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
Sometimes It Does Take a Village
Although Spencer Tunick's pictures of naked people in public places will immediately remind many viewers of such period-piece formulations as "free love" and "Woodstock Nation," their message is neither sexual nor communitarian. Indeed, once the 1960's gestalt dissipates, which happens rather quickly, the tightly-wound, esthetically conscious, and yet otherwise disjunctive spirit of the late 1990's seems to assert itself in no uncertain terms.
First of all, Tunick's work reveals itself at once to be a form of landscape and a very specific mapping strategy-- a way of establishing an imprint of time on place. These photographs demonstrably happened, and curiosity concerning process and logistics becomes an integral part of viewer response. Tunick's epic project, Naked States, comprises nude mise sen scene shot in each of the 50 American sub-sovereignties. Landscapes and locations are auditioned, too: The artist's choice of motifs is as important as his choice of models. One prim-looking naked white woman kneeling in front of a pristine, though already nostalgically resonant late-modernists sky-scraper is Indiana today. A solitary, rubicond man standing naked under a Phillips 66 sign admist tall stalks of corn is the hunky, hapless essence of rural Iowa now. Tunick's locales and anatomies sometimes make for strange formal synchronies. Note, for instance, the labyrinthian overlaps of reclining nudes beneath the darkened dome and Deco statuary of the Griffith Park Observatory in California-- a gently swaying, eurythmic composition that evokes Ferdinand Holder's wacky, animistic Symbolist allegories of birth and death.
Other art-historical frissions insinuate themselves into prosaic time and space in Tunick's productions. The Pollock-esque scatter of bodies strewn across Times Square in a shot from 1997 comments wryly on the paths of chaotic energies that have formed New York . Kneeling nudes in quasi-Buddhist postures of reverence pay hommage to the noble span of the suspension bridge directly above in Pennsylvania: This is a construction epic, a building of bodies and submersion of egoes into one selfless, Leni Riefenstahlian spectacle. It's all there in a shot, effortlessly apt and yet often riskily assembled. Christo, Robert Smithson and Allan Kaprow are Tunick's signal elders in the realms of Land Art and Performance. But these are also photographs for the post-Mapplethorpeian age, as "quality of life" arrests have entered the everyday urban sphere. In fact one the artist's earliest photographs involves a Mapplethrope model, shot nude outdoors on Wall Street.
D.W. Griffith, too, is part of Tunick's American century. Tunick's photographs require courage and organization: Getting over a hundred people up, out and naked at six in the morning on Times Square would seem to demand some of the crazed, tyrannical energy of pioneering silent-epic directors. And it takes grit to keep cool when disaster strikes the set, as happened recently on the occasion of his latest attempted shoot on Times Square, when the police came to dispell his people because he lacked a permit. Police told Tunick that anyone who disrobed would be arrested. This warning, however, failed to stop the models from carrying on as planned: they stripped and lay in the street at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 47th. None of the models were arrested as threatened, but the police put Tunick and his assistant in handcuffs before a picture could be taken. To be nude in battle, nude in landscape, nude in one's nobility, freedom and death-- that is the very essence of Jacques-Louis David's Neoclassical history paintings. Tunick's photographs disclose the Ideal within the Real, for an increasingly sanitized and ever puritanical society.
-Lisa Liebmann and Brooks Adams
LISA LIEBMANN and BROOKS ADAMS
Sometimes It Does Take a Village