There was a lot of naked performance art happening in the ’70s and ’80s, but maybe none of it quite as jolly as the shows put on by the Neo Naturists. Unlike confrontational groups such as Coum Transmissions – known for the blood and discomfort in their performances – the Neo-Naturists’ approach to free-form expression was more, well, Benny Hill. But done by nude feminist women artists.
Started by St Martin’s School of Art graduates – and sisters – Binnie and Wilma Johnson, the group embraced a DIY approach to dissent, literally using their bodies as canvasses, covering themselves and their companions in swirling paint-patterns and throwing themselves into unplanned performances. The aesthetic was a mix of pagan symbolism and gloopy mayhem. Speaking in an interview – shown on one of the many screens in this multimedia exhibition – a male participant explains: ‘We are accepting of age-old traditions. And modern things like Tesco as well.’
They seem to have been excellent documenters, so this exhibition feeks like a visit to the archives: films, recorded performances, news clippings – and some new works painted on the walls of the gallery. It offers a glimpse into a slightly twee, totally British and very fun wrinkle in time.
Despite the slapstick elements, the Neo-Naturists weren’t without their grand gestures: flashing at the British Museum, and getting bare at the Henley Regatta – a stunt that got them a write-up in The Sun (next to the topless Page 3 girl, hilariously). But the loose alliance’s main schtick was what Binnie calls being ‘casual to the point of excess’. They had many notable collaborators, too, including Peter Doig, Boy George, Derek Jarman, and a naked, painted Grayson Perry.
The Neo Naturists were definitely a product of their times. Early-’80s Britain was a fraught place: the miners were on strike, inflation was skyrocketing, and Thatcher’s government was deregulating national industries at a clip. What better way to opt out than to strip right down and act free?