Progression of Art
Untitled (New York)
This black-and-white photograph was taken in New York City when Tunick was carrying out his Naked States project (photographing nude subjects in every one of the fifty American states). The pregnant lady volunteered to pose for Tunick before the shoot, whilst the older black man (along with his shopping cart full of empty cans and bottles) was recruited in the spur of the moment simply passing through the area where the shoot was taking place. The result is Tunick's classic early formula for making a photograph: the gritty streets of New York as his setting combined with chance encounter as his means to recruit models. In the image, the shopping cart is placed between the contrasting nude, light-skinned, heavily pregnant woman, and the clothed, skinny, black man. Both individuals rest one hand on the cart and peer curiously inside, leaning forward slightly. The subjects are foregrounded in the middle of an empty city street scene. A traffic sign and traffic lights can be seen slightly behind the figures. In the background is a historic building featuring a framing archway and rounded turrets.
A central question raised by all of Tunick's work has to do with the concept of naked vs. nude. Traditionally, in art history, the "nude" refers to an idealized, non-sexualized, and beautiful human form, whereas "nakedness" invokes notions of individual shame, embarrassment, sexuality, and even vulgarity. Tunick's work plays at the boundary of these two concepts, presenting the unclothed human form as both beautiful and vulnerable. In this photograph, the female subject's nakedness/nudity is emphasized by the fact that the male subject is clothed. Even early in his career, Tunick was aware of this tension in his work writing of Naked States that "The project [...] turned out not to feel very 'nude', it felt very 'naked' because I felt very much up against the laws. This project felt very stark and challenging. 'Naked' is more aggressive and 'nude' is simply more accepting."
In this early stage of his career, Tunick carried out much of his work in New York City. As Art in America critic Richard Vine, and Amy Gilman, Director of the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, argue, Tunick's work has always been full of visual opposition, between the intimate and the public, and between the curves and softness of the human body and the roughness/sharpness of urban architecture. Tunick has also been interested in the way that the new contrasts with the old, and the natural marries the artificial. We see many of these contrasts in this image, as well as the artist's enduring sense of community and interest in intimate and creative human interaction, even in unlikely and hostile environments.
Gelatin silver print
Mexico City 4 (Zócalo, MUCA/UNAM)
This color photograph was taken in Mexico City's huge and iconic Zócalo Square. In the image, a vast 18,000 nude individuals (the greatest number that Tunick has photographed to date) lay on their backs flat on the ground. All of them face the same direction, with their heads angled toward the Palacio Nacional, which can be seen in the background of the image. Tunick notes that for this particular installation, "Forty-thousand people signed up, and at the last minute - three or four days before the event - the president of the country said I didn't have permission to use the Zócalo." However, Tunick refused to cancel the event, and fortunately "two days before the installation happened, we got the word from the president's office that we would be allowed to do the work. Over 20,000 came: 18,000 people were let in, 2,000 had to be left out. There were just too many."
Tunick had originally hoped to carry out the installation at the nearby Teotihuacan pyramids (considered the largest and most important Mesoamerican city, located about an hour's drive north of Mexico City), but he was not granted permission to do so, and thus the downtown Zócalo square was selected as a back-up location.
Tunick has said of his experience making this work, "It was just a great moment. No one would have thought that, of all the places in the world, Mexico City would have the most open-minded people when it came to their bodies." Furthermore, Tunick stated, "I think all eyes are looking south from the United States to Mexico City to see how a country can be free and treat the naked body as art. Not as pornography or as a crime, but with happiness and caring." However, despite an overwhelming positive response, not all locals were in favour of the work. Many citizens voiced disdain at the project, and raised ongoing issues surrounding propriety and censorship, such as a 63-year old local who was interviewed by Reuters and stated that the volunteer models were "losing dignity as men and women. It's an offense against the church."
This photograph, like many others by Tunick, features nude volunteers lying completely still on the ground, and thus alludes to war, death, and mass atrocity. Curator and artist Valentine Moreno suggests that there is "a progression towards an aesthetic formality also be noticed in installations in which Tunick requests the nude crowd to execute the same position. Such installations, with recognizable patterns, led critics to argue that the images communicate a message of mass conformity and compliance resembling Leni Riefenstahl's shots of German athletes performing calisthenics en mass at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin." By mentioning Riefenstahl (and therefore indirectly The Third Reich), Moreno connects with Tunick's recurring specters of genocide.
In today's global world we have not all experienced terror and destruction, but we have all seen the reportage of such events in the media. Whilst news images are often too shocking to process and comprehend as part of real life, Tunick helps by adding the distance, care, and stamp of authenticity of a professional artist. He manages to grab our attention by a clever means of re-imagining actuality (the same reason why children's books are more successful in communicating "big ideas" than more forthright publications). As softer images than those we find in news reports, with only imagined catastrophe before us, Tunick's work appeals to a sense of collective responsibility. Created in the hope that upon taking part in the work's making, or, upon looking at the resulting picture, people will awaken from ignorance and work harder to avoid conflict and live peacefully together.
