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THE ART NEWSPAPER, No. 161, SEPTEMBER 2005

Features

37

Art in broadcasting and television

What’s it like to get naked for Spencer Tunick?

His massive public strippings elicit an intriguing array of responses

public strippings elicit an intriguing array of responses MEDIA REVIEW UK JUDITH BUMPUS I n a

MEDIA

REVIEW UK

JUDITH

BUMPUS

I n a lean television summer for serious art lovers the

Newcastle, a rare chance to see an artist at work. It

welcome surprise was Naked City: Spencer Tunick in

work. It welcome surprise was Naked City: Spencer Tunick in expression: “You with the blue hair,

expression: “You with the blue hair, you have to go all the

way to the back

looks goofy.” Directions come fast: “Hands down. OK. I’m just going to take a picture of this real quick. Now, when I say three everyone lie on their backs head to toe. One, two, three. Trot. Hands at your sides, knees down. In the front, put your knees down. Please close your eyes. OK everyone, stand up. We’re going to do the next shoot. Turn away from me.” Obediently the group performs. They know they are making a work of art. But the mechanics of the event and of the participants’ psy- che are not, for Mr Tunick, what his installations are essen- tially about. He speaks seriously and straightforwardly. He struggles with the terms “nude”, “naked” and “unclothed”, and feels uncomfortable with all of them. “Obviously, it’s not a sexual event, but of course sexuality is brought into the picture,” he says to the presenter, Paddy O’Connell. His work is about transforming and humanising the harsh urban environment we’ve built for ourselves: “I’m trying to bring attention to the vulnerability of the human condition within the context of the new, which is concrete, pavement, architecture.” In 1992, he started documenting mini-perfor-

mances by his friends on the streets of New York. “Slowly the numbers got larger and I was able to block out the pavement and create the body as the street, as the land- scape, as the horizon line.” He then felt that he arrived at something new. Art writer Louisa Buck and art historian Stephen Calloway illustrate a rapid history of the nude in art from the Venus of Willendorf to Vanessa Beecroft. Ms Buck says: ‘The naked human body runs through art, so

Spencer Tunick may think he’s doing something different, Land Art he calls it, but of course he’s perfectly aware that working with the human body he’s also conjuring up all the traditions as well.” However, despite Mr O’Connell’s efforts, no one was ready to analyse what Mr Tunick’s artistic contribution is, and this is the glaring omission in the programme. The work gains variety from his sympathetic response to different city settings. In Newcastle “the key for me,” Mr Tunick says on a tour of the city, “is to get up high and see

bridges. Once on top I saw what I wanted to. I

it from

saw this dreamland, a city that was tunnels and pipes and

bricks and rooftops. Then I became fascinated and

enthralled

under the bridge. I’d like the bodies to extend into the dis-

tance and resemble a blade of grass

blades of whites, tans

I’m

sorry about that.” No smiles: “It

turned up on BBC 3, the national digital channel aimed at audiences under 35. Its potential shock value must have been an attraction, but nothing could have been less of a turn-on for the voyeur. Mr Tunick’s events are heralded by notoriety. They will be very familiar to American readers from his clashes with New York police in 1999, and his five arrests. There were further arrests in Paris and California, protests and demonstrations in Chile. Times and attitudes have moved on. Mr Tunick has already worked without incident in London. In 2005, con- trary to lingering expectations, the work is neither shocking nor controversial. Joint commissioner of the broadcast was the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, as its new director, Peter Doroshenko, puts it: “Society embraces the edginess and it becomes mainstream.” The issue of nudity is nevertheless the crux of the BBC pro- gramme; why do people flock to take their clothes off? An enthusiastic crowd of 1,700 turn up at 3.30 am on a chill July morning in Newcastle. It is not Mr Tunick’s largest such project. In Barcelona a record 7,000 people curled up like human cobble stones to give an avenue body-cover. Mr Tunick was diplomatic when dealing with the presenter’s question about the British reputation for prudery. “The British are more enthusiastic about participating in contem- porary art,” he replies, “more than most countries. And in engaging on an intellectual level with their bodies: nude as an art object, not necessarily as a sex object.” Writer and broadcaster Paul Morley thinks that people are out to prove that they are not worried about nudity, but admits to being too English himself to do more than take his socks off. The actual motives for joining the session are personal and various. Jim Craig, community arts chaplain for Gateshead, delivers a sermon announcing that he is tak- ing part in a work of art which celebrates the “collective strength and weakness of the human body. And I’ll be expect- ing to find Christ made manifest.” His wife, Amabel, admits that, having undergone intrusive medical examinations during pregnancy, she has lost her inhibitions. Louise Hepworth, a photographer, joins up in order to banish hang-ups about her body, damaged during a childhood accident. Simon Wilson, one-time curator of Interpretation at the Tate, who took part in an earlier installation in Selfridges in 2003, says: “The idea of being naked with hundreds of other people was an intriguing one and the reality is that looking at naked bodies is an erotic experience. … It was a reason for doing it.” Despite cold and discomfort the participants, clinging together for warmth, show their good-humour throughout the three-hour

the

“I’m trying to bring attention to the vulnerability of the human condition”, says Tunick in Newcastle

morning shoots, cheering loudly after each one. Two hundred stalwarts return for the evening shoot, broadcast live from the Millennium Bridge. They are clearly on a high. Comments at the end are all positive: “exhilarating”, “life-enhancing”, “lib- erating”, and from observers, “incredibly moving”. Mr Craig does not encounter Christ, but coming together as a community and literally stripping off your identity “you do discover some- thing larger than yourself”, he reflects. For Simon Wilson:

