Why doesn't Spencer Tunick get any respect?
Tunick's notion of "flesh architecture" comes across most forcefully in his larger installations, like the one in which the naked bodies of 7,000 volunteers blanket the long, open vista of Barcelona's Plaza de España. While the experience of lying naked on the ground in the center of the city may have sparked feelings of liberation among the participants, the picture itself has a certain regimented quality that brings to mind other famous bird's-eye views of organized masses, like Leni Riefenstahl's shots of German athletes performing calisthenics en masse at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Tunick's larger installations also recall the work of Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas, American commercial photographers who traveled to military camps during and shortly after World War I, posing thousands of soldiers to form patriotic symbols like the Stars and Stripes, the Statue of Liberty, and the Marine Corps emblem, and photographing them from above. Like Tunick, Mole and Thomas worked on a massive scale: Their Human Liberty Bell was composed of more than 25,000 soldiers in uniform. While Tunick's use of public nudity gives his work an air of defiance, the images themselves communicate a message of mass conformity and compliance. Whether or not it's intentional, this tension between social transgression and collective obedience is one of the more interestingly ambiguous aspects of the work.
Tunick's largest installation to date took place on May 6, 2007, in Mexico City's Zócalo Square, where he rounded up 18,000 people and photographed them from the top of a building on the west side of the plaza. Over the course of several hours, he and his assistants herded the group through a number of poses: They stood and saluted, lay down on the ground, crouched in the fetal position, and linked arms to form long rows stretching across the space, as in this image. The effect of so many naked bodies in so large a space is certainly sensational, and Tunick's Pied Piper-like ability to rally so many individuals to show up so early in the morning and take off their clothes together is truly impressive. And, even though Tunick doesn't consider himself a photographer, his images are both technically adept and formally striking.
The problem with Tunick as an artist—and the main reason, I think, most critics have ignored him—is that he doesn't seem to have anything to say. His installations are spectacular and attention-grabbing, but as for what it all means … well, to put it bluntly, I don't think it extends too far beyond, "Wow. That's a lot of naked people."
Over the past few years, Tunick has created a number of commissioned works in support of political causes. Last August, he photographed 600 naked volunteers on the Aletsch Glacier in southern Switzerland, an installation commissioned by Greenpeace to raise awareness about global warming. (The 15-mile-long Aletsch Glacier, the largest in the Alps, shrunk 328 feet from 2005 to 2006.) And in 2004, at the request of Poz magazine, he photographed 85 HIV-positive men and women posing nude in Manhattan's Florent restaurant to call attention to World AIDS Day. Tunick's shtick, though conceptually thin on its own, is supremely well-suited for this sort of political publicity stunt. Here, public nudity is invested with real meaning, whether as a symbol of the fragility of the environment or as a visible reminder of the hidden politics of illness.
In other cases, such as a recent commissioned shoot at the Sagamore Hotel in Miami Beach, Fla., Tunick has allowed his art to function as nothing more than upscale advertising. The photographs of this installation, which were exhibited at the Sagamore during the Art Basel Miami contemporary art fair in December, show 500 people cavorting in the hotel's pool on fluorescent pink and green floats, standing on the hotel's art deco balconies, and popping open bottles of champagne. They're all naked. Wow.
Mia Fineman is a writer and curator in New York.
All photographs courtesy of Spencer Tunick.