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
She goes by many names and has almost as many descriptors as she has stories to tell, but for practical purposes when people ask me where I live I tell them it is on a little island off the coast of the United States. That’s the New York City, the stretch of highly cultured but hardly cultivated land called Manhattan, where Spencer Tunick started taking pictures of unclothed people on the streets in the 1990s. For the young photographer this was his “America Zone,” an urban template of temporality and monumentality, like a grand stage where all the great street photographers had plied their trade, a city not so long back known as Sodom on the Hudson where creative and social license re-imagined our frontier ethos as a land of absolute liberty. The freedom Tunick felt in those early years where he scattered individual or small assemblages of nudes like carnal ruptures in the tarmac, human flowers sprouting low-lying along the canyon floors of this most vertical place, was an independence that belonged to New York City more than any other place in America.
Though he has traveled the world and produced elaborate projects that have been like mass public spectacles across the United States and around the globe, Spencer Tunick has from the outset spoken with great eloquence and understanding about New York in a visual language as unique as the city itself. His has been a voice of the people intoned as that of the individual, autonomous and collective, the ideal of self manifest in congregation, the way we hear and see the city, process its multitude, as a personal experience. Into this landscape of alienation Tunick’s work forged community, a something shared together, unified but always divisible by myriad perspectives and understandings. If we can comprehend the impulse for street art long within this town as an urge to somehow humanize the city—be it the guerilla gardeners with their flowers, those urban knitters who adorn the mundane with yarn, the DIY muralists who work like beauty’s secret army or even the graffiti artist whose very tag insists no more, but no less, that they were here—all these impermanent gestures find a deep kinship with Tunick’s even more temporal but profoundly humanist split-second body art installation.
There is much to admire in the way that Tunick captures and echoes the geometries of place and the energies contained therein. With New York he has accomplished this with a simplicity and directness that is so in-your-face New Yawk vernacular it can often be as comical as it is confrontational. Here is a purity of form that is, within its formidable symmetry, all about the polyglot of this hullabaloo on the Hudson. Masterful in conveying this dynamism at its most elemental, drawn entirely with bodies and architectures, Spencer’s New York comes alive with the barely contained bustle of Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” the sound of that vitality visible, the crowd brought to still life, a nature morte that plays dead like a calm before the roar. But, as his work reminds us that New York City is not one place, the tenure of his oeuvre here offers an honest and at times difficult testament to the way that this multiple NYC has itself changed over time. This is the gap between those almost incidental and spontaneous photographs he took between 1990 and 1994 that he called America Zone and the far more involved and abstracted human clusters he created since 1994 to as recently as 2000 in the series represented here, Reaction Zone. Looking at them now it feels less like a gap than a mighty chasm we have fallen into, for Tunick is not tracing the changing face of the city, he is showing the shape of its psychological transformation, from something faulty but free and even indifferent to a machine of money, control and sadly, exceptional intolerance.
We might be wary here about succumbing to nostalgia, for surely if there is one thing that never changes about New York it is that it is somehow never as good as it used to be. That said, the shift in the architectural/anatomical landscape Spencer Tunick builds in his pictures over this time is significant, albeit nuanced. While America Zone allowed the individuality of its models to express themselves, carrying postures and poses that announced each as their own person, Reaction Zone translates these intimate little dances into a broader choreography about bodies in space rather than characters in situations. The former was unmistakably informed by the radical idiom of performance art, the latter somehow digging down into the possibilities presented by earthworks and land artists. It’s easy to see those pictures of the early Nineties as a kind of “only in New York” theater of absurdity, the wit and wildness of a place where someone might just get stark naked in the middle of a street for unknowable reasons, be it madness or (even crazier) art. The change, beginning in 1994 with “General Assembly,” in which the few become the many, strewn like victims of some unspeakable trauma in front of the United Nations building, speaks to a remarkably different body politic; one that understands suffering and, more than that, acts with the determination of peaceful resistance.
