American artist Spencer Tunick cajoles ordinary folk around the world to get their kit off. This summer he persuaded 850 British festival-goers to disrobe
It’s people!” shouts one of the boys, squinting at the rainbow of what look like crumpled parachutes spread out on the hill, “and… they’ve got their boobs out!” A security guard interjects: “Actually, they’re making art.”
From the platform of a crane, the American photographer Spencer Tunick, world-famous for convincing vast numbers of people to get their kit off in public, is barking orders into a megaphone.
Tunick has posed 18,000 people crouched in the foetal position in Mexico (2007). He has stripped shivering hundreds on a Swiss glacier for Greenpeace (2007). And orchestrated a 5,000-strong streak outside Sydney Opera House (March 2010). Now he is wobbling on a cherry picker 20 metres over 850 rioting revellers. They are covered in paint, high on Big Chill festival vibes. Having it large in a field in Herefordshire.
On a grassy hillside, sloping down over the main festival site, bodies are whooping, clapping and screaming. They wriggle and wobble. Jiggle and bounce. Each covered in a different paint — cobalt blue, baby blue, yellow, pink or black — they come tumbling out of the colour blocks that Tunick is trying to arrange.
Pink fingers tickle yellow toes. A blue body turns a cartwheel. The pinks start singing. Tunick’s directions boom: “Stop Smiling! Close your mouth! Close your legs!” They start to laugh and the pattern quivers like a living Rothko painting. It didn’t look so messy when Tunick was brainstorming this out in his little notebook with felt-tip pens.
When I first decided to use colours I decided I’d use jelly beans to plan out where the bodies would go
“When I first decided to use colours I decided I’d use jelly beans to plan out where the bodies would go,” chatters Tunick enthusiastically in a singsong, sunshine Californian accent, his big, beardy, babyface breaking into a smile.
“I started searching New York for jelly-bean stores with a wide variety of colours — then I thought I’ll drive myself mad trying to glue them onto a piece of paper, so I thought I’d just do them with markers!”
Tunick, 43, a 6ft-odd bear, grabs a pink in his paw and carries on colouring: swirling circles. Lines of yellow through black. Blobs of pastel blue. Like a five-year-old reproducing a Matisse.
For 18 years he’s been snapping people starkers. As an art student at Emerson College in Massachusetts, he took keyring pictures for tourists. Graduating in 1988, he moved to New York and enrolled in the city’s International Center of Photography. There he started shooting nudes: family, friends, models.
First in his studio, then, in 1992, on the streets. By the mid-1990s he was known as a Banksy-esque figure, dodging the police to shoot his scenes. The more attention he attracted, the more participants he got. Since those days, he’s done more than 75 of these shoots across the world. Now the Big Chill founder and curator Katrina Larkin has enticed him to Herefordshire.
Tunick has never painted his subjects before. (Except that delicious time in 2005, in Belgium, when he covered 75 men in liquid white chocolate and 75 women in dark.) But the paint reflects his own changing attitude to the human form: “Slowly the body is lightening up for me,” he says. “It’s not so aggressive as it was in my past work. My dad was at Woodstock taking photos of people swimming naked in the lake. I guess I’m creating my own little Woodstock here.”
Cool, man. Because the Big Chill festival is no place for aggression. Or anything that gets in the way of the four-day, 24-hour party. It’ll be hard enough to wake his volunteers for the 7.30am start, when Tunick’s “performance” begins.
Some people signed up months ago to be part of this work. They dribble downhill from muddy campsites. Others still haven’t slept. They dance uphill straight from the all-night parties; groggy, glittering and high, joining up in the moment.
“I can’t write my name,” slurs a girl in a feather headdress slumped over the consent form. No under-18s. No trying to sue later. No asking for money. She manages a squiggle.
More than 850 of them drag through the gates and gather on the grass. The Earth Mother vibes are in the air. (After four days of camping, you can practically smell them.) The group lounge in their designated field — fenced off from spectators, perimeters guarded — waiting for the big reveal. One man in yoga pants does a Salute to the Sun. Everyone else looks relatively normal.
There’s an even split of men and women. Fifties, forties, thirties, and a smattering of ages above and below. Work-wise, Tunick says, they’re “hipsters posing with carpenters and social workers”. Celebrities are welcome. “MIA, Thom Yorke, they can slip in without anybody knowing that they are there.”
Thom Yorke is not on the hill with the crowd, who wait an hour for Tunick to show up.
“It’s hard for me to practise on my own without 500 people. So be patient,” he hollers, “I know what I’m doing — but I don’t know what I’m doing. The details are really hectic. Remember, I’m not yelling at you — I’m shouting for you.”