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The Iconic Edition
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|12 Nov 2019|5 mins

“There’s something unique about communal art. It changes a place for a short time.”

Artist Spencer Tunick brings people together and challenges them to be vulnerable in public.

Since the nineties, artist Spencer Tunick has photographed nude, human installations all over the globe, often in front of iconic landmarks like the Sydney Opera House. Like Spencer’s thought provoking work, our 'We Are Human' campaign aims to explore the vulnerability of the human condition and the inextricable link to the vulnerability of nature and our planet. This November THE ICONIC is proud to sponsor his latest work ‘Sea Earth Change’ at the Whitsunday Islands in Queensland. We caught up with Spencer ahead of the event…

Some people paint, some draw… what made you decide to use the human body as your material?
I love people. I love the participants. They’re incredibly brave, amazing people from all walks of life, from doctors to activists, to teachers to students. And they’re not nudists, they just want to make a piece of artwork once with me and possibly never get naked in a group again!

Spencer Tunick - Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art Gateshead

So I just love the idea of spontaneously, for the first time, without practice, working with someone in a very interesting location – whether it be the city or nature – and coming up with an artwork. I think it’s a challenge. You’re making artwork with new friends and that connection that happens is a very wonderful, beautiful connection.

How do you want people to feel when they interact with your artwork?
Creative. Appreciated. Collaborative. People can get a lot of different narratives out of my work.

Your next installation, Sea Earth Change, is based in the Whitsundays. What's the significance of that location?
I like the idea of people travelling to a project, much like we’re doing. Asking people to travel for art is quite a profound idea, because you can travel to see art, you can travel to buy art but to travel to make art, to be part of something that is unique and original is a beautiful thing.

I was there with my wife in 2001 I believe. It was after I’d done my first installation in Melbourne in 2001 and my wife Kristen and I decided to drive to Cairns. We thought it was not that far but we didn’t realise how big Australia was! We didn’t have much time to stop at different places but we did make it to the Whitsunday Islands and to Whitehaven Beach.

Spencer and his wife Kristen in the Whitsundays

Why the use of such iconic places? The Cutty Sark... Sydney Opera House?
Mostly when I’m given the opportunity by a museum or an organisation to make one of my artworks, I usually make it within the city. I’m very lucky that this location is one that I was very enthusiastic about and I’m really happy that THE ICONIC thought it would be a great location as well.

We’re used to places of beauty and pristine locations to always be that way and not to have an effect from either climate change or the human overuse of plastics and our inability to control our plastic use, so I thought maybe to show that in my work that this place is vulnerable – in very much the same way a human body is vulnerable – to outside forces. But at the same time I also wanted to work with the idea of togetherness and body-positivity.

The people who pose for you are allowing themselves to be quite vulnerable. Do you think there’s something in strength in numbers?
There’s something very unique about a communal artwork. It changes a place for a short time. The fact that people are coming together to do something creative, in a world where there’s so many difficult issues to still be creative and still be culture-forward is an important thing.

There are a lot of crazy things going on in the world. What do you think connects us as humans?
Communally creative art. It’s a wonderful message that within the chaos – and joy – of our lives we have this ability to read together, sing songs together and through photography make imprinted images together, it’s a wonderful format of artwork that can really speak to many different ages and types of people. 

It takes around 10-15 minutes for one person to cover their body. And it takes 10-15 minutes for 5000 people to cover their body [laughs]. It’s the same amount of time! 

Since 1994 you’ve photographed over 100 nude installations across the globe. Is there one that stands out? 
I really loved my installation up in Bodo, Norway. It was above the Arctic Circle and it was very interesting. We had this window of time to work. The sun was up most of the day and almost all through the night. I asked what time the sun set because I wondered when I had to stop working and they said ‘You can keep working until two in the morning!’ People couldn't believe I was up there trying to get people naked. In a remote town that was a decommissioned military base.

Next I’d like to fill up an entire train of naked people in New York City and then they all get off the train and walk into the mountains. Maybe 400 men and do a work called ‘Mountain Men’. That’s my next project. 

Spencer Tunick - Bodø, Norway

What’s impressed you most about humans?
Some people come and pose for me who can’t walk, who need assistance from their friends in getting into position, because they’re confined to a wheelchair. People come in all shapes and sizes, colours, nationalities. Whoever can get there can be in it. I never turn anyone down. But in this case we have a boat so there’s only a certain number of people.

What are you most looking forward to about the Sea Earth Change installation?
I’m most interested in seeing who will take this little adventure with me – seeing the faces and the people – and then that moment when we start gathering and making work. That’s exciting. Hopefully I can make some compelling work. Sign up here.

Usually artists have a chance to edit them, sit back, decide what they want to display – possibly months if not years later – but with this I’m actually photographing a work with all eyes upon me-slash-us and then I have to exhibit good works three or four days later in a gallery-like exhibition! So the idea of time and space being crushed and tightened is quite fascinating to me... that this can happen in such a short time. It’s almost a performance were the performance art is the actual time period that it takes to create a work as it happens. It’s quite interesting. I’m very excited about the challenge about creating works within a time constraint. 

So how does a piece of artwork like this get off the ground?
Well I’m mostly commissioned by museums and institutions and in this case THE ICONIC has commissioned me to make an artwork within the context of art-sponsorship, which is a wonderful opportunity for me. They were interested in vulnerability and also sustainability – the same things that have been going through my work at the same time. They asked me to convey through the body en masse, in multiples, some of the things they’re interested in, connected to their sustainability efforts, which are very progressive.

Usually it’s one person’s idea to have me come, like the museum director, who really loves my work and pushes to make it happen and sort of becomes my angel. So it’s interesting how it becomes a collaborative effort. My medium is people and in order to get my medium I need to get the word out there that I’m collecting my medium [laughs] and they’re helping me do that, so in a way we’re all making this artwork together.

When you’re not photographing your installations, what do you do?
I like to soak in hot water. I like to play basketball. I love pasta. I love my wife. Whenever I think of her it makes me so happy. She poses for me – she’s my first choice and my last resort. If anything goes wrong she always knows the right answer and calms me down. You can often find her naked on my Instagram! I just posted a work of her on Deception Island in Antarctica and she’s nude amongst hundreds of penguins.

I think photography is a beautiful art form. It's very relaxing being in the dark in glowing red light with hundreds of naked people.

Spencer Tunick - Desert Spirits

What is the legacy you would like your work to leave behind?
That I did the best I could with the amount of funding that I had [laughs]. Raising two children, moving out of New York City… and how the body is so difficult to work with in today’s time.

I tried my best to create my vision in a way that made myself happy and that made my family happy. And then if other people want to take care of that work and keep it in the right context, I’m very lucky.

Kate Tregoning
Features Editor
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