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
SPENCER TUNICK: AN UPDATE
It should be said that Spencer Tunick’s pictures of naked people in public places have little in common with “free love” or the “Woodstock Nation,” because their fundamental message is neither sexual nor communitarian. Once the sixties gestalt dissipates – which happens rather quickly – the esthetically hyperaware spirit that characterizes this turn-of-the-century asserts itself in no uncertain terms.
Tunick’s work reveals itself to be an abstracted form of landscape, as well as a very specific mapping strategy – a way of establishing the imprint of time on place. His photographs very obviously happened; and some level of curiosity concerning process and logistics becomes an integral part of viewer response. To explain: Tunick’s recently concluded epic project, Naked States, involved nude mises en scene taken in each of the 50 U.S. sub-sovereignties (as we have learned to think of them after the 2000 election). In Tunick’s world order, landscapes and other specific sites are auditioned, too, and the artist’s location-scouting turns out to be as important as his choice of models. A prim-looking naked white woman, for instance, kneeling in front of a vigorously pristine, though already nostalgically resonant late-modernist skyscraper is Indiana today. A lone rubicund man standing naked under a Phillips 66 sign in the midst of tall stalks of corn is the hunky, hapless essence of rural Iowa now.
Art-historical frissons are everything to the prosaic time and space in Tunick’s productions, as well. His locales and anatomies are sometimes conjoined in more strictly formal synchronies. For example, the labyrinthian parterre of reclining nudes beneath the dome and Deco statuary of the Griffith Park Observatory in California (1997) suggests an ecstatic, eurhythmic throwback to wacky Symbolist allegories of procreation and transcendent death from a hundred years ago.
These photographs require courage and organization. Getting large groups of people up, out, and naked at six in the morning in public squares and thoroughfares would seem, indeed, to demand some of the demented tyrannical energy of pioneering epic-film directors of the silent era. So D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille might be said to represent other aspects of Tunick’s American century. It further takes classic Western-style grit to keep cool when disaster strakes the set – when the police, for instance, arrive to dispel the cast because of permit problems: what dashed hopes, what lost opportunities, what goosebumps raised for nought! To be nude in battle, nude in landscape, nude in one’s nobility, freedom and death – that is the revolutionary essence of Neoclassical history painting. Tunick’s photographs disclose the Ideal within the Real, for an increasingly sanitized and ever puritanical society.
Grouped here under the rubric Reaction Zone, Tunick’s most recent pictures – shot in New York and L.A. and in the inland European bastions of Vienna and Basel – sometimes reveal anexpanding sensitivity to the subliminal pressures of the past. The ceremonial carpet of white bodies, for instance, in New Vienna 1 (1999), is literally imbued with creamy light of the Neoclassical limestone facades in the background. The live bodies project an aura of frozen mortality – the formal spirit of the Baroque – that evokes fallen soldiers and centuries of war, even as a Greek chorus of windows and doors enunciates a strictly architectural vocabulary – arches, eyebrows, shields and sashes – that is steeped in human anatomy. The subtext of war is also apparent through the duskier tones and rococo figural motifs of New Vienna 2 (1999), wherein a perspectival diminuendo of naked figures – forcefully yet gracefully arrayed, like fallouts from a late-Baroque Last Judgment painting – works its way up a broad avenue to what might be a shadowy play of light, but distinctly suggests an equestrian monument.
If the crowded bodies of Switzerland 1 (19990, shot in balmier Basel, suggest a more mercantile narrative – freshly slaughtered livestock, perhaps, being brought to town to market – the convergence of naked bodies and post – industrial structures in Switzerland 2 (1999), also shot in Basel, allows for broader and even more brutal associations. Here the bodies from a kind of wake, stretched out as they are in the same direction, face up, along bending tramway tracks into the middle distance, bringing to mind mass deportation on trains, as well as Joseph Beuys’s epochal “Sled” installations. Naked bodies scattered on the streets of Germanic cities ( even Swiss ones) just aren’t the same as at a Phish concert in Maine.
