Soothing Spencer

I’ve just finished my morning coffee here in Sydney but it’s still last night in New York, where I’m calling artist and photographer Spencer Tunick. I hear a few rings, then a clunk, followed by a tiny voice.

“I’m a little girl…”

“Hello?” I wonder if I have the wrong number.

“Do you want my daddy to talk to you? He likes black.” Given my complete inability to relate to children, I simply tell her ‘yes’. There’s some fumbling.

“Hey Christian, my daughter just told you that I like black,” laughs Spencer casually. He tells me that he wasn’t expecting my call for another hour. Perhaps daylight savings is to blame? “Oh look, she’s climbing like a monkey… Honey, can you please not do that? Daddy’s talking on the phone.”

More muffled noises come down the line – thumping, children playing noisily. Spencer tells them to stop doing this and stop doing that. He sounds patient, persuasive and composed. This is hardly surprising, given that he is famous not only for coercing thousands of people to shed their clothes in public, but also co-ordinating seas of naked people, sculpting them into a myriad of different shapes and patterns.

“Let me go somewhere private so you can have my undivided attention,” he says.

Spencer Tunick has been documenting the live nude in public since 1992, but it wasn’t until 1994 that he started working with large groups of people. Since then he’s created over 75 temporary site-specific installations around the world, his biggest being in Mexico City where he assembled 18,000 naked people. In March next year he’ll be one the headliners for the 2010 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, creating a series of installations called The Base.

“The name has two meanings. The second meaning is very literal and will be revealed closer to the date of the installation. The other meaning is a personal view that I believe that the future of any progressive small village, town or city is based on everyone having all full rights of free citizenship, to vote, to marry, to have insurance – all equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people. That kind of enlightened society may be 40 years from now, it may be 140 years from now.”

As for the location of the shoot, Tunick remains tight lipped, but says that much like the rest of his work, it will be an urban location.

“Well, in Sydney there’s not too much natural landscape left. Everything has a building jutting out of it, on the edge of it, next to it. There will be two different locations – one on the first day, a different one the next day. There will be one mass work, with a few different set ups, and then another installation the next day with maybe 100 or 200 people.” Spencer said that one location alone would not be dynamic enough to capture ‘his experience of Sydney’. “It’s all within the same eventual body of work that I’ll create… I want a second, a location that is more about celebration.”

Spencer is inviting both the gay and straight communities to come together and be part of the same work.

“I want someone who is straight to lie peacefully naked next to someone who is gay. I think the act, not only making the work, but the act itself is a calming of the senses.”

Many words spring to mind when one considers Spencer’s large-scale works – naked, chaos, urban, police – after all he’s been arrested five times in New York alone. ‘Calm’ isn’t one I had anticipated him using. ‘Soothing’ is another.

“I think it’s definitely a very soothing experience. Maybe not the thought of doing it, or even the aftermath, but the action of doing it is very calming. It’s a calm, organised, chaotic moment, if that’s possible. I think from country to country people participate for different reasons. In South America there might have been people objecting to overbearing government pressure or restrictions on freedom, that might be different for why people are posing in Belgium or Amsterdam. I certainly think that by getting the gay community to pose with the straight community, that idea of being naked together is quite sublime. To make an esoteric work at that moment is what I am hoping will transcend people’s pre-conceptions about equality and will create this wonderful harmonious moment.”

Spencer has been creating these installations for fifteen years, and says that over the years he’s learned to take the urgency out of his work and calm down a bit himself.

“From 1994 to 2001 it was mostly a splattering of bodies, sort of crumpled paper thrown into a big room, or sort of like moss on rocks of a misty beach. Basically there was a very urgent need to get the work done quickly, like Jackson Pollock throwing paint. I was so used to being threatened by arrest from the New York Police that I took that urgency to other countries. You can see that in the work and I think in 2002 I took a little departure from that by having the bodies standing and less lying down. I started to spend a bit more time on the installations, making them two day installations, creating a body of work as opposed to just a one day work. Where I would only have once had three final pieces, now I have six or seven.”

Spencer says that despite what many may expect, most people who pose for him are not exhibitionists. “I like to make people feel as comfortable as possible… often this is the first time people are getting naked in public, these people are not exhibitionists… then again, I don’t know about the people who have been in Mardi Gras though!” he laughs. “Certainly for 99% of the people it is a unique experience.”

This will be Spencer’s second installation in Australia – his first was in Melbourne in 2001. “I made some wonderful friends in Australia. When I was there I traveled in a car from Melbourne all the way up north, thousands and thousands of miles, and ended up flying out of Cairns. I literally looked at a map, and I didn’t realise how far it was! I didn’t compare the map to the California coast or anything, or the east coast of New York, I just looked at it and thought, that’s four inches tall, we can do that! I saw a lot of road kill and a lot of fires.”

His Melbourne installation saw 4,500 people assemble in Alexandra Gardens. Spencer is reluctant to say how many he is hoping for in Sydney.

“I would like more than a thousand, but I’m not a big quoter of large numbers because I know how difficult it is to get people to actually take that leap of faith,” he says. “I’m really hoping that people consider it seriously, because I really need people. And I think it’s a great experience.”

Spencer Tunick – The Base will take place at a secret location in Sydney, March 1, 2010 as part of the Mardi Gras Festival.


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