|Undress circle ... naked volunteers in a Bruges theatre. Photograph: Peter Maenhoudt/Reuters|
Spencer Tunick: The shock of the nude
Tuesday 2 March 2010 19.00 GMT
t is good to pause occasionally and reflect on how far we haven't come. Exactly five centuries ago, in 1510, Michelangelo was at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Among the biblical prophets and episodes from Genesis that he depicted up in those heights he added a gathering of young men, portrayed on a colossal scale, sitting around naked in the painted heavens. Art historians have tried to dignify their nakedness with a clever-sounding collective title – the Ignudi – but is there really much difference (physiques aside) between this community of nudes and the massed Australians who pose in their skins in front of Sydney Opera House in Spencer Tunick's latest opus?
Fortysomething American artist Tunick has been posing and photographing massed voluntary nudes since the 1990s, celebrating the honesty, community and vulnerability of a crowd of ordinary people, with ordinary bodies, stripping together. His fame derives from a bizarre cocktail of nudity and the picturesque – where will he stage his next epic? Recent events have taken place on a glacier and a chilly Irish shore. But his images are most memorable when you don't recognise the landmark, so the picture shifts from tourism to a mass of flesh enclosed by some unrecognised courtyard.
We would surely be forgiven for feeling we'd seen it all before as yet again he gets people to pink up, this time in front of Sydney's most curvaceous landmark. But perhaps the interesting thing is – exactly – how often this has been done before, and how inevitably it will be done again.
It's an ancient game after all. As soon as clothes became a human custom, their removal possessed a special frisson. Greek sculptors did it. Romans did it. As the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds once lamented, it is hard in modern times to get powerful men to pose naked in the manner of Roman emperors. This is because Christianity added a new shame to the display of flesh: but that just gave nudity a more powerful artistic kick than ever when classical sculpture was rediscovered in Renaissance Italy.
Nudity is so much a part of our culture – from art installations to pornography – that we don't think of it as being old-fashioned, but what could be more traditional than Tunick's art? He is doing what Renaissance artists did, except that instead of marble or oil paints he uses a camera, and instead of Michelangelo's ideal types he uses folk like you and me. The reason an artist can still make such an impact with such an old idea as the shock or the liberation of nudity is that, so long as we don't all walk about naked in public, the exposure of flesh in a public place will still thrill, excite, disturb. One of the participants in Tunick's Australia shoot said the experience was not about sex at all, but about togetherness – a sweet sentiment, sure, but doesn't it also betray the anxieties that still surround the spectacle of one's own or another's flesh? Other artists today, including Vanessa Beecroft, Lucian Freud and Marc Quinn, deal in the same physical facts, the same challenge. Art is about showing and seeing: to show that which is concealed, to see what was veiled, is fundamentally gripping. When a participant on the Fourth Plinth last year stripped off, that was too much for the authorities.
Tunick may be repetitive but he knows his art will deliver every time because nakedness delivers every time. Unless you're reading this naked on the bus, you can see why Michelangelo kept returning to the nude and why Spencer Tunick has a job for life.