Articles and Reviews

CARLOS CUADROS

Bodies in Paradise

NAUSIKAÄ EL-MECKY

In Public Space, The Naked Body Is Still Explosive

CARLO McCORMICK

Naked City

LISA LIEBMANN and BROOKS ADAMS

Sometimes It Does Take a Village

LISA LEIBMANN

Spencer Tunick: An Update

SIMON WILSON

Former Tate Curator Simon Wilson Lays Bare The Spencer Tunick Experience In His Account of What It's Like to Strip for Art's Sake

STEFANI GERMANOTTA

Reckoning of Evidence

FORMER TATE CURATOR SIMON WILSON LAYS BARE THE SPENCER TUNICK EXPERIENCE IN HIS ACCOUNT OF WHAT ITS'S LIKE TO STRIP FOR ART'S SAKE


‘I wonder if I should have shaved,’ said a young woman in the queue to her companion. The time was 8am on the morning of Sunday 27 April 2003; the queue in question stretched right around Selfridges and contained, I learned, some 650 people, all of whom had come prepared to perform nude for the American installation artist Spencer Tunick in a work titled Be Consumed, to be staged before opening time on the shop floor of the famous store. Numbers of men and women seemed about equal, and most were in couples or groups of friends. The predominant age range was perhaps twenty-five to forty, although there was a fair sprinkling of older people. Colour was white – I saw one black man and a handful of women of perhaps Asian origin.


What had brought these people here? Why was I there? The official answer to that was that I am an art historian, and wanted to find out more about this guy Spencer Tunick. True, but I was also undeniably driven by a fascinated curiosity at the idea of seeing a large number of people naked. And the others? In my nervous paranoia at being thought an ageing voyeur, only later did it occur to me that the real motives of many of these people, women as well as men, were probably the same as mine.


Eventually we filed into Selfridges Women’s Accessories Department and sat down in serried ranks on the floor, with a substantial overspill in the mezzanine café. The artist then addressed the throng, and on his command everyone undressed. This was done notably at speed – in a flash we were all naked. Nobody copped out. Mingling freely we then trooped through to the Cosmetics section for the first set-ups. Those on the mezzanine had to descend the curving open staircase to the main floor. For those below this produced an uncanny living version of the multiple images of one of the great icons of early modern art, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. It was an unforgettable sight that would have sent Duchamp screaming round his studio with joy.


In Cosmetics, after a couple of warm-ups, the third set-up involved us all crowding together in the aisles and then collapsing as if struck with narcolepsy. The result, amid much giggling and squirming to avoid indelicate exposure, was a sea of bodies extending in all directions and lapping against the counters. My head was resting on a hairy male thigh but my eyes were an inch or so from a ravishing female breast whose owner was pressed up against me. Heroically (the Courtauld trains its sons well) the inner art historian at once came up with Burne-Jones’s Briar Rose series, with its sleeping knights and maidens. Indeed, the sultry, hothouse atmosphere of that work and its powerful vibe of dormant eroticism was now being recreated in Selfridges. To the warm (had they turned up the heat specially?) and perfumed atmosphere of Cosmetics was added the natural heat of 650 naked male and female bodies packed together and exuding, surely, a potent soup, a veritable miasma, of pheromones. It was a sensual experience of extraordinary intensity.


Of course everyone was on best behaviour, although even in that caressing warmth it was noticeable that nipples were definitely being worn pert. Male organs appeared well under control, although fear of unruly erection was clearly universal. This was revealed to me when the women were taken off upstairs for a unisex set-up, leaving the men below. Within minutes cocktail party level chatter had broken out, and a man next to me confided that he had planned to think of Margaret Thatcher nude to quell any untoward stirrings. The state we were in was perhaps a kind of mental eroticism, an erethism of the mind, or something akin to that stable, inwardly directed state of arousal achieved by adepts of Tantric yoga.


What was remarkable was the overall relaxation and sense of camaraderie that prevailed from the moment we became naked. Everyone seemed at home in their bodies whether svelte or lumpy, young or old; no one was making judgments about others; naked strangers chatted; and the few clothed people present became the odd ones out. We seemed indeed light years away from the anxious attitudes of society at large to the body and nudity. I emerged from the whole experience hugely exhilarated and uplifted, remembering a recent comment by another contemporary photographer of the nude, Wolfgang Tillmans: ‘I find it amazing that the body is not treated in a matter of fact, relaxed way. It is either idealised or hidden. Happiness, in a way, is found in accepting your own body.’


Spencer Tunick confronts head on this issue and indeed our whole relationship to our physical and social environment in the public installations that are the basis of his work, which also strikingly updates the long tradition of the nude. But among the most valuable aspect of his art is the liberating and life-affirming experience it offers to its participants, and I commend it to you.




-Simon Wilson

SIMON WILSON

Former Tate Curator Simon Wilson Lays Bare The Spencer Tunick Experience In His Account of What It's Like to Strip for Art's Sake