Switzerland, Aletsch Glacier 1 (Greenpeace)
This impressive color photograph was taken at the Aletsch glacier (the largest glacier in the Alps, on the south side of the Jungfrau mountain in the Upper Rhone Valley, a protected UNESCO World Heritage site). In the image, approximately 600 nude volunteer models are spread out across this breathtaking epic landscape; they stand up straight with their arms down, and all directly face the camera. The volunteers and crew had to walk several hours to reach the site, and once there, other images were also taken of the subjects lying down before they decided on the standing pose. Overall it was a very physically demanding, as well as a camaraderie-building shoot for the participants.
The project was part of a Greenpeace billboard and poster campaign designed to raise awareness of global warming. Greenpeace stated that the aim in the images was to "establish a symbolic relationship between the vulnerability of the melting glacier and the human body." The environmental organization used this highly-publicized project as an opportunity to inform the public that "Alpine glaciers have lost about one-third of their length and half their volume over the past 150 years. The Aletsch ice mass has retreated by 115 meters (377 ft) in the last two years alone [...] if global warming continues unabated, most glaciers will disappear from the Earth by 2080."
Markus Allemann, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Switzerland asserted, "The human body is as vulnerable as the melting glacier. These naked people are braving the cold today because they want decision-makers to wake up and take immediate, forceful, and courageous steps to protect the climate. There is still time, but it is running out. Climate change now requires fast and courageous political decisions to radically cut greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize global warming. Governments around the world must know that the people they represent expect and demand them to take action, and we hope that our collaboration with Spencer Tunick to create this living sculpture will focus their minds and sharpen their resolve."
Tunick considered the photographs from this project to function simultaneously as at once works of art and as political statements, stating, "I will try to treat the body on two levels. On an abstract level, as if they were flowers or stones. And on a more social level, to represent their vulnerability and humanity with regard to nature and the city and to remind people where we come from." In both proposed treatments, this particular work recalls the intensions and visual results of Land Art. Tunick's works becomes comparable with the likes of Robert Smithson and Richard Long, who both make human interventions in landscape to show that the two forces can work in harmony, or indeed are one and the same and with their fates intertwined.
Sydney 1 (Mardi Gras: The Base)
This remarkable color photograph was taken in front of the monumental Sydney Opera House. It involved over 5000 volunteer models of all ages, genders, sizes, colors, and sexual orientations, including a pregnant woman who was taken straight to hospital after the shoot to deliver her baby, and a well-known local TV weatherman. The models stripped off their clothes, and lay packed closely together on the ground in undulating rows to give the impression of a wavy sea of bodies.
As journalist Nick Bryant notes, "For once the eye was diverted away from the magnificent white sails of the Sydney Opera House. It was drawn instead to the tableau of naked flesh assembled on its steps." Tunick's explains his philosophy, stating that that "individuals en masse, without their clothing, grouped together, metamorphose into a new shape. The bodies extend into and upon the landscape like a substance. These grouped masses which do not underscore sexuality become abstractions that challenge or reconfigure one's views of nudity and privacy."
The work was commissioned by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Tunick explained that in the image, "Gay men and women lay naked next to their straight neighbors and this delivered a very strong message to the world that Australians embrace a free and equal society." The volunteers who modeled for this image echoed this sentiment, sharing overwhelmingly positive messages about their experience posing for the installation. For instance, one 19-year-old student who participated said later, "I'll never get a chance to do this again, it's not worth being inhibited. It doesn't feel sexual, it just feels tribal - a gathering of humanity." A middle-aged participant said that he "loved getting naked" and that the experience made him realize he only wore clothes "for comfort". The majority of participants at Tunick's other installations around the world similarly report that their experiences have been extremely positive and liberating.
Despite the impetus to make this work being based around a celebration of freedom, equality, and love, the resulting image darkly recalls genocide and the piles of bodies thrown into mass graves during various points of human history. Participants in the installation felt elated upon taking part, whilst viewers confronted by the final photograph experience nervousness that potential disaster looms. It is in this space in between extreme scenarios that Tunick poses questions. Perhaps overall he is trying to say that amid the ends of a spectrum there are infinite possibilities and that it is crucial that no aspect of a life should be forgotten or overlooked, so as to ensure that the miraculous cycle of life can indeed continue.
Dead Sea 8
This color photograph comes from a project in which Tunick enlisted 1,200 men and women from Israel to pose nude in the Dead Sea, which lies at the borders of Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. In the image, the models stand partially immersed in the water, clustered more toward the right-hand side of the frame, with their backs facing the camera and their arms stretched overhead and their hands brought together in a pose of prayer. At the right-hand side of the background, dusty-red mountains recede into the distance. The tranquil salt water of the Dead Sea sits undisturbed on the left-hand side of the photograph.
