|Hot on the tail of a Wagnerian weekend in Bavaria, Spencer finds himself heading back to NYC for a small installation at Mercer Street Medical, in support of a documentary about the disappearing family physician, in this case, Dr. Daryl Isaacs.|
The Doctor Will See You
I first learned of Spencer's work from the two HBO documentaries, "Naked States" and "Naked World." I found the installations and resulting photos really compelling, especially when the larger groups covered the contours of a landscape. It looked like Spencer was using the naked human body, with all its shapes, colors, sizes and beauty to paint on the landscape. I was fascinated by the fact that each element of the paint was a real person who had decided to get to this particular place and time, be naked among hundreds or thousands of other people, and participate.
I didn't immediately think of myself as being part of an installation, but after giving it some thought, I submitted my name and email to spencertunick.com. Spencer's name would pop up in the news every so often during the years, but because I didn't get a confirmation or any other emails from the site, I figured that it would be a long shot for me to ever get involved.
When I received the email from the Kickstarter Dead Sea Installation, I knew that my email was in the system. I signed up for the good cause and to get some Tunick swag signed by Spencer. When I got the Kickstarter email that told me that because I was a backer I was invited to be part of the installation, I felt like I had accidentally triggered a secret panel. I had made it to the next level!
Although I wouldn't be able to make it to Israel, I was now on the lookout for emails and other news of upcoming Spencer installations. It wasn't long before Spencer sent the email inviting us (Dead Sea backers?) to support the Mercer Street Project. The email said that backers at a particular level would be the first to be invited to be part of the installation at the doc's office.
My long quest was nearing an end, but there were a couple of hurdles to pass. First, the Kickstarter project had to be funded - no funding, no installation. It did get funded, of course, but with only a few hours to spare.
The next hurdle was to actually get accepted. I wasn't sure about how many of the backers would be interested or how many people would work for an installation at the doc's office, but I guessed they would probably need 30 and it seemed that my chances were good. Only after I RSVP'd to the invitation did I let my wife know what I was up to.
I assumed that I would be going to NY by myself, but she surprised me when she said that she wanted to go and to be part of the installation. We decided to make a four-day weekend trip to NY out of it. Of course, friends and family wanted to know what we were going to do in NY. I really wanted to talk about our exciting Spencer Tunick adventure, but I wanted to wait to see what the photos looked like (or, more to the point, what we looked like in the photos), before deciding how widely to disseminate our story. Luckily, there's a bunch of fun stuff to do in NY, and our cover story was pretty complete. We ended up doing everything we said we were going to do in NY, including a couple of spots on the same block as the installation: Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art and Dean & Deluca.
The night before we were going to leave for NY, I attended a work-related dinner in San Francisco. I don't know how the subject came up ('cause it wasn't me), but the topic was clothing-optional resorts. One person observed that the only people who went nude at these places were those who should keep those clothes on. Others quickly agreed, relating their own stories with a common theme: they're clothed at a clothing-optional resort, sitting in judgment (not their words, of course) of others who are nude. To my way of thinking, you shouldn't get to judge in that situation until you take your own clothes off, and then... don't judge!
I was surprised at my colleagues (we're in San Francisco, for chrissakes!), but I wasn't prepared to lecture. I was confident that the installation experience would be much different. In talking about the installation, my wife and I agreed that it seemed like a gentle introduction to installations. It would be inside, in a doctors office, air conditioned, no cold concrete, and no random onlookers. But, it would have the basic ingredients: Spencer and being naked among strangers.
After spending the afternoon seeing Soho sites, we arrived at Mercer St. Medical a little early. The doctors' waiting room was full of people, and it seemed like the right place, but I wasn't sure. I said to a woman with the clipboard, "We're here for the photo shoot."
The clipboard had a list of men and women's names under the heading "Naked People."
I found that very reassuring because it meant that we were clearly in the right place and that we had made it in! As we waited for the logistics to be settled we chatted with some fellow participants. For some, like us, it was their first installation. Others had done one or more previous installations. I hadn't considered before that Spencer might have serial models.
Spencer explained that there would be four setups: a setup with exam tables in the office hallway with a subset of the participants, a waiting room setup, and two additional setups in the hallway.
Eight people were chosen for the first setup and left the waiting room. A woman who had been in the bathroom when the setups were explained and the first group was chosen was disappointed. "I thought that we were all going to pose. I came back from the bathroom and my friend was gone." We joked that it was a casting call and that we hadn't made it. We then assured her that everyone would get to participate for the remaining setups.
When it was our turn, we were shown to two small dressing rooms and the hallway where we could disrobe. Our room had two men and two women. I noticed that our dressing room had a "Models Dressing Room" sign on it. I said, "Hey, that's us! We're the models." Other comments followed that helped break the ice. "I want my own dressing room." "I'll be in my trailer." Once the four of us were undressed, we poked our heads out to see what was going on in the hall. Even though we were already naked, it seems that nobody wants to be the first naked person to enter an area.
