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Issue Date: August 2004 Issue


Our Naked City

Three writers bare it all — in public and in print — to reveal what it was really like to be nude with more than 2,700 others for the making of Spencer Tunick’s art, which will be unveiled this month.

As I stood naked in my bedroom, a cool breeze wafted through the open window, confirming my worst fear. Though it was the first week of summer, it was damned cold outside. The wall clock confirmed my second-worst fear: It really was only 3:30 a.m.

I knew the question I should have been asking myself was, "Why do I want to stand, somnolent, on the Lake Erie shore and risk frostbite to bare it all with 2,700 other Clevelanders?" But it wasn't. Instead I was trying to figure out, "What does one wear to a nude photo shoot?"

An hour or so later, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt, I handed over a release form and passed through barricades at the northern end of East Ninth Street by the Rock Hall. As I made my way from the pier and over to Voinovich Park, I was pleasantly surprised at how many familiar faces I saw in the crowd. The Cleveland Heights-Ohio City lefty-liberal coalition seemed especially fond of modern art.

I found the friends I was meeting and awaited further instruction. I'd gotten back to town late the night before, thanks to missed and delayed flights, so I'd only slept for three hours. I thought it was an impressive, if not heroic, story until I met the couple who had been up drinking since happy hour 12 hours earlier and had the $150 bar tab to prove it.

We were all struck by the potbellied fellow, sporting only a blazer, who circulated through the crowd. Even at a Tunick photo shoot, premature public nudity stood out. Somehow, he'd convinced a female companion or courtier to follow five paces behind him, carrying his wardrobe. The emperor literally had no clothes.

Finally, around 6 a.m., the sun rose, and it was time for the full moon. A megaphone-wielding assistant told us to disrobe in Voinovich Park, leave our clothes and walk about 200 yards to the East Ninth Street pier. I started slowly and modestly: shoes, then socks, then shirt, then ... sure enough, I was really going through with it.

Once nude, I was surprisingly comfortable, probably because everyone else was nude, too. Only the fully swathed Museum of Contemporary Art volunteers and security guards made me at all self-conscious.

And I confess, I couldn't help it; I peeked at my fellow Clevelanders. We all know that Cleveland Rocks! But I can now report to you that Cleveland Tattoos! (lots) and Pierces! (ick) and Shaves! (Who knew?) and, perhaps most surprisingly, Tends Not to Overeat!

The shots themselves (there were three, with multiple poses) took about 20 minutes each. The first, a co-ed production, stretched from the water up the hill on East Ninth. It was the most fun, since we were all in it together. Even lying on the street wasn't that bad. (Had it been a little warmer, I'm sure I would have dozed off.)

The second, an XX chromosome-only affair, was closer to the water on the pier. The men were supposed to stay behind with the clothes, but eventually some got up to gawk. The women — all of them, it seemed — returned the favor when we posed on the grass in Voinovich Park. But by the second go-around, we guys were comfortable enough that wisecracks outnumbered -- well, you know — so it didn't really matter who was watching. Besides, we were making art.

— Ian Hoffman

 

I have high hopes as I head downtown to pose in Spencer Tunick's Cleveland installation for MOCA. I want this to be groundbreaking. I want to feel part of something extraordinary; a moment in time never to be repeated. I want to have revelations about the family of man. I want truths to be revealed as we reveal ourselves, shivering and bare, in the predawn.

Tunick's photographs are undeniably transcendent: bodies seen in these numbers become something more than a sea of individuals. The masses become a single, breathing entity. Flesh fills the eye and the eye plays tricks. The reclining bodies become flagstones in a fantastic roadway extending from the lake. Standing bodies become stalks of wheat, a human crop in concrete soil. The finished photographs are something to behold. They are delightfully amoral. They aren't trying to teach you anything or indoctrinate you. This pureness of spirit, this lack of agenda is, in part, what makes the photographs beautiful. But, sadly, it's what's missing from the experience of posing for them.

There's a sameness to large crowds, regardless of their makeup. In this case, it's mainly white, middle-class 20- to 50-year-olds. When people converge in numbers, there's not much difference between a rock-concert crowd and a political rally, except in the message they aim to deliver.

The only prevailing unity of the Tunick crowd seems to be our ignorance about how it will all work, the logistics of the thing. How will this many people get out of their clothes and into position? How embarrassing will it be? Will our clothes be stolen? These questions are not exactly the battle cry of a movement. It's more a collective sigh of curiosity.

