A street history of the nude. Daniel Miller on Spencer Tunick.

Daniel Miller

As the latest UK exhibition of Spencer Tunick finds its feet at The Lowry, Daniel Miller tries to discover why Spencer, like so many artists before him, chooses to work with the nude. Plus, below, a behind-the-scenes vodcast of what it was actually like to bare all in Salford this spring.

Jacques Derrida recounts an experience of waking up one morning, and crossing from his bedroom to the shower. Midway through his journey the philosopher is struck to discover ‘oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see…’ He feels ashamed, and this makes him feel more ashamed. He wonders if nudity is the difference between humans and animals, felines and ‘the animal, that, therefore, I am.’

Besides humans, no animal has ever attempted to dress itself. But the attempt at some point always fails. This cat arrives ‘like an ambassador… [charged with] the immense symbolic responsibility with which our culture has always charged the feline race’ to remind the philosopher of a dumber reality. Language is clothing; a way of dressing appearances. Silence, nakedness and truth (‘the naked truth’), beyond rhetoric, exist together in an intimate embrace. Perhaps this is why the nude has been a subject of art for so long.

Nakedness manifests both our human and animal natures. The nude aestheticizes the experience, and intensifies the contradiction. Kenneth Clark cites Aristotle: ‘Art completes what nature cannot… finish.’ Nature cannot finish human nature. Our Sisyphean species is drawn to keep redefining itself. The nude cloaks the condition in an idealized form. From Michelangelo to Manet, what’s represented in the nude is never nakedness exactly, but the naked body as a medium, or a message, or an index. At the height of the Renaissance, the idea was transcendent vitality. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or outside the Palazzo della Signoria, the nude was epic and virile, larger than life. After the Industrial Revolution, and mankind’s  industrially refined status, the nude became increasingly perverted, sickly-sweet.

These portrayals expressed their contemporary realities, in each case as a mirror of the artist’s power. Whereas in the Renaissance the artist was a man of strength, overflowing with life, by the fin-de-siecle he had become despised; an error in creation who aestheticized his own abjection. Industrial civilization introduced a new agent: photography, the bearer of a more machine-like vision. Photography created the circuits for the distribution of new nudes – in cinema, advertising, pornography and photojournalism. These new channels relaxed social attitudes governing the exposure of flesh, while at the same draping flesh in multiplying layers of media.

Today, a hyper-rapid information system extends across the planet. There has never been more access to data, and never less ‘naked’ data. Everything arrives third-hand, premeditated, veiled; touched by millions of unseen users, servers, robots, clients, packaged, routed, sorted, processed, linked…

Spencer Tunick’s productions belong to this paradigm. All that’s offered is a proposition: an opportunity to experience mass public nudity. This is accompanied by an alibi – ‘you can call it art’ – and a proviso – ‘you will become (part of) a media spectacle’. The first clause preserves modesty; the second one powers the enterprise, supporting the caravan as it moves around the planet. Only a tight-ass could straightforwardly criticize this. You could argue that it is populist and superficial, or claim that public nudity is ugly and immodest, in whatever form it takes, but in both cases what you’d have would be a cover-up, masquerading as an exposé.

The key facts are that it is harmless, and there is a desire to do it. Both points chime perfectly with the naturist ideology, and specifically the agenda of the naturist Freikörperkultur. In the last several decades the FKK has succeeded in relaxing restrictions on public nudity in Germany and elsewhere. What does this trend mean? The British media generally likes to report the story from the freakazoid army-of-nudists angle, but the mainstream attitude in Germany, besides the lakes and in the mixed-sex saunas, is closer to benign indifference. This also pretty much sums-up my views of Spencer Tunick, which I take to be a testament to his success.

Tunick resembles a kind of FKK propagandist, bringing naturism new converts through spectacular means. For some of the reasons briefly given above, this MO hasn’t won him too many friends in the art press. There are other reasons for that; as Boris Groys observes at one point in Art Power, a contemporary art critic is something close to a valet, dressing ‘naked’ artworks in a textual bikini. ”Images without text are embarrassing,” Groys states, ”like a naked person in a public space.’ No man is a hero to his valet; Spencer Tunick embodies a core threat to our being.

Formally, this is by-the-book modernist art politics, that is, an aesthetic program of mass mobilization. Content-wise, it links arms with contemporary activist strategies, in which people strip off to raise money and/or promote causes (‘I would rather go naked than wear fur’ is probably the best example). Tunick has used this strategy himself, for example, by working with Greenpeace on ecological activism. But the general cause is public nudity itself. This is non-ideological, but still subversive. Celebrating a humanism of the naked body runs counter to two thousand guilty years of Western history. It also runs counter to dominant media narratives, with their heavy commercial investment in airbrushed and sexualized bodies. The media is invested in Tunick’s narrative too, of course, covering his installations (giving them exposure) from Australia to Wien. But then as Freud once (almost) pointed out: the media knows no contradiction.

A freer relation to nudity is probably the wave of the future. But the other side of the issue isn’t concerned with morality, but technology. The technological will to bend bodies into functional shapes, and recreate humans as characters patterned after its own image survives into the present. Today, workers on laptops across the digital world corporeally submit before the needs of a machine; ironically, given that the eternal promise of technology is emancipation from the human body’s limits. More sophisticated than its fathers, the contemporary version of this promise is an embodied emancipation from technology itself; by means of a hyper-technology which has transcended the natural body’s natural limits, which has transcended itself, and in the last instance, has transcended death. It’s a lie. What did Derrida realize as he was crossing his living room, and what do Spencer Tunick’s participants on some level realize as well? That the living body is a dying body, and there’s nothing we can do.

Everyday People: Spencer Tunick at The Lowry, until 26 September. Free. Daniel Miller is a writer based in Berlin. Images (to to bottom): Everyday People: Spencer Tunick at The Lowry, courtesy Spencer Tunick; Dublin, Ireland, 2008, courtesy Spencer Tunick; installation shot, courtesy Heidy Elainne; Everyday People: Spencer Tunick at The Lowry, courtesy Spencer Tunick.

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