Once there was a critical mass of participants in the hallway, it was safe to join them. Although we had to stand in the hallway for a while waiting for the second setup to be ready, if felt like the group got relatively comfortable given the circumstances. It seems that blending into a crowd can be comforting, even if it's a nude crowd. I heard one of the helpers observe, "Once they're all undressed, we're the ones that are out of place."
My wife tends to stare at things she finds notable, so she knew she had to make a concerted effort not to look at anything during the installation. I, on the other hand, have always tried to take Jerry Seinfeld's admonishment to George to heart: "Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun. You don't stare at it. You get a sense of it then you look away." Afterwards, she was amazed (and perturbed) at the number of her questions about the participants that I could answer. Of course, I didn't see anything; I just got a sense of the room.
The second setup was in the waiting room. My wife and I returned to our seats in the waiting room, which had now been thoughtfully covered with exam table paper. Spencer re-arranged the participants so that some of us were waiting patients, some were patients waiting at the counter, and some were medical staff behind the counter. This didn't feel like Spencer's usual human body as paint medium photo, but it seemed like it would be a fun and interesting photo nonetheless.
The third setup was in the hallway. We spaced out down the length of the hall and faced Spencer. He then had us turn away from him. He then said, "When I say so, I want everyone turn at right angles, or to the left, but don't face the side walls directly."
I started parsing his instructions in my head. "A right angle is 90 degrees, but if we turn 90 degrees we will be facing the side wall, which is what he doesn't want. Wait. Why is everyone already turning? Spencer said, 'When I say so,' and he hasn't said so. Why did the woman in front of me turn 45 degrees. That's not..." Spencerís voice barged in to my careful analysis. "The guy in the middle with the gray hair, the tallest guy in the room. You're still facing away from me."
That would be me. I quickly turned 45 degrees. Silly me, as an engineer, I was expecting programmer-like instructions from Spencer. But, Spencer is an artist, not a programmer. Having worked with computer artists most of my career, I should have known better. When Spencer addressed me as the guy in the middle with the gray hair, I thought about the challenge that Spencer and his helpers must have addressing people who have removed their name tags and all other convenient identifying clothing. No "girl in the blue shirt," or "guy in the Giants cap" would work here. He could still use gender, hair color, maybe age, and height, but probably only for tall people. He probably doesn't use skin color given that we're not supposed to see it. He certainly couldn't say, "The person with the large... er... lopsided... er... discolored... er... unfortunate... er..." I would have preferred, "The tall athletic man with the distinguished salt and pepper hair," but at 54, I'll take "tall, gray hair" over "gramps."
Our next instruction was to lie down on our backs where we standing. All of us suddenly required a lot more square footage, and there were the usual ad-hoc negotiations of personal space that I'd seen in the documentaries. Our area ended up with a traffic jam with my wife having half of her body on top of mine, so Spencer had to direct the smoothing out of the pile up. During the jostling, my er... boys ended up in an uncomfortable configuration. Now, if I was the starting pitcher at the All Star Game with zillions watching, I could have adjusted my cup and it would have been socially acceptable. But, making any adjustment at an installation seemed... uncouth, so I let them be.
Our final setup was in the hallway where we would all be lined up as if to enter exam rooms. Spencer asks us to shuffle positions to that those who were farther back would come to the front and vice-versa. As I came to the front, Spencer said to me, "Not you; you're too tall. You'll block people." Again with the tall stuff? Is Spencer a heightist?
It was hard to tell from our vantage point what the final two photos might look like, but it seemed like they both had potential. We will each get a print of one of the setups chosen by Spencer. Any of the four setups may or may not end up as official Tunick art.
After that setup, it was all over. I was disappointed that it seemed over so fast, but we had been there for a while.
The installation was an amazing experience, and it far exceeded my expectations. I've thought a lot about how to put into words what I found so rewarding about the experience:
When we agree to participate, we are taking a risk. The risk is putting our trust in strangers that we will not be judged and will be treated with respect. When another participant takes the same risk, we are honored that they have put their trust in us in the same way. Afterwards, when we find that we were accepted and not judged and that our trust was warranted, we feel rewarded and we bond quickly with the group. Risk, trust, acceptance, respect, reward, bonding.
A lot has been written about Spencer's installation and other similar experiences, but that's what it meant to me. Your mileage may vary.
With the "nudity judgment" SF dinner fresh in my mind, I thought about judgment a lot before and after the installation. When you're among the naked, it's much easier to not judge the naked. People have stripped away their masks of clothing and jewelry and are able to say, unapologetically, "This is what I look like."
The human body is truly a beautiful creation in all of its shapes, sizes, and diversity. Well, the women, anyway. I still suspect that God might have been having a laugh when he put us men together. Of course, I understand that I'm not the target demographic.
My wife observed that for some, attending an installation once scratches the itch. For others, it inspires a new hobby: Spencer installations. I'm in the second group. I'll be looking for future opportunities to participate, and I hope to see you there. I'll be the tall one taking Spencer's instructions literally.
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