Spencer Tunick, Artist

First Published: The Irish Times, June 12, 2008

IN CHILE, they have a saying. Two sayings, in fact. There’s “before Tunick” and “after Tunick”. There’s the era before Spencer Tunick came to Santiago and photographed some 4,000 volunteers lying naked and supine in a public park, and there’s the era afterwards. There’s the Chile which greeted the plans for Tunick’s installation – created for Santiago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and marking the 25th anniversary of the São Paulo Biennial – with a lawsuit and court hearings, and with hundreds of angry protesters outside the artist’s hotel. And there’s the Chile which, after the event – and after the creation of photographs of a mass of naked bodies on grounds adjoining the presidential palace, people packed together, limb upon limb, gazes calm and steady upon the artist’s lens – named Tunick its man of the year, an honour usually reserved for business and political leaders, and never previously bestowed on a non-Chilean.

“I’m a rock star in Chile,” Tunick laughs, shaking his head. “Everywhere else, I’m no one.”

For someone who has made a career out of instructing people, in their hundreds and thousands, to strip naked and pose for his camera, Spencer Tunick is surprisingly shy and quietly-spoken. He’s also prone to self-deprecation; by the time of the Santiago installation, in 2002, Tunick was far from being no one. He was already famous for his large-scale nude works, having created seas of naked bodies in Canada, New Mexico and Brazil, among several other sites. In New Mexico, nudes lay along forest paths and along the contours of natural hot springs, while in São Paulo, they stood ranked, curled up and lay outstretched for the camera, flesh to flesh, bone to bone. Soon afterwards, he photographed 7,000 nudes in Barcelona, a record figure which was last year smashed by an installation in Mexico City, at which a staggering 18,000 people showed up to pose at the city’s central square.

Tunick made his first mass nude in 1994, when he photographed a pile of bodies in front of the UN building in New York – a response to the Rwandan genocide. Many of his mass nudes bring images of genocide and famine to mind, but rippling through them, too, are shadows of the contours of conceptual and land artists such as Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Rebecca Horn and Nancy Rubins.

As well as these huge projects – including one along the quays of Newcastle in 2005 – Tunick has made smaller-scale works with individuals and groups, creating shapes and waves out of naked human congregations, chasing what he calls “the pure beauty and movement” of the human form. One of these pieces saw 600 people strip on the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland, in a collaboration with Greenpeace to raise awareness about global warming. With the thermometer clocking 10 degrees that morning, theirs was no half-hearted statement.

Next week, Tunick brings his camera to Ireland, to create installations in Cork and Dublin, presented for the first time here by the Cork Midsummer Festival of the Senses and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority. Participants, who can still sign up to take part on Tunick’s website for the Irish events ( www.spencertunickireland.ie), will receive a limited-edition photograph of the Irish installation. Tunick never reveals the numbers who’ve signed up, or the exact location beforehand, but the Dublin event will take place somewhere within the Docklands, while the Cork site may be of a less urban variety. At one stage, Tunick wanted to hold the Cork event at the edges of the golf course at Old Head, a spectacular piece of land jutting out to sea, but the owners quickly put the kibosh on that idea.

“I wanted to get people closer to the ocean, but have a little bit more control of the environment. And we were trying to get the everyday folks to the expensive golf course. But their money-making time of the year there is when people would easily freeze without even getting naked. So it was either a problem with the nudes, or they put the concerns of the people playing golf above the art that could be made.”

IT MAY BE that the artist is in a sporting-location frame of mind at the moment, having just returned from Vienna, where he created a piece with 2,000 people and 1,000 soccer balls printed with his own photographs to mark the beginning of Euro 2008 (the soccer balls were made in China, as Pakistan, the usual manufacturer of such things, refused to deal with the nude imagery). The Vienna project will be revealed in full on June 23rd, when the images created by Tunick from the earlier shoot will be used to entirely wrap the Ernst Happel Stadium before the June 29th championship final.

