiled at a small gallery in Kensington — a choice of venue that, in itself, appears deli- berately provocative — attempts to continue this excellent subversive work. Her latest photographic suite celebrates the sinful excesses of those two instantly recognisable Middle Eastern booze-lovers and girl-chasers, that celebrated pair of Islamic gamblers and pipe smokers, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.
Okay, that isn’t really Saddam and Osama groping a pair of voluptuous belly dancers and knocking back the Jack Daniel’s as they complete a swirling round of backgammon. But, just for a second, at first sight, it might be.
It’s a tiny show. It consists of only four pictures, accompanied by a short video. Jackson has found a pair of lookalikes who pass exactly for Osama and Saddam. Two of the images are large, full-colour fantasies in which the guys and their belly dancers are seen partying, anti-Wahhabi style, in some smoky Islamic den of iniquity. Another small image shows Osama apparently being arrested by American troops. And the fourth picture, in documentary-style black-and-white, shows the familiar turban and beret hunched over some photographs of London, and seemingly deciding to bomb Big Ben rather than Buckingham Palace. With Big Ben out of operation, seems to be the thrust of their decision-making, the infidel would be powerless to know at exactly what time his world ended.
If nothing else, the show is an act of daring. Reader, you know as well as I do that in the cultural circumstances in which we find ourselves today, the wise man does not set about deliberately extracting the urine from the Islamic world, or poking fun at Osama and Saddam. Look what happened to Salman Rushdie (before he took off for Manhattan and settled down with a dusky Indian beauty half his age, that is, poor man). Some will think it frivolous of Jackson to imply that the heroes of militant Islam are as inanely macho as the baddies in a Bond movie.
If our boys do go to war, Jackson’s irreverent mocking of Muslim strictures against gambling, drinking and groping belly dancers will strike some as in- appropriate, and perhaps even dangerous.
But I have no worries on any of these scores. Hogarth would have done the same. So would Rowlandson. What worries me here is that the Osama and Saddam images are not as transgressively magical as the earlier Dodi and Di, because they never feel convincing enough. All of Jackson’s work depends upon getting everything exactly right.
As a reminder of what she can do when she successfully achieves mimetic perfection, the gallery is also showing a single image from an earlier series in which a decrepit Marilyn Monroe can be seen lying on a bed, masturbating. So entirely convincing is this presuicidal image of the lonely Marilyn that, like Dodi and Di, the viewing of it blurs into an act of voodoo.
In comparison, Osama and Saddam’s antics appear overly camp. They don’t work for the same reason that bad costume dramas don’t work. Where the stripped Marilyn achieves an emotional starkness that you can well believe of the real Marilyn, Saddam and Osama, partying in Notting Hill fashion, are surrounded by that same aura of costumed falseness that always rings a Merchant Ivory production.
Still, I salute Jackson for having the gumption and the wit to try any of this. We are about to be bombarded with images that will seek to define and determine the war against Iraq and, in these circumstances, it is certainly an artist’s job to warn us not to trust everything we see. In a world in which digital enhancement and computer-generated falsehood have become the norm, Alison Jackson’s art seems determined to act as a warning siren.