May 26, 2001

Peter writes:

Although it was still dark when I arrived in downtown Montreal, it was clear that Spencer Tunick's installation was turning into a major event.  More than a city block was closed to traffic and defended by barriers and cop cars.  People walked, some by themselves and others in laughing and chattering groups, to the barriers.  A few stayed there to watch, but most went on through to participate.  Tunick had told us to be there by 5 a.m. but, by 4:30, the lobby of the Contemporary Art Museum was already jammed with people signing forms.

I signed a form, giving Tunick permission to photograph me and sell the images, and I wrote my address, so that he could send me a print.  I dropped the form in a box and went to wait outside, where I sat on the steps as people continued streaming into the site.  We were a friendly crowd, joking, laughing, and making friends with our neighbours.  All ages were represented but most people looked under 40 (but not me!). Sexes were roughly balanced, with perhaps a few more men than women. Most had pale faces, but there was a handful of lighter and darker browns.  The CBC news reporter said that a couple of hundred people "were expected".  I guess she wasn't there, because it seemed to me that there must have been than a thousand people present.  Montreal, I am proud of you!  (Later, the CBC reported that more than 2,500 people stripped for Spencer -- the largest ever for a city installation at that time!)

It was cool with intermittent light rain.  One young lady couldn't wait to undress and stripped before receiving the order to do so.

But, finally, the moment we had been waiting for arrived.  We were told to undress and, with remarkable enthusiasm, we took all our clothes off.  The ordinary spectacle of a crowd in Montreal, so familiar from Jazz Festivals and similar events, morphed into an ocean of skin. In our naked glory, we were herded by Tunick's helper John onto a short section of Ste-Catherine Street in the heart of downtown Montreal.  At a word from Tunick, we all fell down on to the damp, hard, asphalt.  The view from ground-level was not one that most of us are accustomed to: one realized that people had tattoos and jewelery in odd places.  The naughty bits, not emphasized by skimpy swimsuits, became just ordinary body parts.  Although it was not particularly cold, the bottom a few inches from my nose had distinct goose-bumps.
Tunick's assistants, and Marie-France Bedard of the Museum's education department, climbed up ladders and megaphoned instructions and information to us in French and English.  No watches, rings, bracelets, or necklaces; hold eyeglasses out of sight of the camera; we would be starting in about ten minutes.  The sky lightened, and it started to rain again.  A few ran for cover, but most waited for the rain to stop.  It did stop, of course, and the man himself  appeared to cheers and applause.  He thanked us for coming and told us what to do.  He told us to be quiet, but I did not understand why until a few minutes later. Finally, he said ``Let's go''.  Or something like that -- I am not quite sure because everyone was cheering madly.

After a brief pause, while Tunick asked people not to pose and not to look at a camera, and a young man was removed after refusing to remove his trousers, the camera snapped and we cheered loudly, making it hard to hear the next set of instructions.  We were told to walk towards the cop cars -- laughter -- and fall down again, this time on Jeanne-Mance Street.  Then we had to get dressed, move to the steps in front of the museum, undress again, and lie flat on our backs for the third and last photograph.

Tunick works fast and you don't have much time to think about what you are doing.  But lying flat on my back, waiting for Tunick to get the composition he wanted, gave me a chance to meditate a bit.  Lying naked on cold concrete at six in the morning is not particularly sexy.  After a few minutes, it even gets a little uncomfortable.  The people who pose for Tunick can hardly be called exhibitionists: how can you exhibit amongst hundreds of naked people?  Voyeurs would probably be disappointed because the actual spectacle of acres of skin does not match the imagination.  So what are we all doing here?  I am having fun.  A lot of fun.  With a lot of wonderful, happy, uninhibited people.

There was a sudden gust of cool wind.  Pubic hair wafted and a collective sigh drifted up into the sky.  Someone expressed concern that the seagulls flying over us could cause a problem and we all laughed.

Tunick had advised us to note where we had left our clothes -- getting yet another laugh.  I had carefully placed mine ten feet due east of a traffic light with my labelled sweatshirt on top for easy identification.  I returned to the traffic light to find ... no clothes.  Panic.  Calm down.  Oops, wrong traffic light.  I dressed, joined in the applause and cheering for Tunick, and walked slowly away.

Was I pleased that I participated?  Absolutely.  In these grim days of globalization, deficit reduction, job cuts, and environmental destruction, we need a few happy and joyous events to keep us sane. Tunick's installation lasted an hour or so but I suspect most people would have happily stayed all day.  Or all week.  Maybe for ever.  A city where a thousand people can dance naked in the street is a city worth living in.  I am so happy to be un Montrealais.

Is Tunick's work "art"?  Tunick thinks it is.  He says: "I don't claim that it is good art.  Or bad art.  Just that it is art".  Perhaps he has to do that in order to get permission to photograph naked people in public places.  To me, it doesn't matter.  You can define art so as to include Tunick's photographs or not to include them.  But, in either case, art museums sponsor, acquire, and exhibit his work, many people appreciate it, and Tunick is making a positive statement -- it's better for our psyches to look at naked skin than at pavement.

Is Tunick's work offensive or obscene?  That depends on your point of view.  Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York, is clearly offended: he has had Tunick arrested and even jailed.  But Lewis Lapham, in the June 2001 issue of Harper's, points out that Giuliani pays for his mistresses out of city funds; I find this very offensive.  There is no shortage of real obscenity today and no need to harass sincere artists.

Photo: Reuters

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