“I can tell you,” he says now of the Irish events, “that we’re buying a thousand flowers. I’m going to try to create a field of flowers and people, which I’ve never done.” Something else he’s never done is to make work in two cities as part of the same project: the Cork-Dublin event is a first in that respect. But he has long wanted to make an installation in Ireland, he says; he and his wife spent time here in 2001, and were in the Burren on the day of 9/11. The experience forged a connection with the country which he determined to channel into a work, and now that his first Irish work is in the offing, Tunick is determined that it won’t be the last. “I usually like to create a relationship with a country, as opposed to just coming in, doing a country and then going to another one.” Still, Tunick’s work is always made under pressure of time; he works at dawn, before the day’s shadows appear, and there are no rehearsals. “There’s no chance to practise,” he says. “You don’t get 18,000 people in the same place twice. You have to make the work you can accomplish within the time frame. So that lends a looseness to the work, as well as a constructed reality.”

Neither is there time for the interruptions of embarrassment or prudishness as Tunick, and his participants, create a work; there simply isn’t time to blush, baulk, or back out. Besides, he says, few people actually find themselves blushing or bailing, once they find themselves in the moment of the shoot. “A lot of people that might not want to pose will say, ‘oh, I’m not posing because it’s about people being worked with objectively, as an object’,” he says. “But the thing is that people, when they’re participating, feel like individuals, so that the people that actually do it come out with a different feeling, they feel like they’re making an artwork. So the people that think that they know what it feels like, they really will never know unless they participate.” Youtube footage of previous shoots, including those in Santiago and Mexico City, suggests that the Tunick experience is as moving as it is exhilarating, with participants looking joyful and liberated in front of the cameras – cameras, that is, other than those of Tunick, belonging to the local and national media, and to curious onlookers, all of whom make an appearance at Tunick shoots, albeit at a safe distance.

“We invite the art and the serious press, but sometimes you don’t know who is serious and who’s not,” he says. “So we put them at a distance away from the participants, because if you don’t put the media some place, they’ll show up with helicopters and boats, and come from all angles, and you won’t be able to make an artwork. Because they’re the ones that want to report on it. And not always to make fun of it, either, just to celebrate it on their own level.” The prospect of being singled out for “celebration” on the front of the Sunday newspapers might give some Dublin and Cork participants pause, as, in such relatively small cities, might the prospect of bumping into one or two or 30 acquaintances. But Tunick is rightly unruffled by the notion of parish-pump politics in the nip.

“Even if people do run into a neighbour, they’ll probably be your best friend for life afterwards,” he says. “I think it’s a new relationship, too, to the land that they’re on. A new connection, and even a closer connection, to the city where they’ve lived their whole lives.”

The process of creating his work has not always been an easy one for Tunick, who has faced particular obstacles in New York, where he has been arrested five times; his wife, who often poses for him, has also been arrested. His work breaks no law there, but the authorities are unimpressed, and Tunick has been dragged through court cases and appeals of the length and intensity usually reserved only for death-row cases, he says. Such negative attention, whether from the police or from protesters hollering their disapproval outside his hotel window, makes him uncomfortable.

“When it happens, it is a big blow because I make the work with the body as non-political, as organic,” he says. “I don’t consider myself a political artist, I don’t create protests. It’s too easy to slip away to doing it as a stunt, as publicity.” It’s important to Tunick, he says, to establish some relationship or connection with those people who participate in his work – he’ll arrange breakfast after a shoot, and talk to as many people as he can, and he sometimes also approaches individuals to take part in smaller shoots, the eye for which takes “a lot of hard work” to develop, he says. But realistically, he can only hope to make contact with a tiny fraction of his collaborators.

“I’ve photographed over 100,000 people,” he says, and looks suddenly dazed. “I’ve probably seen more naked people than anyone in the world.” He laughs. “That’s a crazy fact, right there.”

Suffern, New York, May 2008

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