Naked ambition

“The more nude art in public, the more open a society is” – Spencer Tunick returns with his first exhibition in ten years
By Ella Joyce | Art | 12 September 2022

‘New York 4 (Grand Central)’, Spencer Tunick, 2003

Having not exhibited in a decade, genre-bending artist Spencer Tunick is back with a full-scale deep dive into new and unseen works in his latest exhibition, Public Interventions. Known for transforming public spaces with the human body, Tunick treads the line between creating both overtly public and powerfully intimate pieces of artwork across the world combining photography with artistry as he goes.

After staging his first depiction of nude bodies in 90s New York, the artist was arrested by the city government, which only spurred his desire for creative expression. Fast forward to today and Tunick orchestrates groups of thousands of people in large-scale human installations across very public locations such as the Sydney Opera House, Grand Central Station and France’s Aurillca train station. Continually focusing on the individual’s relationship with their surroundings, Tunick tells us how “the skin and the city seem like one entity,” as his creative process works to ensure the two coexist seamlessly.

Opening at Reflex Gallery in Amsterdam, the exhibition marks Tunick’s first solo showcase in the Netherlands, combining new and unseen works from his extensive archive. In anticipation, we speak to Tunick about his career and the beauty of bringing people together through art.

‘Pink Spirits (Melbourne)’, Spencer Tunick, 2018

Ella Joyce: Public Interventions marks your first gallery show in ten years, how does it feel to be back putting together an exhibit?
Spencer Tunick: Sometimes an artist needs a reminder to stop making work and give a little energy to selling it, and I often need this reminder and push. In this case, it came from my wife who reminded me that we have kids closing in on college and we need to pay for their schooling. This was a wake-up call. I remembered who enjoyed my work in the past and always thought that Alex Daniels [curator] had a special place in his heart for my photography, so I contacted him.

“…that’s what my work is about: getting people together, close together and naked.”

EJ: This latest exhibition displays a lot of unseen works, how did the curation process begin?
ST: I sent Alex the colour works that I’ve been making over the years, many with props and body paint that have never been shown in a commercial gallery. He felt I had enough for a very compelling exhibit and selected the images. I love when someone else edits my work for a show – editing is an artwork in itself! I live with my work so much, I’m very happy I get to see the work in a fresh way when someone else chooses the selection.

EJ: In what ways do you feel your practice and artistic style have evolved over the years?
ST: When I first started making assemblages of people in public in 1994 I would have people posing mostly lying on the ground either in sprawled positions or similar positions straight on their backs or curled up in balls. I would title the works referencing something happening socially or politically at the moment, how I was feeling about the world or a personal issue I was going through. Then in 2002, I started having people standing. It took me a long time to get to the point where people would stand up for my work. I think one of the obstacles was that when people stand, it becomes a group photograph of hair and heads, and when people are lying on the ground you see more of the body. The body on the ground became more of an abstraction. People standing often references the tradition and history of group portraiture in photography, like Weegee’s Coney Island [1940] photograph or even a class photo.

‘Hull 2.1 (Ferens Art Gallery)’, Spencer Tunick, 2016

“By throwing the background out of focus the nude figures in the back of the grouping blend into the pavement making the skin and the city seems like one entity.”

‘New York 2.1 (Grand Central)’, Spencer Tunick, 2003

EJ: How does the landscape in which you work affect your compositions and what is it you look for when deciding where to shoot?
ST: I am as equally concerned with the framing of the background as I am with the nudes in the foreground. I tend to like my backgrounds slightly out of focus, so the eye first engages with the people and then the background second. By throwing the background out of focus, the nude figures in the back of the grouping blend into the pavement, making the skin and the city seems like one entity.

EJ: Your work is so instantly recognisable, what is it that first inspired you to use the human form as a medium?
ST: After undergraduate school in Boston, I attended the Creative Practices Program at the International Center of Photography from 1989-1990. I spent a lot of time in the library researching the nude in photography and at the time I didn’t find too many photographers’ works that really engaged my interest in a big way. So I started looking at books containing performance artists. I then discovered the works of Yayoi Kusama and Carolee Schneemann and this amazed me. I loved the documentary photos various photographers had captured of their live performances. They did not take the photos themselves, they were either participating in the performances or directing the photographers taking the photos. I loved the photos but for me, there was something missing, which was combining the performance with the finished artwork. So I began making performative photographs. The works were quasi-conceptual, and quasi-documentary.

EJ: Reading testimonials from your participants proves just how liberating they find being part of your practice, as the orchestrator behind that how does it feel to know you’ve impacted so many people?
ST: I did not set out to make works to give people a liberating feeling. I began by having the vision to make a compelling image. Then a few years later as more and more people wanted to participate, I realised the work started to take on a holistic element. This is certainly something I embrace now, but it was not the intention when I started. It’s a lucky side effect of communal art.

‘Columbia (Bogota Museum of Modern Art)’, Spencer Tunick, 2016

“Now with the rise of social media, everyone and their mothers shoot nudes in public. Which is a good thing, the more nude art in public, the more open a society is.”

‘Wild Color (Melbourne)’, Spencer Tunick, 2018

“These days I organise the installations from my studio by email, video conferencing and Google Earth.”

EJ: And how is it directing so many people? It must take a large team?
ST: My team is amazing, I have been working with many of them for over twenty years. Most are artists in their own right, that as a favour allow me to hire them once or twice a year for a week to travel with me. They have their own lives and careers. These days I organise the installations from my studio by email, video conferencing and Google Earth.  I research and organise the installations with many conversations and meetings with curators and production supervisors. I travel with a crew for a week to a country when I make the work, we have three days to prep the installation itself and then a day of working on the photographic files with my camera tech. I recently moved to digital photography and that has proven to be very difficult for me. I liked photography much better when all you had to think about was filling up a rectangle. The rectangle in which your eye was looking through.

EJ: When you first shared your depictions of a nude body in 90s New York, it was met with quite a strong reaction. How have audience responses changed since then? Also, after the Covid lockdowns, the idea of a mass of bodies joining as one has obviously gained new meaning.
ST: Good question. In the 90s I could count on one hand the artists I knew about working with the nude in public. Now with the rise of social media, everyone and their mothers shoot nudes in public. Which is a good thing, the more nude art in public the more open a society is. Covid has taken a huge hit on my life artistically, museums and organisations became worried about gathering people together, and that’s what my work is about: getting people together, close together and naked. So no one was contacting me to commission my works anymore. It became very difficult financially for me as my survival as an artist depended on commissions. This is how I set up my practice, working with an artist fee from commissions in order to survive.  Reflecting on your first question, when Covid was not subsiding, I realised I needed to start working again on exhibiting framed photographs with a gallery. But slowly, very slowly, museums and arts organisations are starting to contact me now as it’s safer and yes, I believe the work has become more important now to many because of Covid.

EJ: You’ve created installations in some phenomenal spaces all over the world, is there anywhere left to tick off your list?
ST: Yes, I’ve never done a work in Asia! I’ve tried, trust me. Museums and arts people would try to get permission from their respective governments and all applications were turned down. I would like to do more group work on the Big Island in Hawaii. I made it to the finals of the Hawaiian Volcanos National Park residency but eventually did not get it. It’s difficult getting grants and residencies when working solely with the nude. It’s not the 60s when the body was more accepted in the US. But in many ways, it’s much better than in the 60s as organising is easier.

Public Interventions by Spencer Tunick opens at Amsterdam’s Reflex Gallery on September 17th, more info here

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