“This has been an extraordinary affirmation of a kind of ideal vision of a relaxed, sensuous life.” The success of the Tunick experience lies in meticulous plan- ning. He knows how to bring everyone into line, issuing brisk instructions over loudspeakers, maintaining discipline — “Ma’am, please pay attention”, and banishing all forms of self-

I’d

like to get the people

flowing

into and

and browns”. Suddenly an impromptu idea: he swathes the stepped terraces below the Sage Gateshead with naked bodies. “It’s all about opportunities,” he says. What he likes about an anonymous apartment block in Baltic Quays is that “it comes out of the ground like a mountain”. He challenges it with a large organic patch of human bodies. The broadcast was critically and on the whole tightly directed to combine the atmosphere of the occasion with the poetry of Spencer Tunick’s compositions. The Baltic is showing the fin- ished photos and video of the project from 21 January to 26 March, 2006.

Naked City: Spencer Tunick in Newcastle, BBC 3, 17 July, rep. 20 July. Presenter Paddy O’Connell, with Lauren Laverne. Producer Tanya Hudson.

O’Connell, with Lauren Laverne. Producer Tanya Hudson. Performance art Parallel Action to assault Guantanamo with

Performance art

Parallel Action to assault Guantanamo with Beethoven

Artists’ group lives dangerously so as to weave art into the political reality By Anna Somers Cocks

A mong the “collateral damage” of the London bomb attacks, paradoxically, are some of the

people whose condition most offends the Islamic world: the roughly 510 prisoners of Guantanamo still held by the US government without trial, most of them since the war in Afghanistan in 2001. If people respectful of civil liberties and the rule of law were putting pressure on the US before the recent attacks and getting coverage, the cause of the Guantanamo prisoners has hardly been mentioned since. And yet, if these detainees deserved a fair hearing before the bombings, they deserve it just as much now, so a Danish artists’ group called Parallel Action is embarking on a performance to try to change the dynamics of the situa- tion, if only by a few a degrees. “We are not political activists but artists”, says Thomas Altheimer, 33, a rangy, fair-haired former actor and dra- maturge, “Through our actions we hope to instigate more actions, whether parallel actions or parallel realities, that will set off displace-

actions or parallel realities, that will set off displace- Altheimer ments that will diversify the current

Altheimer

ments that will diversify the current single strain of reality. All our actions are conducted according to the principle of hope”. The new action, which is expect- ed to happen in October if the funds are raised in time, will consist of sailing a yacht full of Europeans and Americans from Jamaica to the coast just off Guantanamo and then play- ing Beethoven’s Third Symphony (the Eroica) very loudly at the US base and prison camp from the sea. The inspiration for this is the episode when the US military forced Manuel Noriega from his refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama by blasting him with pop music (the first piece was “Welcome to the jungle” by Guns ‘N’ Roses). Parallel Action’s mani- festo says that their aim is to con- quer Guantanamo and subject the territory to European law, “thereby abolishing the Hobbesian, lawless vacuum in which the prisoners are being held and taking a step towards the world order of eternal peace described by Immanuel Kant”. Just to be safe, however, their desiderata

Immanuel Kant”. Just to be safe, however, their desiderata Prisoners held without trial at Guantanamo Bay

Prisoners held without trial at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, January 2002

include bullet proof vests, shark repellent and survival kits. If this project sounds risky, it is certainly not more so than their “Democracy” action, when they toured Iraq with a box called Democracy for three weeks in January 2004, in the lead-up to the elections. “At first we met with quite aggressive reactions because we were wearing suits and people thought we were politicians or businessmen,” says Altheimer: “We took all the blame for US and European policy, but then the absurdity of a box containing democracy (actu- ally it contained some tea and coffee cups, pen- cils, and proposals for world democracy) liber- ated discussion. People who were too afraid of

the fundamentalists to approach the subject felt empowered to do so with us because we were not the Coalition; we were artists; we were in the position of court jesters”. Someone who saw the point of them at once was a British army officer in Kuwait, who was responsible for them getting into Iraq. A Kuwaiti general was about to refuse them per- mission on grounds that it was too dangerous and they were not soldiers, journalists or busi- nessmen, when Colonel Andrze Frank walked in: “But these are Rosencranz and Guildenstern”, he said, referring to the charac- ters in “Hamlet” who, in turn, are the protago- nists of Tom Stoppard’s play. “Alright then, let’s throw them to the lions” said the Kuwaiti gen- eral, after some explanation. At the end of the first stage of the “Democracy” project, the box was left at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad, then brought out via Jordan, shipped to the US in October 2004, where it got lost at JFK airport, retrieved and used in the second stage, in the run-up to the US elections. In view of what has happened in both coun- tries, does Altheimer think they have made any difference? Not in immediate terms, he admits, “But the point of the whole project has been to take what the US pledge at face value, for democracy really is a good thing”.