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Naked In Antarctica

-film review by Cassady Black

There are many ways to uncover your true nature, to check in on just how brave your sensual, bohemian shadow self might be. Do you share your erotic reading habits openly with friends and family? Ever consider joining in on the "Naked Bike Ride?" How about a little non-sexual nudity for art's sake -- would you sign up to strip down for Spencer Tunick's latest photography project if he came to your city and gave you an invitational flyer?

In spite of the fact that many of his shoots begin at 5 a.m. on cold cement somewhere, I've decided I would indeed volunteer for his projects, because I've just finished watching his two fascinating documentaries, Naked States and Naked World. I actually signed up on his volunteer Web site, offering my email for notification of future projects in my area. I love the free-thinking, slightly odd artiness that's shown in these films, and went searching for his galleries online after viewing them. Someone in the film calls it a sort of "anti-Hustler world of nudity," which is true, but it's still intensely sensual even in the weirdest of situations.

I did wish I could sign up as something other than skin tone=mostly pale with freckles, because by far the most interesting photos he has taken are of mixed skin colors with people of various ethnic backgrounds. Different body types and ages also create the most compelling photos. For example, nothing is more touching and beautiful than the 73 year old black South African man in Naked World who stands alone, buck naked in the middle of a field, and says "I'm taking off my clothes and looking into the future."

There's also a striking large black woman in Naked States who says she was raped and has trust issues -- she ends up posing with a white woman, standing on the flag, empowered. Posing for Spencer Tunick, she says, was "90% of her self-therapy" during her recovery. This is art at its best -- surprising, transformative, beautiful, new. Tunick says that he thinks of bodies as water, and he is always trying to form "waves" with the bodies in his mass photos. He began all of this because he sees the body as an art object, and believes in the purity of the bare human being, and wants his installations to be a peaceful, yet powerful, reaction to war and all of the harshness in the world. He also has a third documentary film, Positively Naked, which is photographed with "85 HIV+ Souls. no clothes. no apologies.", truly bridging the personal to the political.

That question -- just what is art? -- comes up often throughout both films. Tunick begins his vision at the start of Naked States with people mostly laughing at him, but he's sure he's going to be in the fine art magazines someday, and is shown leafing through them longingly. Tunick looks rather like a cross between Adam Sandler and Ross-the-Intern on the old Tonight show, so I almost expected great hijinks and humor to break out at any moment, but he's quite serious, and by the end of Naked States he has his first gallery showing in New York City, and it's quite remarkable, and popular, with many of his subjects attending to proudly view their photos.

Both films offer an evolving travelogue of attitudes about art and nudity, which are often surprising -- it's easy for Tunick to get naked participants in Fargo, North Dakota, but harder in Paris. "Something about Paris," he says, "they want to attack the naked people." In St Petersburg, Russia, participants are quite enthused by the feel of freedom -- "We don't have much contemporary art here," one man says, while also noting that socialism doesn't really let you "own" your own body. "Art is freedom."

Tunick travels to some expected sites of bohemia -- Burning Man, a Phish concert, a nudist camp (where he also strips down to join in their atmosphere from behind the camera, but complains of "not enough pockets!" while shooting), and a Harley convention, but it's the other kinds of people in the midst of their ordinary lives who suddenly decide to sign up and strip down for art that carry the most impact. It is perhaps the contradiction between the hard everyday urban world and the vulnerable human body suddenly exposed that is the unusual, rather than the things we are more used to seeing, like a nude woman in a studio or a naked body on the beach.

The final locale in Naked World is Antarctica, where Tunick brings all his subjects with him on the expedition ship -- that's his long-suffering lovely girlfriend who has travelled with him for years, pictured above, standing nude amidst the penguins. Maybe she hangs in there because she realizes that underneath all the challenges of these trips and installations there is an excellent treatise on art, humanity, diversity, and owning your own body. People are often shown during the films considering just what kind of person they are, can they do this? Or maybe his girlfriend is just in it for the great naked road trips. Either way, both films are excellent performance art and great fun, so take a look, and then maybe decide, could you be a part of his "international bohemian tribe?"

-Copyright 2017 Cassady Black
- previously published by CS online

"Do you think it a small thing, to know how to live?"

---St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux

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