We’ve just begun the interview, and American artist Spencer Tunick receives a call from his wife. She asks him to read the grocery list: eggs for the two children, waffles, two cartons of one-per cent milk and some Silk. ‘We’re staying in this winter,’ he says. ‘Everything revolves around food, and feeding the kids.’ The domestic conversation belies the striking nature of Tunick’s work; for 20 years he’s made a living travelling the world to photograph and film hundreds upon hundreds of naked people.
Tunick spoke with Sublime about exploring the concepts of public and private, snapping pictures while nude, activism and being naked after an Antarctic hurricane.
Sublime: Nudity is a fascinating and controversial element in art, and ripe for misinterpretation. Your work has been labelled pornography, and you’ve even spent time in jail for it. What’s the difference between what you see in your installations and what a detractor, say, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, sees in your work?
Spencer Tunick: What they say publicly may not be what they feel privately. Often politicians come out against something either to bring popularity or press for themselves, and to further their agenda, even if privately they might enjoy nudity on a sensual level.
For me, the body in public was the idea – it’s not so much about the body, but about government and the corporate world owning your vision, your background, and who owns what your eyes see in a public space. I was putting a nude person on the street in front of a background and asking, what’s private? What’s public? Where’s the measure of who owns what? Basically I felt that my work was about bringing in the body naked, as a non-sexual entity, as a form, and using the city as my background.
S: Why do you think it’s so difficult for people conceptually to separate nudity and sexuality?
ST: In a man there’s a very visual point – there’s no slippery slope – you can tell at least physically, visually, when a man becomes overtly sexual in a photograph. You wouldn’t know this in a woman, just standing there. But as far as the photograph being sexual, it’s all about the idea and how far the artist takes it.
S: Have you ever been on the other side of the lens and posed nude for a photo installation?
ST: I’ve taken a photograph while naked.
S: How was that different?
ST: People who are participating basically take off their clothes and walk into position, but for me I’m running around them with tripods and ladders and heavy cameras. By the end of it I definitely had some bruises and blood. I was like, I don’t think this is a good thing. Certainly there’s nothing worse, consistently in my experience, than naked people wearing sneakers.
S: Did you feel more connected to the people you photographed when you were nude, or was it just an inconvenience?
ST: Too many people paid attention to me, as opposed to the artwork. It kind of took away from the work, even though the participants liked some equality coming from me. But in the end it became rather like a spectacle, so I don’t do that any more. I want to give people my best, and not divert anyone’s attention to my gorgeous body.
S: What’s the difference between a photographer and someone like yourself, who documents installations?
ST: I’m making this moment in time, this physical sculpture of bodies. It can be considered performance, because they’re in this position for a short period of time, so it’s a temporary, site-specific installation.
I do my best to document the work with photography and video, so I do make video art from other people’s filming. I photograph the work, and in the past I have had people help me photograph. So I’m in between an installation artist and a photographer.
S: At a wedding, a photographer will try to get a hundred people to stand still and take a picture; that seems almost impossible. When you’re working with hundreds or thousands of nude people, is that as logistically difficult as it sounds?
ST: The language barrier often makes it difficult to get people to move, in certain situations. People know that it’s difficult for one person to direct people in a situation where there’s no practice ahead of time. People show up to make an artwork on the day, and I only have a short amount of time with them.
The people posing will know that I’m not a commercial artist. I don’t sell products. I’m there to make art. I’m working really hard, and they want to work with me – as a sort of communal collaboration to get something done – because they want the work to be as good as possible. For them it’s not so much, ‘Hey, we’re naked in a public space.’ It’s more like, ‘OK, the thrill has subsided [after maybe five minutes], now we’re standing here naked, what are we going to do?’ At that point, after the cheering, or mumbling or nervousness – people have different reactions – dies down, then I’m actually able to work with the bodies and make the best work I possibly can.
S: You got your start taking photos of a few naked people in New York, and then having to run from the cops. Now you’re widely celebrated around the world. how has that changed your perspective as an artist, and do you feel anything has been gained or lost in the transition?
ST: I couldn’t make really great work with an individual person on the street in what I call my ‘America’s Own’ series, in the early days. When I started out working individually, between 1990 and 1996, it was like – if I can use a basketball term – run and gun. Very exciting. I often felt I was invisible, that I was in this surreal Pacman game where this blue electronic police car with its hood crashing up and down was chasing after me and the participants.
That rush of being chased and getting the artwork done subsided after four or five arrests. Then it was like, ‘I spent all this time preparing for the work – maybe a month or two months – and now it’s just taken away in a second.’ There comes a time when you want to be able to work for an hour instead of five minutes.
S: When did you discover you wanted to be an artist?
ST: In college I was interested in film-making and animation. I was into Ray Harryhausen, the artist and film-maker who made King Kong, and did the claymation work and animatronics in Clash of the Titans. I was around 20, and I remember my dad said maybe I should take a photography course. I tried it out in college, I think it was my second year, and I just fell in love with the teacher: he was this Bob Dylan-type figure to me. Just the coolest guy I ever met – his travels and his photographs and his persona. I started taking pictures, and he responded to my work very well.
S: What made you take it to the next level, going out with a group of people in New York?
