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Spencer Tunick’s Mass Nudes Travel to ASU Art Museum

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Visual Arts Issue: January 2016
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Photo courtesy Spencer TunickStill life aside, nudes and landscapes are among the most prevalent subjects in art. From Degas and Dalí to Andy Warhol and Thomas Kinkade, nearly every famous artist – whether painter, sculptor or photographer – has depicted the human body or our natural surroundings.

Photographer Spencer Tunick combines the two, using large numbers of bodies to form visual landscapes. Tunick began taking pictures of nude figures in public places throughout Manhattan and New York City's other boroughs in the early 1990s. “I used to walk around New York City and pass out invitations by hand,” he says. “I loved doing that because even though I would get a certain amount of rejections, I always came into contact with the most amazing people. It gave me an excuse to approach anyone I wanted to.”

Though many of his early works focused on smaller groups, Tunick gradually introduced more figures into the equation. The number of volunteer models increased into the thousands, with art collectors, fans and average Joes vying for a spot in his next photograph. A 2004 project in Cleveland, Ohio, featured nearly 3,000 participants, while a record 18,000 turned out for a massive location shoot at Mexico City’s Zócalo square.

Peep Tunick’s nude landscapes through May 28 in the solo exhibition “Participant” at ASU Art Museum in Tempe. The show includes more than 20 photographs from the personal art collection of octogenarian Stéphane Janssen, who started modeling for Tunick’s mass nudes in the early 2000s. An accompanying book is also available in the museum’s gift shop or through Tunick’s website. Call 480-965-2787 or visit nakedpavementbooks.com for info.

We caught up with Tunick after his appearance at the opening reception to discuss his artistic evolution and the challenges of photographing large-scale nudes on public streets.

Where did this all begin?
Spencer Tunick: It started when I first moved to New York City in the early ‘90s. I was experimenting with my camera by getting up early in the morning and wandering the streets to shoot with the amazing characters that I was meeting. That earlier work often involved props and had an element of fantasy and was more whimsical and surreal; but always with the city as a backdrop… One day I asked 25 people to show up at once in front of the United Nations Building and that's when I saw that I could turn the bodies into a shape or a substance. [It] was a big turning point for me.

Why did you choose nudes as your subject matter?
Tunick: My inspiration has always been first and foremost the naked body. It is what propels me forward into the next idea and gives me energy and inspiration as an artist. My development as a visual artist was influenced by land art and performance art and even abstract expressionism. From this point of visual reference, I believe the work takes off into many different philosophical meanings… My medium is people, my medium has legs. They are collaborators and I am a catalyst.

How are participants selected?
Tunick: I use the Internet and a website to gather and organize people. If I am coming to a particular city to work, the organizers will set up a website so that people can sign up to pose.

I still love meeting people and collecting people to pose. It is my way of relating to the world. I have no particular physical characteristics that I need… just that they possess a certain energy and freedom of spirit.

Have you encountered any difficulties setting up shoots?
Tunick: I was arrested five times in NYC. You see, it's legal to work with the nude; you just have to apply for a permit. But the mayor at the time decided to not give me permits. Rather than try to change the law, he [threatened] me and the models with arrest. So I started to work covertly on the streets. Eventually a First Amendment case worked its way up to the Supreme Court. Mayor Giuliani (and the city) lost, and he was reprimanded by the judges for his suppression of the First Amendment. I was free to work with the nude on the streets of New York. In my case, many nudes!

Do you have any future projects planned?
Tunick: I would love to work with 500+ people in Arizona. I've been in many group exhibitions there because of Stéphane Janssen collecting my works and generously sharing them with the public. He has paved the way for people to understand my process and [my] art in the Southwest. I just need to meet people that share my passion to see something happen in Arizona.