Just back from a trip to Manchester to talk at ‘The Naked Debate’ to accompany the Spencer Tunick exhibition. What fabulous architecture there – and what a thriving arts centre that recently celebrated its 10th anniversary – even though it looks as if it was built only yesterday. The weather was wild and woolly – rain, gusty wind, bright sunshine. In a bold move the Lowry decided to commission Tunick to do a shoot on the quays there to celebrate their first decade. They wanted a project that would involve the local community and it certainly did – with over a thousand applying to be photographed. For some of this installation Tunick chose to move away from his more usual ‘massed bodies’ or ‘flesh sculptures’ and instead decided to echo Lowry’s paintings – with more focus on individuals – separate yet moving within a crowd.
Here’s how the centre looked this morning:
The audience who had gathered for the debate were a great bunch – I could hardly get a word in edgeways! Many of them had participated on the shoot and confirmed what I had already heard from other participants – that it was a liberating and positive experience. The hour passed quickly and we could have gone on for another hour but we were whisked away to watch ‘The Silver Tassie’ by the Druid Theatre Company, which proved to be powerful, funny, and shocking.
Here is an outline of what I covered in the debate. I only wish I could include the participants’ contributions.
‘EVERYDAY HEROES’ a talk by Philip Carr-Gomm for THE NAKED DEBATE at The Lowry, Salford 15 Sept 2010
There is no need to feel alarmed! When I ask you in a minute to start taking your clothes off for the photo-shoot just notice how you feel: blood-pressure, heart-rate, whether or not your eyes dart around to determine the nearest exit, and so on. I said there is no need to feel alarmed because we won’t actually be doing a photo-shoot. It would take too long, we don’t want to even try upstaging Spencer Tunick, and it’s too damned cold! But what I would like you to do is simply imagine that we’re going to do it, and notice the feelings and thoughts that race through your mind. And (inviting audience participation) can we hear some of these now? Excitement, anxiety, what will others think, Oh I wish I’d showered, or even shaved, this morning! A range of feelings: but of one thing we can be certain, we’d all be in an altered, more alert state of awareness. If we had been feeling sleepy, we’d be feeling wide awake by now.
How would we feel if we actually did it, took the photo, then got dressed again? I believe we’d be feeling great – high as kites. We’d have broken through a barrier, broken a taboo, and we’d feel a kind of solidarity between us – as if we’d all taken a crazy adventure together and had survived. Why do I think that? Because that’s what many of the participants in Spencer Tunick’s installations report feeling. (Inviting audience participation) Has anyone in the audience tonight been in an installation? How did it feel?
Participants have told me that their first experience of a shoot is one that provides them with a tremendous high – an exhilarating sense that they have broken free of inhibitions and constraints. Just like candidates for initiation in a Mystery School – whether of ancient Greece or within a modern day witches’ coven – they have to suffer hours, perhaps days or weeks, of nervous anticipation: questioning their motives and worrying about what might happen, until they have to go through the ordeal of the early morning start, the cold, the waiting around, until finally the command comes through the megaphone to get undressed. Apparently a wave of adrenalin – a primal fear of exposure mixed with an equally primal longing for freedom – flows through the group, followed by a flurry of activity as clothes are shed. And then – as the often thousands of bodies stand naked together for the first time – a roar rolls through the crowd, and a great cheer ascends to God – in this case Tunick himself, perched upon a ladder or crane.
Many participants find the experience so exhilarating, life-changing even, that they return to installation after installation, crossing continents to do so. It can even become like a drug, with a phenomenon recognised amongst aficionados as a post-installation downer that comes a few weeks after the event, once the high has worn off.
Now it’s easy to pass by such an account and be amused by it, as if it represents simply a morsel of trivia to trade at a dinner party, but this should alert anyone with a medical, pychological or psychiatric understanding to the power and potential of this phenomenon. Most of us haven’t been in a Tunick shoot, but we might still be aware of this phenomenon.
How many people here would agree with Horace Walpole when he wrote: ‘When I cast off my clothes, I cast off my cares!’ ? (Invite show of hands). A couple of months ago, when I asked how many of the participants at the Wellcome Trust’s ‘Skin: Exposed’ event had felt the same way as Walpole, about 80% of the 140-strong audience raised their hands. Like the experiences of participants in a Tunick installation, many people seem to find that taking their clothes off outside – say when skinny-dipping or sunbathing – generates positive feelings of freedom and joy. This is remarkable: why hasn’t more attention been paid to this? A great deal of scientific effort, both in time and money, goes into finding out how to relieve people of cares. The National Health Service spent £230 million last year on antidepressants. Perhaps they could save some of this by paying attention to the experiences of thousands of contemporary people – and I say thousands because I’m thinking of the membership of the naturist community around the world and of Tunick participants, both of which now number in their many thousands. It’s easy to dismiss this idea as nutty, but is it not considerably less nutty than prescribing for depression SSRI’s that have as one of their potential side-effects suicidal thoughts? Perhaps naturist resorts should receive funding from the NHS: doctors now send patients to the gym, why not send them to a naturist resort? The downer that some Tunick participants report is obviously not good, but I know that some of them have solved this problem by becoming naturists, thereby continuing to enjoy the positive effects of nakedness, without the problematic side-effect.