ST: I was thinking about applying to grad school for art to study photography, looking at a lot of different schools, when I saw that the International Center of Photography had this intensive one-year programme, and I enrolled.
I would go to a lot of shows that weren’t just photography, but were more artists who documented their work with photography or video. I realised immediately that I didn’t want to do straight photography. I wanted to create something that was a performance that I documented, an action I was part of, and out in public as opposed to being in private.
It’s interesting how a lot of female performance artists influenced my early work, including Diane Arbus and then Nancy Rubins. A combination of seeing those artists’ works, and others, somehow transformed into what I’m doing. Everything comes from somewhere.
S: When you go to a museum, like the National Gallery here in London, and you see large groups of nudes, it’s usually some bacchanalian scene, or people being sucked into the earth for their sins. neither of these reminds me of your work. Do you think about those images when you’re taking the pictures?
ST: If you go to the Louvre, Poussin and many of the Italian and French painters made these massive paintings of thousands of naked people flying up to heaven, or in battle. Another depiction of the nude body is in death, with genocide and man’s inhumanity to man. A third reference would be protest: there’s a large history of protest, not only in Mexico, for workers, but also in prison. This combination of imagery has led me to where I am now.
I don’t celebrate belief in an all-powerful being, or many gods, in the work. I don’t have that angle, but I definitely think about it, such as in the paintings we’re referencing.
I like to bring attention to the vulnerability of the human condition. We are fragile because we build these concrete canyons that we walk down, this river of pavement. We’re soft. We’re pulp, compared to the machinery and the architecture around us.
We’re powerful, yet in a way we’re vulnerable. I like to point that out. And I don’t mind when people look at the work and think of death, because in a way they know these people in the photos are not dead. Some sort of psychological switch goes off in their mind that tells them these people are alive. If this is what death looks like, this is absolutely something people need to be reminded of. My work references death, but is the opposite of death. It’s sort of an explosion of life.
S: Do you ever worry about obscuring the humanity of the individual subjects when you create an abstraction, or what you call ‘flesh architecture’, with that many people?
ST: If a curator went into my archives and looked at my works with me, we could certainly come up with many different ways to approach them. In some of my works people are looking at the camera and are engaged. In some, they’re crumpled up like they’re sleeping, or like they’re dead, and in some they’re positioned in a way where they’re unified, like matchsticks or sardines or moss on rocks by a river bed.
There was a period of time where I only thought of the works as abstraction. I’m a very big fan of Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Rothko and John McCracken. So I don’t mind when some of the works become less about the figure and more about the substance, this human abstraction.
S: You’ve done work to raise attention to HIV and to draw awareness to climate change. Do you think of yourself as an activist?
ST: I’m certainly successful in getting the word across. After I did the HIV piece, President Bush’s Czar of AIDS cancelled his subscription to POZ, the magazine I did the work with. It had its effect high up, and on the level of getting the word out about how bodies change because of the medication that people need to take because of AIDS. We’re all still flesh and blood. We’re still able to make art and talk about the differences and similarities of our condition. Art has a very interesting way of making people talk about subjects they wouldn’t normally feel comfortable with.
I’ve done three projects out of a hundred or so installations that are directly related to a cause. People contact me at least once a month, including the UN and Amnesty International, to do works that provoke and that send a message. I can’t do all of them. But it’s an honour to have a group assist me that’s not the Coca Cola Company, which would have the budget to get me on top of a volcano. If I’m able to work with mountaineers and volunteers to help me get on a glacier with 600 people, and I’m able to make my work but not sell out, it’s a wonderful thing.
S: Was your Antarctica trip the most challenging you’ve undertaken?
ST: It was challenging finding people. I knew that my wife would pose. I knew that she’d be like a rock star – that she would come and rise to the moment. Bu t I didn’t want my film to capture only the person I love. On the ship there was a large contingent of very conservative Swedish people over the age of 50. You would think that in Sweden people are open, but somehow I got the Swedish Mormon equivalent.
But then there was this couple from Australia. The woman had had an accident where she’d been burned as a child, so her skin was pretty jagged, just like the ice. She and her husband said they would do it, and I made a beautiful work there. The weather was pretty crazy. The winds were hurricane-force at one time. Then when it calmed down fortunately – maybe unfortunately, I should say – you were able to get naked in Antarctica.
With that series, where I went around the world to every continent to make work, I raised the money myself and just travelled with my wife, a backpack and camera equipment – only what we could carry on our backs and pull with our hands. We found people and walked around the city, so the locations are different to Naked States, where we had a car and were able to cover a lot of ground and find interesting locations. When you don’t have wheels it’s harder to get to really amazing sites. For Naked States we could jump out of the car, but for Nude Adrift, which is what I titled the journey around the world, we didn’t have anywhere to hide afterwards.
S: Have you seen people’s perspectives on nudity change a lot since you started taking these photos?
ST: My whole style of photographing, gathering people on a street corner and doing an action really quickly, has manifested itself into flash mobs. As far as nudity goes, it’s common to hear of a group nude or a group protest. I think my work possibly inspired that, either directly or indirectly. If I hadn’t ever started doing what I do, maybe some other artist would’ve pursued it, or maybe it wouldn’t have happened, but I have definitely had some sort of impact on gatherings of multiple naked people.
I really enjoy my medium. My medium has legs and it can go anywhere.