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
Bodies in Paradise
Director of Niemeyer Centre
Spencer Tunick has been working in the project of photographing the human body over 25 years. His body of work, after so many years, is made up by many series of photographs that combine artistic creation with sociological research. The American photographer now at the Niemeyer Centre creates many of his works based on a call for an event where from one person to thousands of people pose as models always (or almost always) naked in public spaces in front of his lens.
Almost one century ago, the French sociologist and anthropologist gave a lecture on Bodily techniques and movements that became famous for pioneering the identification of shapes, attitudes and postures used by human beings to carry out daily activities. Mauss described theoretically the entire concept of the human body under a three-fold perspective: socio-cultural, psychological and biological, to the extend of giving it a symbolic dimension.
This symbolic dimension of the human body and of its perception of those things that we could seem to be natural, make them, as indicated by Mauss, “really historical”. Good examples of both extremes in our Western tradition are, on the one hand, the celebration of canonical bodies by the iconography of the classical Greece of the 4th century, and, on the other hand, the sexualisation of the original sin by the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages that implied the climax of the concealment of the human body covered by the taboo of nudity.
The human body receives a singular symbolic contextualisation as it becomes the main object of art works in any culture, from palaeolithic Venus figurines or anthropomorphic outline paintings, to the 19th century provocation of Courbet'sThe origin of the world or the sexually explicit photographs of Mapplethorpe. And it is not by chance that this symbolism is socially reinforced when the artist chooses to focus on portraying the naked body as a permanent topic.
The exhibition Desnudosincludes works from five series produced by Spencer Tunick between 1991 and 2002. In American Zone, black and white photographs depict naked bodies posing in interaction with urban objects of New York City. The human models are integrated as if their skins were welded to the wrapping that serves as the dermis of the city, finding a mould for each case, a relief where the body fits perfectly.
Early Europeanshows some of the genuine performancesof Tunick in several European cities. In these the naked bodies occupy and appropriate the spaces, socialising them in an unusual way with their action, adapting to them and thus building social spaces of their own (as Lefebvre would put it). It might appear that the artist wanted to line the streets with human skin: The bodies are lying, in a nonchalant attitude, sometimes piled up...they could be dead, victims of a massacre that should have left inert and untouched people sharing in space the pristine and disturbing nakedness of their bodies.
In other cases the bodies are carefully placed and arranged, and the colour, the temperature and the curved lines contrast with the coldness of the stone, cement and concrete of a geometric and inanimate city. The shades of naked human skin give real life to urban creations, so genuinely human, but at the same time so depersonalised and dehumanised. In some photographs the naked bodies that are the centre of the photographic performance are being observed by other people that, unintentionally, take part in the focus of the scene contrasting with it: Because of the fact that they are dressed and observing this unusual scene, they seem to be waiting for the resurrection or the collection of the recumbent bodies for the city -any of those with “over one million corpses (according to latest statistics)”- returns idly to its sleepless and rotten daily routine.
The nudity in Tunick's work has nothing to do with pornography, and may be not even with sexuality. There is no focus on the sexualisation of bodies whatsoever, so there is no reification of them. His nudes are a classicist call to focus on bodies, to value the aesthetic dimension of bodies.
The historian Jacques Le Goff recalls how nudity was the centre of one of the main theological problems of the Middle Ages, a period in which he is one of the most prestigious experts: “Nudity is still a problem, and subject of a tension even after death, when resurrected bodies arrive to paradise. The chosen bodies are they naked or dressed? The most pure theological answer is nudity, for after the Final Judgement the original sin will disappear for the chosen ones. Since the clothes are a consequence of the fall, there will be no need for them”. In any case, this nakedness would be subsequent and consequence and adequately “codified” by the “ruling Christianity”.
Spencer Tunick is really far from any kind of provocation by means of exhibiting nudity. The discourse of the relationship body-environment and its corresponding aesthetic outcome prevail to enhance the beauty of human shapes. The artist shows the bodies almost always inactive, portrayed out of their private contexts where nudity is usually expected, he rather shows and exhibits them outdoors enhancing their beauty, in many cases supported by non-regulatory standards and canons (that in some cases remind us of the work of the Avilés-born Carreño de Miranda The nude monster, exhibited in the Prado Museum).
Perhaps what Spencer Tunick is presenting with the enhancement of the image of nudes are the bodies already in paradise. His camera might be bearing witness of his particular vision of the Final Judgement where the naked human body helps prevail, not the transcendental religious symbolism, but the humanistic rationalism that knows no more paradise than the naked skin in contact with nature.
Bodies in Paradise