When world-famous art-photographer Spencer Tunick first touched down in Australia in 2001, he arranged naked bodies around Melbourne's Flinders Station. Later, he settled on one of the world’s most iconic backdrops for his celebrated large-scale nude shots. More than 5,200 brave souls disrobed and posed on the steps of the Opera House during the 2010 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
When Tunick returned eight years later, his backdrop was a bit lower-key: a car park roof on Melbourne’s Chapel Street. But the resulting snaps were still high impact as some 860 participants sheathed themselves only in bright diaphanous shrouds in the middle of winter.
Speaking to Time Out from lockdown in his studio in upstate New York, Tunick says he admires Aussies’ devil-may-care spirit. “People just go bonkers for naked groups down there. They’re incredibly enthusiastic and just so generous with their bodies.” It particularly impressed him that Melburnians were “unbelievably willing to pose in weather that was a little bit colder than Sydney. I was absolutely shocked and surprised that many people showed up, and my heart goes out to everyone who took this leap of faith.”
While there had been preliminary talks about Tunick returning to Australia to mark the opening of a new runway at Brisbane Airport, the global crisis put paid to that. Instead, he'll recruit Australians to offer their bodies up once more in a new digital work Stay Apart Together. He's issued a call for participants to disrobe in video chat rooms, and he’ll take screenshots to craft his newest nude art.
Tunick did a test run online with participants from all over the globe. “I really got a thrill when people were signing up from Syria and Pakistan,” he says, crediting the personal risk they assumed in taking part. It spoke to his personal interest in political protest. These days the state of New York welcomes his work, but it was a battle to get there, engaging in with former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani.
“He decided that rather than give me permits, he’d instruct the DA's office to arrest me,” Tunick recalls. “And so it became the sort of romantic idea of an artist, being arrested for his work. But it soon became quite dangerous. Because when you got arrested, you would go into the tombs, which is a holding cell in New York where you could be in with someone accused of violent crime.”
That fight went all the way to the Supreme Court, where Tunick was ultimately successful. He loves thumbing his nose at moral outrage, regularly protesting at the Republican National Convention. “You need to aggravate conservatives at every moment,” he insists. “Every year, you have to do something to piss those people off.”
There’s a strange sort of beauty to the digital practice run. “With the rainbow of colours of skin tonalities, hair and the backgrounds they’re standing in front of, the images started looking very much like stained glass,” he says.
And while you might think in-person would offer a more intimate experience, Tunick enjoyed the chat room ability to take things more personally. “I’m able to look at 49 to 100 people and when I roll my mouse over the screen, everyone’s name pops up. So I’m able to say, ‘Rashid, put your arm up two inches,’ you know, or, 'Stephanie, move to the left a little bit'. I’m able to communicate to people with their first names, and that’s quite a beautiful thing.”
The new norm might help him corral folks better when we can gather again, too. "Sometimes when I need to fill up a vast space, the crowds come to too close together,” he notes. “We're always telling people to put their arms up to get some distance between them, so social distancing will help with that.”
Discussing the Opera House action, I make what I think is a passing comment about how often it nearly bites the bullet in disaster movies, little knowing it would strike a chord with Tunick’s artistic journey. “My mom, when I was a kid, took me to museums quite often and I was always fond of painting and sculpture, and the size differences between dioramas and models, and, and this is going to be pretty convoluted, I was also inspired by Japanese monster movies.”
The famously cranky nuclear mutation trashes the famous sails in 2004's Godzilla: Final War. But how on earth does that tie into what Tunick does? “I was fascinated with the sets and the idea of a man in a suit walking over model buildings,” he recalls. “Somehow that got mixed up with me taking my first photography class when I was going to Emerson College in Boston.”
Tunick was inspired by artists like Carolee Schneemann and Yayoi Kusama, who worked with group nudes, and their endeavours would swim around his head when he’d walk home taking snaps with his camera in the early hours of the morn. “I had a hard time sleeping through the night at anyone’s place. The streets would be empty, so I’d walk down the middle of the road, and I felt like one of those Japanese monsters.”
No wonder he loves filling city streets with scarily nude monsters to terrify all those unsuspecting conservatives. Once more, Australians can help in that mission. “I’ve never worked with anyone from Perth,” he says. “It’s a massive country, so I’d like to get as many people together from as far apart as possible.”
Wherever state or territory you hail from, he’s really keen to embrace that Australian spirit once more. “It’s just a personal reminder of the love that comes from your country. I’m really appreciative, because we need that support as artists, especially when the US is very conservative. It’s important to have a place like Australia that really reaches out to you and makes you feel like you’re doing something right.”
If you’d like to be considered for Stay Apart Together, anyone 18+ and can signal their interest by emailing a photo (nude optional) to StayApartTogetherAustralia@gmail.com. The finished work will be proudly displayed on Instagram account @spencertunick
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.