Tunick carried out this project in order to subtly call attention to the fact that the water levels of the Dead Sea have been dropping by about 1.2 meters every year, and, related to this, although not immediately visible here, tens of thousands of sinkholes (a depression or hole in the ground) are appearing around the body of water with increasing frequency. Dr. Clive Lipchin, director of the Center for Trans-boundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies notes, "The Dead Sea we once knew doesn't exist anymore. The harm that has been done on all environmental levels has caused damages that are partly irreversible [...] the window of opportunity is narrow and will soon be closed." The pose adopted by the models in this photo, with hands clasped overhead, is one of pleading, as if they are imploring those in power to take this environmental crisis more seriously.
Tunick later stated, "Since 1991, I have traveled the world making immersive art with people of all races, religions, and nationalities. But Israel is a unique place that I hold close to my heart and is the only country in the Middle East where I can be allowed to have proper freedom of expression. I care deeply about the future of the Dead Sea and hope that my presence and involvement here can propel the Israeli government and local activists to take real measurable action to save the Dead Sea." Five years after this shoot, in 2016, he returned to Israel intending to once again stage photographs calling attention to this ongoing environmental issue, however, he noted that Israeli authorities were less welcoming the second time around. He said, "They don't want anyone to know - especially [since] it would hurt the tourism business - that access to the northern Dead Sea is very dangerous right now and sinkholes are getting worse." As with his Aletsch glacier image, Tunick makes an interesting reference to Land Art in this photograph and successfully highlights the power and beauty created when people and nature work together in harmony.
At dawn on the morning of Sunday, June 2, 2019, Tunick gathered 125 volunteer models of all ages, colors, and sizes, outside Facebook's headquarters in Manhattan. The models were mostly women, but some men participated as well. The resulting photograph features the models standing in a close group, naked, facing the camera, with stickers of male nipples covering the female models' own nipples, as well as larger stickers covering all of the models' genitals. Each model also holds up an oversized sticker of a male nipple above their heads. The participants dominate the frame, with only a small strip of construction scaffolding and a "ONE WAY" sign visible above them in the background.
This image was part of the National Coalition Against Censorship's (NCAC) campaign called "#wethenipple", which seeks to stage a protest against social media's censorship of the female nipple. According to Tunick, the aim of the project was to get Facebook and Instagram to reconsider their policies regarding nudity and artistic expression. At present, these sites' policies state that women's nipples are not allowed to be displayed, unless in certain contexts, such as breastfeeding, or depicting mastectomy surgery. Meanwhile, no such restrictions apply to the display of male nipples. Tunick has suggested that Facebook and Instagram could follow the lead of YouTube, which now has "a verification process for artists, a platform for them to share their work." Tunick is no stranger to censorship on social media. For instance, after posting images on Facebook of an installation he carried out in Portugal, his account was disabled for violation of its terms (even though he had applied the requisite pixelation). He says that "Today, men walk around freely. The female nipple should be set free. It would take a few years to de-sensitize everyone, but I think it would lead to less violence against women and less problems with gender issues."
This use of stickers of male nipples served as what Nina Azzarello (editorial director of DesignBoom) refers to as "a cheeky bid to avoid running afoul of Facebook's policies - and to illustrate just how ludicrous they believe they are". The images of the male nipples were donated by artists/activists who have dealt with censorship in their own careers, such as artist Andres Serrano, actor-photographer Adam Goldberg, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Spencer Tunick himself. The male nipple stickers were assigned to participants based on skin tone and areola size.
In fact, the use of the male nipple stickers in this work also pays homage to feminist artist Micol Hebron, whose 2014 project Male Nipples involved the creation of a male nipple pasty which fellow artists were encouraged to use to cover female nipples on social media. Tunick's project is also comparable to the work of Spanish graphic designer and photographer Manuel Ceballos, whose "postphotographic" project Pixon "presents an ironic form of feminine nude" by appropriating and manipulating photographs of nude females found online, censoring the entirety of the images with pixellation and leaving only the nipple intact and visible.
Tunick states, "There has to be a way artists can have a voice to show their works." Social media is a crucial aspect of many contemporary artists' artistic careers, as it is an important site for dissemination of their work, as well as (for Tunick) a place to recruit future volunteer models. Tunick notes, "the work I'm allowed to post is fundamentally different from the work I make. To me, every pixelated nipple only succeeds in sexualizing the censored work. As a 21st century artist, I rely on Instagram. It's the world's magazine and to be censored on it breaks my spirit."
We see here Tunick doing something quite different. By focusing in on a close up of the crowd we come to re-evaluate his other images of mass nude gatherings. So here, the question is raised as to whether being confronted by an image of people without their faces visible can ever really force action? Do faceless (mass) images generate enough individual, specific empathy? By making the face entirely visible, and as such giving a strong immediate impression of individual identity, one wonders if this image will be more successful in support of real positive change. This photograph, more than the rest of the artist's earlier oeuvre leans heavily on the side of protest rather than his previous pursuits of aesthetics and performance.