Artist Alison Jackson Stages an All-Too-Real Trump Spectacle in Manhattan
On Tuesday, just one day after revelations of Donald Trump’s wild partying resurfaced, a motorcade carrying a lookalike of the Republican presidential nominee arrived in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, half a dozen bikini-clad women there to meet him. While the actual candidate was speaking to voters in balmy Florida, the mock motorcade, a performance piece staged and choreographed by artist Alison Jackson, traveled across Manhattan on a brisk October day. After making the first stop at Trump Tower in the early afternoon, the cars proceeded to Times Square. In front of Trump Tower, women hired by Jackson to participate brandished placards and hurled insults at the candidate. Annoyed cops did their best to corral the scene, while tourists and New Yorkers swirled into a selfie frenzy, swarming the faux candidate and snapping as many pictures as possible. Most knew or quickly realized it wasn’t real. But Jackson’s staged performance rang in perfect harmony with an election cycle that has brought little beyond the most vulgar of surprises and near-endless spectacle.
Hours earlier in Chelsea, the scene at HG Contemporary Gallery, which acted as the staging arena for the performance, was hectic, but subdued in comparison to what would eventually unfold. Tonight, the gallery hosts the opening of “Private,” an exhibition featuring a number of Jackson’s photographs. She has long dabbled in recreation, crafting meticulously staged (often lewd) images of celebrities and politicians in the rare private moments these otherwise public figures enjoy. For example, past works have pictured Obama having a cigarette, and Bill Clinton getting a nude massage as Hillary delivers a speech on TV. They’re uncanny manifestations of stories and personas that are ever-present in the public imagination, visions of what may or may not occur among public figures behind closed doors. But Jackson’s works go beyond “just the photography,” says Philippe Hoerle-Guggenheim, HG’s founder and director. “It’s the staging, it’s the makeup, it’s the whole production of it.” Earlier, while we chatted, he bolted from the gallery at the sight of a tow truck approaching a Bentley to be used in the motorcade. Hoerle-Guggenheim wouldn’t reveal the cost of the event, which he developed with the artist during Frieze London, saying, “It’s not inexpensive, but it’s well worth it. It’s going to be fun for everybody.”
Along with the narrowly avoided tow, there were a few last-minute hiccups. An assistant had been dispatched to find a larger mirror required for makeup, and one of the men tapped to play motorcycle-riding security (contacted via Craigslist) hadn’t received instructions to wear black formal attire and instead sported jeans and a leather jacket—not exactly secret service garb. A wide-eyed Jackson hurried from room to room in the gallery, her British accent bouncing off the walls as she finalized preparations, taking the setbacks in stride and fixing what she could. “It’s very stressful,” Jackson said, laughing, as we spoke in a gallery office, while the women playing Trump’s entourage dropped in to sign legal agreements for participating. “With everything I do, it’s so high craft. The girls have got to be right, they’ve got to want to do it, they’ve got to be interested in the reasons why. All that takes a bit of doing. Then for the Trump lookalike, I’ve got to find the guy—that’s been hell.”
In the next room, three stylists worked to primp and perfect the eventually discovered Trump actor for his public debut. Not to be disturbed, an attendant worked laboriously to sculpt his hair. Around him, women in American flag bikinis laughed, scribbling slogans on placards. “Someone do ‘if Ivanka wasn’t my daughter, I’d be dating her,’” one said. The women had answered online postings, and though initially the project was secret, they were all called and told about it. “I was completely game,” said a woman named Maury, when she was informed it was anti-Trump. “We’re all on the same page.”
Prep for the day began at 8 a.m. When I arrived at 10, Trump still lacked an orange hue, his hair only beginning to quiff. But I could see the resemblance. “It’s taken me about a year,” Jackson said of her search. “I’ve cast 300 Donald Trump lookalikes, all of which look nothing like Donald Trump and the ones that have looked like him, I’ve had to run after down the street going ‘hey, you look like Donald Trump!’ They’ve literally run away or put their phone down and told me to, in much ruder terms, shove off.” During her quest she developed a sort of sommelier-like expertise on her subject, able to identify people’s Trumpian features. Of the late night show impersonators, “Alec Baldwin is the best,” she said. “I love his wig.”
