Nudity, after reality television and Karl Stefanovic is the final frontier of human shame. Since childhood we’re conditioned to associate nudity with a lack of morals or promiscuity and unless you’re a stripper, model, streaker or Taylor Lautner’s torso only a handful of people should see you naked on any given day. This morning however, five thousand Sydneysiders threw clothing and caution to the unseasonably chilly wind for a nude artwork by American photographer Spencer Tunick – creating a soon-to-be iconic image and shifting the paradigm of public nudity in Australia in the process.
I mean, why is it acceptable for five thousand people to get naked for the sake of art but if five people tried disrobing at the Opera House steps tomorrow they’d be pepper sprayed like they abducted a bus-full of children? Or you could talk about how Tunick told strangers to kiss – with many interpreting his instructions as a spontaneous act of unity. Outside the context of high art – five thousand naked strangers making out in a public place would be viewed as the orgy precursor to the Apocalypse. But when framed by artistic intention some magical transformation takes place and nudity becomes a human interest story on the local news. Why is one illegal and one not? Who decides what’s appropriate and what’s not? And has the public threshold for nudity increased now that the SMH has posted a video with a thousand penises in it?
It’s something to think about and we’d love to hear your views but the more pertinent question might be how did this happen? I mean, it’s weird to think that one person can convince thousands of strangers halfway across the world to disrobe and blindly follow direction – but that’s Tunick’s M.O. exactly. After graduating from Art College in Boston, Tunick began shooting nudes in the late 80’s, gradually incorporating more participants and more iconic locations as his profile grew. In 2007 he shot 18.,000 nudes in Mexico City. This morning he shot a few thousand less at Sydney’s most recognizable Harbourside landmark. That’s the appeal I guess. To be part of something greater than yourself. To be immortalized in art. To forge a tangible record of your existence. Or…people just like getting naked and seeing other people naked. But you’d be wrong if to assume Tunick’s aim is to titillate. In his world human bodies are brush strokes and nudity a symbol for human homogeneity. From a distance we’re all the same says Tunick and looking at his photos you tend to agree.
What’s even stranger, considering the democracy of it all, is that Tunick remains fully clothed throughout the shoot’s duration. He barks orders from a microphone on a raised platform while racing against the light to conjure his magic. Pedestrian recently caught up with starkers participant Koots, 23, unemployed, for an insider’s view on taking it all off in the name of art.
First question Koots – what compelled you to strip with a few thousand strangers?
It was just a chance to do something I wouldn’t usually do. Any other time legally, you’d get in trouble but all of a sudden it was cool to just strip off in public – it’s a pretty crazy double standard.
And was there much diversity in the crowd?
There were heaps of young people and a bunch of older people as well. It was pretty much 50/50 men and women – it wasn’t just like old dirty men. It was pretty even actually, all different people from all different backgrounds. From people you wouldn’t expect to crazy old men who were tattooed head to toe.
And how did it work logistically?
We got there at 4am and they organized everyone into different groups. Then they give you instructions on where to stand and how it’s going to work. Then they give the green light and thousands of people get their kit off and take their positions. Then he (Tunick) just goes through a variety of poses – facing one way, facing the other, lying down with you head in the crotch of the person behind you. There was one where he told everyone to kiss the person next to them regardless of whether it was a man or a woman – whatever. Then after that we went into the concert hall of the Opera House and he did another one where everyone was sitting down.
Where did you put your clothes?
They just gave you a plastic bag and you just sat it where you were sitting before you walked over. It was just that honesty thing afterward you went back and got your bag and I didn’t hear of anyone who had dramas with stolen clothes.
What was the most surreal part for you?
The most surreal part was not the nudity itself but the media. You’d look over your shoulder and see the media just shooting through the fence then a news helicopter would pass overhead. All of a sudden you realize that you’re joined by thousands of other people and you’re at the Opera House. You almost get used to it after a while then a helicopter brings you back to reality. The other surreal part was dudes trying to rub blood into their penises. It was freezing man, it was the coldest morning. But every dude was in the same boat so it was all good.
Did you get a dry run?
We didn’t have a dry run. They just had markings on the ground and explained how it was going to work. Then they say “it’s time” and a loud cheer went up through the crowd. That was actually the most surreal part – people going wild, stripping off and sprinting over. I was in hysterics, just laughing so hard.
Did you find the physical contact with strangers weird?
You’ll just be lying on someone and hear “get that knee down” or “get that head down” over the microphone and you don’t stop to think about what you’re doing you just react to the instructions. Then later you realize your head is in someone’s crotch. At one point I had some dude hugging my legs on one end and a dick in my face at the other end. It was this strange interlacing of guys and girls in crazy positions. It was strange that you could do that and no one cared.
What will you take away from this experience?
The idea that everyone is equal. No one is better than anyone for any reason it’s an even playing ground for everyone – gay, straight, black, white, male, female, fat, skinny – everyone was cool with each other. It’s not like a music festival where everyone is judging each other and you can label people by what they’re wearing.
And how was Spencer as a director?
It’s obviously a tough gig because he can’t single out people in a two thousand strong crowd but he had great presence and everyone respected him. At the start he made it clear that we were helping him as much as he was helping us. It made you feel more involved than just a volunteer who sacrificed a few hours for a laugh.