There's a lot of standing around, clothed, waiting for the thing to happen. People are still arriving at 5:30 a.m. for the 4:30 call. The 5:30ers miss nothing but a lot of eye rubbing, weight shifting and clock-watching, courtesy of the Browns Stadium video screen that intermittently provides the time and temperature.

One guy gets naked right away, despite the artist's request that we all disrobe collectively and only when instructed to. That causes a little murmur, the way an overly drunk uncle at a wedding reception would. There are also big swarms of insects, swirling black above the crowd, and I think we're all a little grossed out by that. But other than that, there isn't a really identifiable singleness of spirit to the occasion.

Finally, we receive our instructions, delivered by megaphone from atop a tall ladder. We are to disrobe and walk over there, disperse evenly and face the same direction for the first shot, then, for the second, lie on our sides with our heads facing west.

There is a giddy frisson through the crowd at the moment we get naked. The act of undressing in front of others feels intense, but once nude, you're just a naked person surrounded by other naked people.

The billboard reads 57 degrees and my nipples confirm it. Everyone is clutching at their coldest parts as we wait for the shot to be taken. The next pose, reclining on the pavement, means that whatever body heat we have retained is leached from us by the merciless ground. This is truly uncomfortable. We are fleshcicles.

After the second photo is taken, we are allowed to get dressed before the next setup. I can't take it and, once dressed, I run for the heat of my car. A bald guy has the same idea and we walk in step to the parking garage. "That was different," he says. I agree, different, but finally not all that interesting. Next time, I'll just enjoy the pictures in the warm comfort of the museum.

— Jessica Schickel

 

You might think there would be a certain amount of anonymity to standing in a crowd of 2,754 stark-naked people.

Unless you're the naked guy with the tape recorder.

I should explain. My wife Toni and I were the subjects for a "radio diary" for WCPN 90.3 FM. The idea was to record our experience of participating in the Spencer Tunick installation. But how were we supposed to interview the people around us and record our thoughts when we were entirely naked? Where was I going to keep the handheld tape recorder the station planned to loan me?

Yes, OK, fill in your own joke here. Everyone else has.

It was explained to me that our producer, Dave DeOreo, would follow us around while we were dressed and, when we were naked, I'd have a recorder that I could hold on whichever side wasn't facing Tunick. Part of the allure of this project was the notion of being nude in public — no kidding — but to be anonymously nude, among thousands of others, blending into some larger picture.

Now, I was going to stand out.

As if that wasn't enough, Tunick gave permission, but he wanted to make sure I was nowhere near the camera. Suddenly, I was the guy Spencer Tunick didn't want to see. That was a little depressing.

On the chilly morning in question, we'd been asked to remain dressed until Tunick told us to disrobe. You might find that an amusing bit of advice, and yet, well before the call to get naked, hey now, we spotted one guy who took it upon himself to undress anyway. He wasn't difficult to see: He was walking all over, showing off. Ironically, we spent the rest of the day referring to only him as The Nude Guy. He made us all feel creepy.

And that's going to be me, I thought, standing in the crowd with a tape recorder.

Of course, it wasn't just me. Toni and I took turns with the recorder. When we were out on East Ninth Street for the main shoot, we each got some great interviews. Toni was standing next to a 50-ish woman who had brought her daughter. I took the initiative and walked up to the daughter.

"Hey," I said. "Has anything about the day so far surprised you?"

"No," she replied rather peremptorily. She was looking at me as if I were insane. In an instant, I was struck by how stunning she was, that she was entirely naked and that she knew absolutely everything I was thinking.

"OK!" I said a little too brightly, and slunk back to my space next to Toni.

It all worked better for me after that. In spite of long stretches of time during the different setups, there was always something to comment on, and those around us had plenty to say. It made for some incredible radio.

By the time we got to the final setup — men only, in the middle of Voinovich Park — I'd had it with hanging back. Tunick was urging the guys to fill in the front of the space, and everyone was moving reluctantly toward him and his camera. We had hours of tape by then, so I said the hell with it and stepped forward. The park was crowded with women watching us. For that final shot, lying on the grass, I was down in front, the recorder hidden under my shoulder.

I was The Nude Guy. And I was happy.

— David Hansen

(David and Toni's radio diary is archived at www.wcpn.org.)


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