Spencer Tunick: Bare with Me

Bernadette McNulty meets Spencer Tunick – in Britain for two new works – for the first time since she took part in one of his famous mass-nudity photographs. So did he recognise her with her clothes on?

The last time Spencer Tunick saw me I was naked. Just before 8am on a grey Sunday morning at the end of April 2003, I was lying on the floor of the cosmetics department in London’s Selfridges among 400 nude bodies. A soft, firm blanket of flesh surrounded me, punctuated by individual sensations: an elbow in my calf, a leg over my belly, hair tickling my foot. If I raised my head, all I could see were torsos and limbs piled beneath the make-up counters. There was a low heat and the thick, rising smell of a damp stable. Initial, nervous giggling quickly subsided to a gentle hush as if we were swaddled babies who had been rocked asleep. There was, from the end of the hall, the faint sound of a flash bulb popping and then Tunick’s high-pitched American accent amplified through a megaphone, “That’s it! Thank you.”
In his book A Brief History of Nakedness psychologist Philip Carr-Gomm depicts the complex motivations behind people’s desire to strip off. From trying to return the body to a state of innocence to a defiant expression of sexual liberation; from the political protests of John Lennon and Yoko Ono to the Gok Wan-style declarations of self-esteem, being naked in public is still a powerful – and often illegal – taboo.
The experience of taking part in Tunick’s installation felt like a strange journey from curiosity, to terror, to a kind of euphoria. There was a sense of community among the naked participants; the sense of safe, surreal rebellion, skipping around a department store with no clothes on. Tunick worked quickly; it was all over in less than an hour. Even better, later on, I received – as does everybody who participates in a Tunick installation – a print of a photograph he had taken at the event.
I have spent hours poring over this image, the flesh coloured mounds of our sprawled bodies contrasted against the polished angles of the make-up counters.
I have tried, unsuccessfully, to identify myself among the mass but when I meet Tunick again in Salford this summer, I can’t resist asking: “Do you recognise me?”
It’s a question the 43-year-old American must get asked a lot. Since he embarked on his naked installations back in 1994, he has photographed hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Tunick jokingly says that when he was younger he looked a bit like David Blaine but there does seem to be something of the mysterious modern magician about him, and his ability to seduce people into taking off their clothes in increasingly spectacular locations.
In Mexico City, more than 18,000 people crouched naked in fetal positions for him in the Zocalo square. In Barcelona, they slumped down in the Plaça de la Constitució and in Amsterdam, they posed on their bikes. People have braved the cold and rain for this man: in Switzerland, volunteers stood on the Aletsch Glacier in temperatures of 10C. Most participants get up in the middle of the night for him; for his shoots, Tunick favours the dull light just before dawn breaks.
This year, two major works have brought him back to Britain. In the spring he was commissioned by the Lowry in Salford to create a work to celebrate the gallery’s 10th anniversary. Tunick decided for the first time to respond directly to the work of another artist. “I looked at L S Lowry’s paintings and saw how he grouped his matchstick figures together in city landscapes and public spaces,” he says. “I could really relate to that spirit.” In one of the most complicated shoots he has undertaken, Tunick bussed 1,000 Mancunians across seven locations in the city over two mornings. The resultant exhibition of photographs and documentary film, Everyday People, now on show at the gallery, captures what Tunick calls the echoes and transformations of Lowry’s world. “You can see the old industry of Manchester in the factories and smoke stacks that still exist but there is also the new industry of culture – of museums and colleges,” says Tunick. “For me the nude represents culture coming into the city and how culture makes the city a more open and accepting place.”
Next weekend Tunick will orchestrate another installation at the Big Chill festival in Herefordshire, where he is planning to spray-paint participants to create a kind of “Yves Klein-style colour painting” that will allude to the BP oil spill in Florida.
A tall, bearish man with a hangdog expression, Tunick always remains clothed. Unlike his subjects, he does not derive much pleasure from his shoots. Arranging them is often a long, complicated process – recruiting participants through his website, finding locations, obtaining permission, making sure there are enough toilets on the day. “People see a man up a big ladder with a camera and think I am just a photographer,” he says, “but I have to plan everything beforehand quite carefully because you can only keep people with no clothes on standing in the cold for so long.”
For Tunick, the carefully choreographed installations are less important than the finished pictures. “I’m not fighting for public nudity,” he says. Nor is he a highbrow pornographer. “My work is not about sex. Any eroticism in my work tends to exist before and after [a shoot] but very rarely during it.” His primary motivation, he says, is to create works of art that alter our perception of the world by placing naked bodies in the frame.
Tunick’s photographic career started with a gimmick. When he was younger, his father owned a franchise for key-chain photography outlets at holiday resorts. As an art student he took snaps of holidaymakers and then put the pictures in plastic key-chain viewers which he sold back to them. “I spent four months running one of the franchises and I made $25,000,” he says. “I stuffed the money in an overcoat and moved to New York to make my art.” He began to take individual portraits of his friends and models posing naked in the deserted city. “I would use the money to buy the models breakfast. Thankfully the money lasted a long time.”
The number of people wanting to be in his pictures grew quickly. “Suddenly I had 28 people who wanted to pose for me. I was only taking pictures at weekends and realised I would be working all summer and fall to take their pictures. So rather than work with them individually I tried to accommodate everybody in one picture.”
That image – his first to group a number of bodies into a single mass – convinced Tunick that he had hit on something. “It was a great picture,” he says, “and I felt that I had found something I wanted to explore.”
Tunick’s fascination with the naked body has endured for nearly two decades. In that time he has gone from a renegade, arrested seven times in New York, to a global name. Lady Gaga wrote an 80-page college thesis on his work and Sacha Baron Cohen invited him to take part in his film Bruno (an invitation which Tunick reluctantly declined). He has also refused lucrative requests to allow his work to feature in advertisements. Even today, 90 per cent of his commissions come from art galleries and museums.
Although a hit with the media and the general public – in the first week the Lowry advertised for volunteers, more than 4,000 people applied – Tunick’s work doesn’t always provoke such a favourable response from critics. Some take issue with the seeming repetition of his technique and dismiss him as a one-trick pony.
“People are still frightened of nudity and that can inform the way they see my work,” he says. “But if you look closely, my work is not the same, it changes, but it changes very slowly because of the scale of what I do. [The installation in] Mexico City took three years to set up. At that rate, if I wanted to have an exhibition of 10 works of installations each involving over 4,000 people it would take 25 years to achieve.”
The Lowry exhibition particularly reveals the subtleties and resonances in Tunick’s work. Huddled together and crouched over in typical Lowry poses, the bodies seem vulnerable and delicate, dwarfed by the city around them. But in other scenes, such as one shot taken beneath the wings of Concorde at Manchester airport, the people seem to be brought closer in community by their nakedness, their bodies become a kind of flesh architecture.
Tunick sees himself in the tradition of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly or Cindy Sherman, who will spend their careers patiently ploughing the same furrow of inspiration. “I’m not a Damien Hirst-type artist that jumps from new idea to new idea,” he says. “I am more old-fashioned in that I work on one thing for a long time. That is what being an artist is. We obsess about something and enjoy that obsession. I love what I do, how it changes very slightly from city to city.”
The changing landscape of modern life seems to offer an endless canvas for Tunick to paint with naked bodies while also meeting the public’s hunger to become involved. At this rate, perhaps one day everyone will have a Tunick picture that they can try to find themselves in. “The body never stops being beautiful to me,” he says. “It never becomes mundane.”

 source : http://www.telegraph.co.uk

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