You know Spencer Tunick—the famed artist who photographs groups of naked people en masse, thousands and thousands of naked people in spectacular body landscapes.
Basically, no one else has fought city councils and countries harder in the name of public nudity. Since the 1990s, Tunick has shot over 75 naked, human installations around the world, most recently this past summer, with 1,700 gold-and-red-painted nudes in front of the opera house in Munich. Bodies have been splayed out in front of museums, fields, and the streets of Mexico, Portugal, Chile, and Montreal. (Even Lady Gaga wrote a thesis essay about his work at NYU.)
No stranger to being handcuffed by the NYPD, Tunick has been arrested five times for his art in New York City and has had permit requests rejected, which is why he has taken his work elsewhere.
Given his work, it made sense to get naked for an interview with Tunick on Skype. He wasn’t expecting it. He blushed. The only other woman who has shed her clothes for him via video phone is his wife, Kristin Bowler.
Although he looked a little skeptical—even distracted—during our interview, Tunick loves nudity and the right to be publicly nude, something that continues to show in the book he’s self-publishing called European Installations, coming out in April and available on his website. Basically, it’s a fuck-you to America because you can do it elsewhere much more easily. I called from Berlin.
VICE: Have you ever interviewed anyone naked over Skype before?
Spencer Tunick: You’re naked right now? I can’t tell, your shoulders are naked. I’m blushing. It depends. My wife and I may have done some “interviews” in foreign countries.
You don’t strike me as someone who would take his clothes off for the camera.
She was doing the taking off, and I was doing the blushing. I’m just going to clear my head… I’m not used to looking at someone while talking over Skype. It’s a strange thing. I’m so used to phone calls and face to face. Video is strange for me, I don’t know why. Are you really naked?
I would show you, but out of consideration for my mom, I won’t. I think about her when I put myself out there.
I don’t want to look at myself so I’m going to cover the icon of myself with a Post-it. You’re much nicer to look at, Nadja.
OK. You can screen-grab me all you want. So you’re working on your first artist’s book?
Right! I’ve been asked by publishers like Abrams, Thames & Hudson, and many other publishers to do a book, and I decided I always wanted to do a limited edition [one] myself, so I never said yes. Now, because I said no so many times, I have enough photos for 12 to 13 books, [dating from] 1990 when I started making nudes on the streets of New York. I thought it would be great to do 12 books, releasing one a year, a limited edition, unique set of books. The first one will be titled European Installations. Large-scale group works I’ve done in Europe starting from my final arrest with the Giuliani administration. At that time, Europe and South America really embraced my work on the streets in different cities, as opposed to working with the threat of arrest in New York—the celebration of being celebrated not in prison.
Were you ever in prison?
[A} holding cell, there were bars between me and the police officers. I was in the tombs in New York, which is not really jail, but bars with other criminals and noncriminals. Usually, I was never held overnight, but all day and you’re in there with someone who committed a violent crime… there is no variance. I had a chain on and one guy said if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t be wearing it when I woke up. I didn’t fall asleep. There’s a toilet in the middle of the room, and there’s 20 people in the room, it’s a humiliating situation.
I thought you were badass and got a tattoo in jail.
The main problem about being arrested for your art is the fact that you put so much time into it. It can be taken away from you in a second. The first time you get arrested there is the romantic idea of an artist being arrested for his work. After the third or fourth time, the romantic side begins to wane, and the harsh reality of all the time you spent to work on something being taken away from you is difficult and is mentally taxing. They didn’t know how to deal with me, so they dealt with it with a dramatic manner—being handcuffed, thrown in the back of a police car, cameras being thrown in the back of police car trunks, a little physicality involved.
Where are you launching your book?
In a launch rocket into North Korea. And my website. I might do a few signings in New York City, but it’s a really low-key, organic process. It’s a limited edition of 1,400 books, with 112 pages showing 55 works done in Europe since 2000. I collect photo books, so it’s been a dream of mine to do one by myself.
How do you see the different attitudes between North America and Europe in terms of the acceptance of your work?
Europe is a safe haven for me, and often because it’s a commission by an art museum or biennial. In the States, the battles for free speech have been fought by Larry Flynt, Hugh Hefner, for the naked body. The American Civil Liberties Union has fought vigorously for the rights of free expression in magazines, to be on cable, on newsstands, TV. But the nude in public thing is a very explosive issue. No one is really pushing that boundary for art. That has been my fight, to do my work in this unchartered territory of public space. It’s very difficult in the US because of a lot of laws created in the 1980s, to protect the public from the porn industry. Before the 1980s, there were laxed laws, even in Washington! Nudity has become a time bomb to police and conservative government in the US. Europe is a relief for me, an escape, without the threat of arrest. I can’t stop making my work, I can’t stop making photographs. I have a vision and I want to complete it. I can’t stop myself.
What is the most accepting city?
Brussels, Vienna, London… and Spain.
You would think Germans would have no problem with nudity because they lie naked by the river in the middle of the city. It’s very difficult to get Germans in mass naked. In South America people are shouting for joy! It’s just difficult to get the masses. They accept the visual of people being naked but not the participation. It takes a lot of work and a lot of trust.
Are they uptight?
More shy than you'd think. They’re very quiet. It’s very difficult for me to figure out what’s going on inside their heads when they’re participating.
Do you ever get turned on when you’re doing a photo shoot and there’s a bunch of naked ladies around?
Only if you were there.
You’re a married man! Does your wife get jealous?
No, she’s an instigator. She’s my first choice and last resort; she’ll get naked anywhere. She’s my muse. She doesn’t get jealous. If there’s a lack of naked people, she wonders if there’s something wrong! She’s a big supporter of my work.
Are there any new pieces in your art book we haven’t seen?
There are works from Munich that people haven’t seen. A lot will surprise people. Not only can it be a performance, but it can reference land art and sculpture and sometimes and create abstract shapes with the human form. It’s soothing and alarming at the same time.
Are you friends with Lady Gaga?
I’m not friendly with any celebrities because I chose the path of not working for editorial magazines. I chose the path to not be a portrait photographer. I never run into these people. I concentrate on everyday people. I don’t want to say I’m grassroots. Drew Barrymore ran after me in the streets once, saying she wanted to pose for me. She showed me her underwear, she was almost naked. She gave me her phone number, and I got too shy to call her. I can’t, I’m too shy. Very early on, I would have been the guy who photographed Drew Barrymore naked. I met Michael Stipe, he was a fan. I met Sacha Baron Cohen. I fumbled my words.
Where are you in New York?
Suffern, New York. The police station is across the street, I’m surrounded by churches and a police station. One of the police officers in 2001 posed in one of my group works, this big, huge older police guy.
So what’s next? More nudity?
I’m trying to do a work in Colombia. There’s interest through another contemporary artist in Colombia. I’d like to do some works underneath Niagara Falls, right on the side of it at the rocks. Take the elevator down and do some works there. It’s owned by the parks service. To get permission to do that…
You should do it on the Canadian side!
But the angle I’ve got is so picturesque…
More Public Nudity:
The Egyptian Feminist Who Was Kidnapped for Posing Nude