New York artist Spencer Tunick is an internationally acclaimed photographer and performance artist, renowned for his abstract creations featuring groups of nudes posing in public spaces around the world. Since early in the 90s, he’s been documenting massive nude installations where he gathers volunteers to lie among thousands of other naked people to create different shapes and forms, all in the name of art. Grapevine met Tunick at Gallery i8 where he is currently exhibiting some of his most recent works, including photographs he shot in Iceland a year ago.
You just came back from Mexico, where you got 18.000 volunteers to pose nude for the photo shoot, and set a personal record in the meantime.
Yes, I was in Mexico City a few days ago, working very hard in making my art. I don’t really consider this as a record though. I obtained the most amounts of people to create the largest sculpturally expansive work that I’ve ever made. I kind of look at it that way. If I start talking about my work as records, for me, it takes it down a level, but I totally understand where you’re coming from. There were 18,000 Mexicans that showed up. I just can’t believe it.
That must have been a little bit overwhelming.
It’s hard to control Mexicans and you really don’t want to control Mexicans. You want to give them freedom and then try to work with them. So this was difficult but wonderful.
When you started this ongoing art-project, did you expect it to be easy getting thousands of people stripping down for you?
Well, it hasn’t been easy at all. It took me four years of work to get these 18,000 people. Just look at a band like the Strokes. They can get 18,000 people to fill up a stadium in a few hours. To get people naked is lot more work. Let’s say I did an installation and the Strokes were helping me organize it, then maybe I could get 25,000 people.
The photo is just one piece of the whole performance. What do you like the most: witnessing how many show up and controlling the event or seeing the final result, the photograph?
I have to fill up a space that I set out in my mind so it’s not exciting for me to see if less people show up. It’s exciting for me to get the number of people I need to make my artwork. I love the six-day period when I am in another country making my work. That’s an incredible ride. It’s a wonderful experience to be the organizer and also to be the artist. But I also love moments when I get to exhibit my work. These moments are so humbling, so I think it’s half and half.
When looking at your photos I can’t help but being reminded how small, isolated and sometimes vulnerable the human being is in the big city, surrounded by giant man-made creations as monuments, buildings and large bridges. Is that you’re intention?
In my work I like to approach the vulnerability of human nature against the anonymity of public space. At the same time I think the body sometimes becomes a very powerful element, a cross between vulnerability and power. I started this project to try to combine my love for constructed art and what I love the most, the human form. I love the human form more than I love rocks or flowers.
In a way my medium is very wonderful, it moves quickly, it has legs and can walk away. It’s a wonderful thing to work with a lot of people that are like minded, that are open minded and that are freethinkers.
The reaction to the installations haven’t all been positive though and not all people are as open minded as your volunteers. You’ve been arrested a couple of times and some people have even had some difficulties accepting your work as art.
I don’t think many people don’t accept this as art. People are usually against my work in general, usually the government, because they are so used to associating the naked body with aggression or a crime. But then I just have to get the right people to whisper in the right politician’s ear. Often my works happen but sometimes they don’t happen in locations or places that I want. Then I just have to flow through that.
How do you choose your locations?
I’m invited mostly by contemporary museums and am commissioned by them. I don’t often have the opportunity to pick a country and say that I wanna work here and do it by myself because I need security, police, volunteers and organizers. It’s a big process, which usually takes a museum to organize.
You’re again organising a photo shoot in Iceland. Was it any problem getting volunteers?
Tomorrow morning (last Saturday) I will do these individual portraits in Iceland again. I think it was mentioned in the newspaper that I was looking for people and there was a nude image used with that article, but still people were emailing me thinking that it wasn’t a nude photo shoot, a lot of models. When I emailed them back, telling them it was nude they were like: “Oh, we didn’t know it was nude”. So I asked myself, what are they doing? Don’t these models do a little research? But then I got more than enough people to be in my individual portrait series and I hope to exhibit the work near the end of the show.
Have you never considered doing a large group installation in Iceland?
I need a large infrastructure to do a public installation. Almost 90% of my work is done with contemporary art museums. It would have to be an art festival or a museum that commissioned me to do it. That hasn’t happened. No one has approached me. I think it would be difficult to get Icelandic people naked en masse, but I would love to work with around 400 people. I think it would be beautiful work. I could do one in the city and one in the nature, one near the hot springs. You’ll never know.
Can you tell me a little bit about the exhibition at Gallery i8.
I did shots in Iceland for my individual portrait series, which I’m exhibiting now. Those works are poetic. The pieces from the other countries show a different type of my work from a large mass posing in Chile to a more concept oriented piece where I separated people with long dark hair and worked with the reflections of architecture. I like to be in Iceland now to exhibit the result of my works as photographs as for me, an exhibition is a different thing. This is half of my life. The other half is organizing the installations. It’s nice to share. That’s what we artists do. Hopefully people will enjoy the work and hopefully they will take them someplace they haven’t been before.