But let’s not get stuck here on working out how to save the NHS money, but move on to explore the other positive effects that nakedness can have on our lives. The simple act of undressing in certain contexts provokes strong feelings – both positive and negative. In my book, while not denying the reality of negative feelings that nakedness can evoke, I focus on the positive ones, and tonight I shall do the same.
Think of three images: a group of Naga Babas – naked Hindu sages – running into the Ganges to bathe in its holy waters; Lady Godiva seated on her horse riding majestically through Coventry, and a topless and very well endowed Erica Roe being escorted by two policeman from the rugby pitch at Twickenham in 1982, a cigarette in her mouth, as proud as Punch (and as tipsy) having completed her streak and having achieved instant world-wide fame (and unknown to her at the time £80,000 worth of modelling work).
These three images illustrate the way in which nakedness has been used – and is still used – to foster religious, political and cultural aims. Put simply, nakedness can be used to enlighten, empower and entertain.
Enlightenment – that elusive goal of mystics – has been sought in myriad forms, including through meditation, fasting, prayer, and the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances. Our hunger for illumination has been with us, it seems, since the dawn of humanity. Some approaches use nakedness in this way as part of a package of measures to deny the body its satisfactions – St Francis of Assisi, the Jain and Hindu monks deny themselves clothes in the same way that they deny themselves sex and fine wines. Other approaches though, use nakedness in the opposite way – to affirm the sacredness of embodiment, as amongst Christian nudists who feel that nudity helps them return to a Prelapsarian (before the Fall) state of innocence, and modern Pagans who use nakedness to feel closer to the natural world and to enjoy the ‘spiritual sensuality’ of being unclothed.
Being naked we can feel free, sensual, innocent – but also strangely powerful in that innocence. There are feelings of authenticity that are engendered in that state which can feel tremendously empowering, which is why nakedness has come to be used so much in political protest. See now a group of 400 or so naked Russian men, women and children marching through British Columbia in 1931 – the Doukhobors. They are protesting against the compulsory education of their children and the Canadian government’s reneging on their promises regarding land rights. The protests continued right into the 1970s – becoming very nasty indeed, with bombings and arson added to the mass nude protests, with the costs of such activity estimated at over $20 million. However used we have become to naked protest, the fact is that it still works. Each of us is a walking billboard. Here – if you feel strongly enough – is your key to instant publicity. All you need is a black marker pen, a mobile phone and some balls. Take your clothes off, write your message on your chest or bottom and step outside. As you stride down the High Street just call UPI and within hours your message will be seen all over the world.
We’ve seen how nudity can be used to enlighten and empower, but when it comes to entertaining we might think it’s pretty obvious: nakedness is used aesthetically in erotica, and more mundanely in girlie magazines, TV ads, movies, striptease shows, and of course in the contentious field of pornography. We know this, but why? Are we a species so driven by sexual desire, and by a narcissistic fascination with ourselves that we can endlessly gaze and derive pleasure at our own naked human form? Well of course the answer is ‘Yes!’ at one level, but it might be more helpful to pick apart the entertainment value we receive from it. Think back to the Erica Roe streaking image. Most of us find streaking entertaining because there is something inherently funny in much nakedness. A nude person running across a rugby field being tackled by policemen is just a wonderfully silly scene to witness. So there is humour there, but also shock value. We love being shocked! It’s a key ingredient in popular culture and even in that highest art of all – the Turner Prize. In popular culture think of the way Lady Gaga uses shock to get attention, think of the way the Penis Puppeteers use shock combined with humour to create their shows. But there’s something else going on with the use of nudity as entertainment, and that’s the way in which the observation of nakedness can engender feelings of community, of empathy with humanity. And in the end I believe it’s that dimension that runs across the board – between the religious, political and artistic use of nakedness – in each domain our observation or experience of nudity can evoke a sense of a shared identity, a sense of a common fragility, a common dignity, that can be experienced as a spiritual feeling, a politicised sense of empowerment, or as a cultural phenomenon.
Let’s now open up the subject for debate…
CONCLUSION – THE DEMOCRATISATION OF THE POWER OF NAKEDNESS
The deliberate shedding of clothes has been a ‘secret technique’ – used by mystics, activists and artists to further their goals for centuries.
A sea-change in our attitudes occurred at the turn of the millennium, thanks to The Full Monty, Calendar Girls and Spencer Tunick, all of whom have shown that public nudity – in the right context – can be socially responsible, heroic even. As we have seen from the craze for nude charity calendars ever since the Calendar Girls promoted the idea, it’s now a technique that can be used by anyone: we can all be ‘Everyday Heroes’. And when it comes to the work of Spencer Tunick we can see that now it is being used for ‘mass initiations’ – thousands of neophytes at a time. Now the candidates no longer stand in the cold outside the temple awaiting the call of the priestess. They stand in their thousands at Salford Quays, in Gateshead, in Mexico City, awaiting the signal from on high…