Something about the whole thing felt a little disquieting. But I wasn’t sure if that discomfort came from the fakeness of it all, the embrace of uncanny artifice, or if it came from tumbling back to reality, from remembering that this election is all too real. Jackson was appropriating Trump’s talent for showmanship, an ability he rode to success, as did news networks like CNN, which just today reported revenues $100 million over the election bounce they expected. The Donald has a skill for manipulating media attention (this very article is proof of that). “He’s a great bad actor, isn’t he? He’s a reality show actor,” Jackson said, who traces the death of truth and genuine politics to the lethal combo of Bush/Blair leadership. “What can you expect now in terms of what we want? We’re so used to entertainment,” she said. “Everything’s over the top. Everything I’m doing today is over the top. I wish it could be more serious. It is a serious matter.”
Standing outside Trump Tower waiting for the motorcade to arrive, I kept thinking about her words as I tried not to freeze. (We waited an hour. While real motorcades can part traffic, art performances, it turns out, cannot.) The press, 20 of us in total, stood around waiting, drawn in by an event so dripping with spectacle and mixed with an election hook that it felt practically scientifically engineered to be media-bait. Outside the tower, a lone protester carrying an “Indict Benedict Trump” poster denounced Wikileaks. The infamous Naked Cowboy made an appearance (it turns out he backs Trump and was outside the tower for some reason, I assume to torture me) and sang a rejoinder about Putin being a potential friend. It was a fairly miserable if accurate summary of the political dialogue circa 2016. After about an hour, the press gaggle was hurried down the street (the motorcade had been detained, or it hadn’t, or it wasn’t clear). We hurried back to the tower.
Then, suddenly, the Bentley arrived. A passing driver, perhaps fooled, yelled out a curse at Trump from his window. As the man himself disembarked and headed to the tower, cameras swarmed, people pointed, screamed, and smiled. I don’t think anyone realized exactly what was happening, but everyone knew they wanted a photo of it. “Business as usual?” I asked a cop. He laughed and walked away (the police generally let things proceed). Jackson’s female protesters stood in front of the tower and erupted in chants of “not our president.” A bystander with a Trump pin shook his head, whispering “this is the debasement of America” to no one in particular. After about three minutes, a writhing mass had formed, of tourists, cops, screaming women in bikinis, reporters, protesters, the Naked Cowboy, publicists, street vendors—all spinning around the orange man at the center of it all. The storm was maybe a better incarnation of the election than Jackson could have possibly predicted.
Everyone there I spoke to was a tourist, not a surprise given the location of the event. “It’s funny,” one from Norway said of the display. “We can’t understand why so many Americans vote for Trump.” Another person attempting to part the crowd kept repeating “I’m just trying to get through,” totally nonplussed by what was happening; other New Yorkers in the area were angered that the ordeal was obstructing foot traffic. “I think it’s a protest,” an Irish visitor said to me. But mostly there were laughs, people eager to get a picture with the Donald lookalike, or a shot of him feeding a street vendor’s hot dog to one of the women.
After about 20 minutes, it ended. I watched Jackson’s Trump enter a simple yellow cab, give a thumbs up, and drive off. The motorcade was heading to Times Square—but I had seen enough. As I peeled off from the gaggle and walked back past Trump Tower, I remembered a line Clinton gave at the Al Smith dinner a few nights ago. “Here’s exactly what you want to hear,” she said. “This election will be over very, very soon.” But caught in the Trump commotion, watching the Naked Cowboy joke with cops, seeing the cameras flash and people feverishly swarming—amid all that, the election felt very, very far away.