Tunick’s latest made-in-America productions are more broadly discursive. They are, as a whole, dynamically and often playfully informed by the Pop symbiosis of landscape and still life genres, with the givens and visual possibilities of commercial signage. Halfway around the world from central Europe – in Lalaland, to be precise – Tunick assembled a flock of naked supplicants to shoot Chinatown (2000), an etheric New year’s Day salute. Set up and photographed in a pedestrian cul-de-sac of the city’s original Chinatown district, the scene suggests an early morning prayer meditation. The curves of heads, rumps, rib cages and, in the foreground, the delicate traces of tattoos rhyme gently with the characters and letters on old-fashioned Chinese shop signs; with rows of flesh-toned paper lanterns strung up above in the early morning haze; and whith the ghostly shadows of cars parked beyond barriers in the distance. Mariko Mori’s elaborately staged and photographed fantasias are perhaps equivalent techno-visions of this millennial Pacific mood.
Tunick has his finger on more prosaic pulses as well. 9th Street and First Avenue (2000), for instance, embodies the chaotic everyday dynamic of New York’s Lower East Side. Bodies lap up like waves against the flower stalls of a corner grocery store. Garbage, grime, an ATM sign, general directionlessness, the fragment of a beer ad, the odd nipple right and hirsute leg, an occasional face, and the cameo-like appearances of a couple of “normal” bystanders – a man minding the store, another looking at headlines on the curb – all converge to create a jaunty image of contemporary, extraordinarily New York. In this disjunctive context Tunick’s horde of naked people look like New Realist figures – perhaps sculpture by John De Andrea – inexplicably released from galleries, homes and warehouses into the street.
This peculiar feeling – you could call it magic hper-realism – is further attained in 123rd Street and Malcom X Boulevard (2000). Here the scene is situated around a different sort of corner establishment: a newsstand-cum-convenience store, whose obsolete marquee and lettering, looking very Jack Pierson, spell out “Tropical products” and “the 2nd Joe’s Meat Market.” Bodies forming an alluring chiaroscuro of dark and light tones strike more consecintiously theatrical poses. One pall male figure, heftier and perhaps older than the rest, jump-starts the poignance factor. Another naked pan, performing an agonistic backbend under small Marlboro sign, clenches the overall impression conveyed of a troupe of porn players miraculously released from their screens like sad sex-worker genies from an uncorked bottle.
With 23rd Street and Tenth Avenue (1999), the Caravaggesque elements of chiaroscuro, eroticism and the religion are more explicitly dramatic, if also faintly comic: we see a sea of bodies illuminated by the all-encompassing fluorescence of a large metropolitan gas station in the throes of the New York night as though on Calvary. There’s a laughing bystander along with a fuel truck labeled MYSTIC, lots of “saints” with dirty feet, and, alongside the deconstructed phallic cruciforms of one hydrant and two bent poles, a male body in the horizontal contraposto of the deposed Christ.
It is, however, with Tunick’s Barriers (1998) series that we get unalloyed formal grandeur, American style, as well as early evidence of the fluent and high-minded classical rhetoric of the Vienna works. Bruce Nauman seems to vie with Christo for a spiritual link to the aggressive interventions of Barriers 2 and Barriers 3, seen in celestially sweet, soft light, blocking the entrance to a subway station and a platform to a train. Non other than Carl Andre seems to be the grand old eminence grise in Barriors 1, wherein a squadron of strictly gridded people lie naked, stiffly and feet-forward on the squares of what looks like Cor-Ten street of a pedestrian walkway, lightly graffitied, on what appear to be the Williamsburg Bridge. These are requiems to the golden age of Minimalism, tin the Serialist mode and in an industrial key. And Tunick is the scruffy male answer to Vanessa Beecroft.
- Lisa Liebmann
Spencer Tunick: An Update