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Saturday, November 16, 2002

The Naked, or the Dead?

WARNING: This post links to pictures of nekkid people. Do not view at work unless you can plausibly plead a valid interest in artwork. Best not to view at all if you wish to continue finding naked people attractive. You know, if you're into that sort of thing.

Several bloggers have linked to this image of nekkid Marin women stripping for peace. I'd mock their statement, but it's pretty much self-mocking:

"They wanted to unveil the truth about the horrors of war, to commune in their nudity with the vulnerability of Iraqi innocents, and to shock a seemingly indifferent Bush Administration into paying attention."

You can imagine them thinking this up during the herbal tea hour. "Ha ha! This will give John Ashcroft a heart attack! He's never seen a lady nude!"

I guess "the horrors of war" in this case would be the risk of having a bunch of dippy rich women strip nude. Will mankind learn in time?

This photo reminds me of the work of photographer Spencer Tunick, whose schtick is to photograph big bunches of naked people lying on the ground. Here is a gallery of photos from his Melbourne shoot (keep clicking through to get to the others). These photos were taken by The Age photographer Wayne Taylor, and so do not give a very good sense of what Tunick's finished photos look like.

Of those photos, this is the one that comes closest to the reproducing the final Tunick photos I've seen. The people look dead. They remind me of medieval depictions of the Damned writhing in Hell. They also look shockingly pale, like earthworms. (I mentioned this to a fellow at work, in Sydney, as we looked through a book of Tunick photos someone had left lying around. He said, "Well, you're gonna get that in Melbourne. They don't get any sun there.") Contrary to rumor, naked white people in herds just aren't attractive at all. I look forward to seeing pictures of Tunick's shoots in Nairobi, Calcutta, and Manila, to find whether darker people do any better. (NOTE: That's humor. As far as I know, Tunick has no plans for those cities. I'd point out that this might be because only First Worlders---who tend toward paleness---would be stupid enough to do something like this, but then I'd sound too much like the guy I'm going to pick on, below, so I won't.)

These photos and a few more are on the page of a Concordia University professor who took part in Tunick's Montreal shoot. See especially the picture at the bottom where Tunick is walking through the dead people with his camera.

Then there's this series of photographs of Tunick's appearance in Buenos Aires (text is in Spanish). The top photo reveals something I'd been wondering---who else is down there but the naked folks. Here you see not only various camera crews but a great flock of gawkers behind a barricade. Again, these photos are from some local photographer, but reproduced here are two of Tunick's own photos. I kinda like the one in the garden; it reminds me of a 1970s painting, maybe a cover for a rock album, science fiction novel, or a book on the paranormal. The other photo is at (I believe) the Trevi fountain in Rome, where he only got about 120 people to show up; it displays the creepy "writhing dead" aspects very well.

The professor (of computer science) has a page of "further reflections" on his experience. 2500 people showed up in Montreal; in Melbourne the number was over 4000. The professor wonders how you get 2500 people to show up, strip nude, and lie down on cold concrete:

Why did anyone come at all? Perhaps it was in support of Art, but that seems to me unlikely, given the average attendance at galleries and so on. My guess is that, for many people, it was a unique opportunity to enjoy the freedom of being totally naked in a public place with minimal risk of gawking, harrassment, or arrest...Also, although perhaps this is just another aspect of the same desire, people may simply want to break a taboo. Most of the time, it's against the rules of social behaviour to be nude on Ste-Catherine Steet so, if you get a chance to break the rules, just do it.

That would be my guess too. Some would call that juvenile. Perhaps it depends on the taboo you'd be breaking. I wouldn't go through much trouble to break the nudity taboo. Other taboos might be different.

Ah, but then the professor waxes philosophical:

Reports of the event frequently mention "liberation". What were we liberated from? Well, clothes, of course. But there's more to it than that. The consumer society exploits the body in two ways. First, as something that we should spend money on: we have to clothe our bodies, adorn them with jewelery, take care of our skin, remove unwanted hair, remove parts that are too fat, prop up parts that are sagging, and generally do all that we can to preserve an illusion of affluent yourhfulness. Second, as something that can be exploited for money: sexy clothes, titillating shows, strip clubs, pornography. Tolerance for public nudity undermines exploitation. If people find that they are happy to be in with others in their natural state, how can they be persuaded to spend in order to disguise their natural beauty? If naked bodies are commonplace, why should people spend money to see them?

The Consumer Society Is to Blame. (Naomi Klein, call your office. Third Port-a-Potty on the left.)

Man, this gets tiresome. To hear some of these idiots prattle on, you'd think that one day some Fat Cats got together and thought up capitalism, advertising, beauty, shame, and sloth on the spot, just to feed their greed (which did not exist except in these particular people).

It didn't take the "consumer culture" to think up beauty; humans have been using artificial methods to enhance themselves ever since there have been humans. In fact, it might be argued that a desire for ornamentation is part of what makes them human. (Although I suppose it's really just a shortcut to developing a very fine fan of tail feathers, or an attractive neck wattle you can puff up.)

Here we also learn that nudity---and by extension, sex---is taboo only because taboos make money. If it weren't for greed, there wouldn't be a sex taboo. You have to wonder about what it would be like if it were the other way around---if everyone wandered around naked, and men (mostly) would crowd at night into dimly lit, smelly dens to watch a woman put on clothing one item at a time, until she was in a burqa.

The professor actually gets the creepy aspect of Tunick's photos:

Finally, there is a downside to Tunick's work that is not often mentioned. Some of his finished prints suggest scenes of carnage and warfare. During the shoot, the bodies breathe, move, talk, and laugh. But the prints freeze the motion and the emotion and sometimes suggest images of the holocaust and other tragedies. This is not Tunick's fault but rather a consequence of the grim century that we have lived through: our knowledge of history has taught us to associate bodies on the ground with death by violence rather than human communality.

Once again, it's the "century we have lived through" that makes us think of death and carnage, not, say, all the centuries all humans have lived through throughout the history of the race. Remember, death, fear, pain, hate, greed, and unhappiness came into the world in 1901. Before that it was all puffy clouds and sunshine, dewdrops and lollipops.

I knew there was some stupidity requirement to be a humanities professor, but this guy's a computer scientist. Well, it is Concordia, after all.

That's a little harsh on the guy, and if I hadn't heard this sentiment mouthed by a hundred pious, self-satisfied mouths I'd go easier on him. In fact, that's the taboo I'd most like to break---the politeness taboo. Oh, wait, I do that here.

Come and get it, folks. Taboos broken (almost) daily.