Artists change for many reasons, not the least being that their work needs to keep evolving to move forward. For Spencer Tunick, however, an artist whose vision was so deeply invested in how he saw the city, this change was as much external, within the heart of the city, as it was internal within his own. The art of America Zone was the kind of unfettered liberty that free thinkers could exercise in NYC during those years, the kind of shit you could get away with as long as no one was hurt, the stuff that happens when it’s still easy to look the other way, the last bit of foible and folly we enjoyed during the administration of Mayor Dinkins. Beginning in 1993, NYC had a new sheriff in town, an ex-district attorney who wanted to make sure no one would ever have fun again and who never met a culture war that he didn’t want to fight with the angry heart of a zealot and the sleazy hypocrisy of a political opportunist. Within a year, Tunick’s art pivots along this politics of oppression and culture of resentment as he’s arrested for the first time making his work in Rockefeller Center. A petty tyrant whose malice towards weakness and vindictiveness for difference knew no restraint or logic, Mayor Giuliani made it a mission to prevent and punish Spencer for his aesthetic mischief. He met a worthy foe in Tunick, and like most of his hysteric assaults on victimless crime he ultimately lost this battle as well, but in the course of multiple arrests and a legal case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court he changed this artist’s work in ways that inversely reflected the new New York.
That Spencer Tunick, along with that most noble advocate Ron Kuby, took the city to court and sued on the grounds that as a working artist they were unfairly preventing him from making a living. That he not simply won the right to make his art but set a powerful legal precedent for artist’s rights is now a matter of record. It is perhaps, politics aside, nothing so personal as mere persecution, but rather part of a larger legacy of intolerance and misconduct dating back to Rudy’s days as one of the ‘raging DAs of the DEA’ who threw constitutional rights aside as they used RICO laws to seize all assets and money from insignificant drug users, through his various quality of life crusades from jailing homeless people for vagrancy, closing down adult establishments with absurd new zoning laws, shuttering a vibrant nightlife by grossly over-empowering the perpetually cranky demographic of community boards, threatening to defund a major museum just because he didn’t approve of an artist’s depiction of the Virgin Mary (though he never actually saw it), or any endless number of other irrational acts he committed which were eventually overturned by the courts. What’s harder to locate and measure however is the chilling effect such a long-term concerted attack on the creativity and joie de vivre of the city would have.
Reaction Zone is, in its intuitive and utterly forthcoming way, a measure of how non-commissioned public art responds to the extreme curtailment of free speech. The sense of abandon that still lurks within these pictures is now guarded, defiant but wary. As a simple matter of presentation, Tunick has responded to his repeated harassment by the police not by going underground or seeking more discrete means but by upping the ante—multiplying the bodies and their naked presence exponentially, occupying (and there is indeed this sense of occupation in these photos) even larger swaths of the city, and situating these acts no longer along the periphery of the everyday but in geographically central, iconic and landmark locations such as the UN, the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges, Central Park and major thoroughfares like 125th, 23rd and Delancey Streets. His marks remain at the interstices, lines and shapes fit into those bits of urban openness we call public space, but they are not off to the side, now they are like the human barricades of a revolution.
Reaction Zone embraces a sense of joy that cannot be legislated or controlled, and each intervention erupts off the picture plane like a carnivalesque celebration, but these seem too to be haunted places, markers of a trespass no longer possible since the attacks of 9/11 turned the war on fun into an even more intrusive war on terror. The way these bodies lie there—silenced but living yet as testaments to what life has been—has always carried an eerie specter of atrocity. Maybe it’s all those sci-fi movies or the horrible photographic records of massacres we make of history, but there has been something of the post-apocalyptic in the tableaus Tunick constructs. Now that they seem like such impossible fictions to the controlled state we live in perhaps we must read them more as pre-apocalyptic. The kind of stories we once told ourselves when such a non-conformist narrative was still possible. This is the way people gathered and the local tribes they forged when truths were shared like secrets, word of mouth, Xerox flier by Xerox flier, the whispers of a community before the internet broadcast everything to a shrill shouting match. To have been there, to take off your clothes and lie prostrate and public within harm’s way, to risk arrest for no other reason than the knowledge of what it means to live outside those laws, to be truly yourself in the company of others you don’t even know, oh to be those lucky warriors we see here, the war they fought was long ago but its meaning shall not be forgotten.
- Carlo McCormick