The Naked Truth
“What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?” - Michelangelo
With its blemishes and imperfections, curves and skewed lines, artists throughout time have explored nudity in their work, whether through the classical style of the renaissance in depicting beautiful naked ladies lounging outside on a summer’s day, surrealist depictions, modernist cubist abstractions, performances or photographic work. The naked body continuously stars in artwork, manifested through various practices, and yielding different reactions. As evidenced by Michelangelo’s assertion, we have a fascination with the human body, yet is this consensus unanimous? Is using the nude body in artwork beautiful? Brave? Brash? Here’s the naked truth.
The first nude performance I saw was at the MOMA in 2010, at the Marina Abramovic retrospective. At the exhibition, I came to a doorway in which two nude actors were facing one another. To get into the next room, you had to walk between their naked bodies. This was a recreation of Abramovic and Ulay’s 1977 Imponderabilia. Interestingly, the gap between the two bodies had to be dramatically increased to engage the audience in 2010 and encourage them to walk through; in 1977 it was a mere squeeze.
Naked bodies are a sensitive subject matter. Harsh censorship laws depict nudity “more dangerous than guns,” as lamented by spoken word poet Hollie McNish. A vital figure in the contemporary art scene, Spencer Tunick, is a New York based photographer, who for years has been creating hauntingly beautiful mass nudes in exotic, public locations such as the Dead Sea, the Nevada Desert and other key destinations worldwide. Avenir had the honour of asking Tunick about difficulties he’d faced in producing his artwork.
“For me, the naked human form is beauty in its purest essence and represents the ultimate source of inspiration. Because I feel this so strongly, it is difficult for me to even imagine that everyone does not feel the same way. Throughout my career, I have been arrested on multiple occasions for making my work. It is always my hope and intention to be able to make my work in peace without the threat of arrest and imprisonment. However, in some places, including my own hometown of NYC, it sometimes comes up against opposition. If I (and other artists working with the nude in public) cannot work, then I feel it is very important to start a dialogue our society can begin to create a new place for the body to safely exist within the context of artistic and creative freedom of expression. There is nothing threatening about the naked body. There is nowhere to hide a weapon and there is no armor against its would-be opponents. It is humanity in its most vulnerable state against the concrete and steel of the urban landscape. By showing this vulnerability, I want to pose the question, why should the body be criminalized? Working and making large-scale nude installations within the public sphere will set a precedent to lighten up the harsh laws against the body in art across the entire nation.”
Spencer Tunick’s work portrays the human body in all its sincerity. The honesty of his work affects not only spectators of the artwork, but also participants taking part in his photo shoots. The Spencer Tunick Experience forum, an unofficial fan site, encourages partakers to relay and process their experiences. Jane, a participant of the 2003 shoot in Selfridges wrote, “It felt so free and the experience was thrilling, I will never forget it ever – it was unbeatable! … All our naked flesh seemed to blend. Old people, young people, fat people, thin people, all with their different skin tones formed a wonderful, beautiful kind of mosaic in the different installations.” The experience of taking part in these nude art projects reflect, for participants, the universal beauty of the body, leaving behind societal and cultural norms. To investigate this further, I participated in one of Spencer Tunick’s photo shoots myself. It was a similarly uplifting experience; it was relaxing to forget the shame and embarrassment that often accompany nudity, giving me a new perspective on the human body, and how it can be completely exposed in public yet feel so natural.
Artists such as Tunick are fighting to remind the world that we are all the same underneath: beneath our highly guarded façade we all have bodies. This is a plead for love, the same battle fought by Yayoi Kusama in the 1960s. Best known for her proliferous work with polka dots, she was a key advocator of Free Love. Through public naked painting parties, Kusama’s interest was in liberating the body and allowing it to become a natural object again, Adam and Eve style. Thus art began to combine the visual with the sensual, allowing true human identity to emerge once the body became neutralized. Today, exposing the art of nudity in new work is vital in continuing to challenge social norms.
Chris Waterhouse, a nudist, tells me that experience with nude art has transformed his life. “Having been introduced to a well known Naturist Club in South East England by chance, I became a naturist, which aided me in developing a full acceptance of my own unique naked physique; I am a person with Achondroplasia, having a disproportionately short stature. Through nude art, I fostered a form of educating others about a 'different naked body' in terms of structure, proportionality, and showing my own confidence and positivity. It was an encouraging and liberating experience.” Since then, Chris became part of Spirited Bodies, a group promoting both drawing and life-modeling in a creative and accepting environment.
What about emerging artists’ use of the nude figure? I came across a few students who, for the final pieces, stood naked in the gallery space. One alongside a projection of trees, another artist facing the wall tied up to the ceiling by rope. They looked striking because bodies are beautiful, and the artists were definitely brave to stand there for the duration of the exhibition, fully exposed to art collectors, fellow students and parents. But is it possible that this is not enough? In the Hayward Gallery’s current show, The Human Factor, Paul McCarthy’s series of wax sculptures, That Girl, depicts a naked young woman sitting with her legs open. Upon entering the room, I was startled, believing she was real. Only upon seeing the multiple versions of the same girl, I was reassured. Seeing such a realistic nude initially felt voyeuristic and intrusive, yet the rigorous craftsmanship of the artist justified the piece.
Referring to the words of Michelangelo, the body is a fascinating subject matter. However, there is nothing artistically advanced about standing around naked; whether the artwork is successful depends on how the nude is used artistically. McCarthy’s scrupulous attention to detail, like the blue veins protruding under the girl’s skin and her chipped nail polish demonstrate the idea behind his practice. Similarly, young practitioners should take into consideration the reasoning behind the choice of the human body in their work, and allow this to emanate through their work.
Spencer Tunick tells me of his artistic intentions, “the body is the medium through which I express the true nature of what we are as humans. By using the body in multiples and even as individual portraits, I see our vulnerability and breath and our aliveness beyond our physical shape.” He asserts the importance of artistic intention and the quality of the final piece. “The subject matter and the medium used by the artist are both essential considerations in creating successful artwork. Often the obvious choice of subject, the challenge is to use nudity in a way that is the unique expression of the individual artist. I feel it is very difficult in today's art world to work only with the nude form. The challenge for me to keep my work fresh is combining the bodies with materials, things, plants, colors, paints in new ways that are the true expression of my mind and spirit.”
Eileen Huhn and Pierre Horn, Berlin-based artists, use nudes to produce work that would vary and challenge conventional uses of the human body in art. “The contrast between technoid materials and the fragile naked body intrigues us, and we created images that make an attempt on confrontation at the smallest and largest unit of distance,”
Ben Hopper, London-based artist, photographs nudes, and highlights, “the fact we wear clothes and cover our private parts adds to the already existing fascination. I think it’s important to highlight our birthday suits with all their glory and beauty. It’s an essence of our existence and survival.” In his series Nude Girls with Masks, he confronts the issue of censorship by exposing the women’s bodies whilst at the same time hiding their faces.
Fascinating and exciting, the nude figure is ever-present, although we don’t always see it. Bringing awareness to its presence through artistic means allows us to contemplate the human figure and society as a whole, as well as highlighting the fact that there is nothing intimidating or embarrassing about the body. When conducted with thought and impressive technical ability, artwork involving the nude is outstanding, and I invite emerging artists to use this subject matter with their own artistic flair.