Culture

A Conversation with the 'Neo Naturists' – the Artists Who Celebrate the Naked Body By Getting Naked

The art collective are the subject of a new retrospective, so we got in touch with two founding members to talk about streaking down the King's Road, drunk students and the 1980s club scene.

by Harry Sword
16 August 2016, 1:00pm

Neo Naturists, Mermaids with Marilyn, Henley Regatta, 1984. (Courtesy of the Neo Naturists Archive)

Riding naked down the King's Road on a white horse in full rush hour traffic; streaking through the National Gallery; dousing themselves in body paint in underground clubs; distributing prawns in place of communion wafers to horrified New Romantics in bizarre ritual performances; narrowly avoiding being drowned in their own "apple dunking" buckets by irate students – the Neo Naturists were a subversive art collective who celebrated the naked body by taking their clothes off and causing havoc in the nude.

Emerging from an early-80s club scene that was transitioning from post-punk to New Romantic, they were formed by sisters Christine and Jennifer Binnie, alongside Wilma Johnson, and quickly set about deflating the self regard and pomposity of the art scene with idiosyncratic and spontaneous performances. They were, of course, then derided by that same artistic establishment, but found allies and friends among the left field, collaborating with artists and curators as diverse as Grayson Perry, Derek Jarman and James Birch.

They're now the subject of a wide-ranging retrospective exhibition at Studio Voltaire in Clapham, so in advance of their (sold out) performance at the ICA next week, I caught up with founding members Christine Binnie and Wilma Johnson.

Neo Naturists, Flashing in the British Museum, Christine Binnie body painted and photographed by Wilma Johnson, British Museum London, 3 March 1982. (Courtesy of the Neo Naturists Archive)

VICE: Tell me about the exhibition? Why have you chosen to look back now?
Christine Binnie: I was going through the archive a few years back. I've always thought the material was really valuable, but I didn't have it chronologically arranged – there were a lot of gaps and now it's in order and context. But the most important reason is that now we've reached a certain age – the age where most people don't want to show their bodies – we thought it would be a very good time to be doing it again. This has always been about changing people's perceptions of bodies, and when we did it before it was kind of like a dare: flashing in the British Museum, or whatever. Now it's a further dare – "Can you be 60 and still do it?" And we can!

How did it all begin initially?
Wilma Johnson: There were two things. Christine came to [Central] Saint Martins when I was there as a student and working as a life model. I was in the painting department – abstract expressionist, very sexist and quite prudish at the time. I was painting women, and we suddenly got this idea: 'Instead of painting a picture of you, why don't I just paint you?'

It was against the strict conformist expressionist ideal, but it was also about the way that women's bodies were perceived in the late-70s and early-80s in fashion and advertising – invariably androgynous or anorexic, a submissive view of women. From there we had a discussion about how daft people get about nudity, how unused they are to seeing "normal" people – i.e. people with non-model bodies – with nothing on. We were also so much part of the club scene, the punk scene and then the New Romantic scene.

Neo Naturists, Neo Naturist cheerleaders with Leigh Bowery and Michael Clark, Royal Opera House, London, 9 Feb 1986. (Courtesy of the Neo Naturists Archive)

What kind of reactions did you receive in the club world?
WJ: We'd never know how people were going to react. The audience could get upset about strange things. There was one cabaret we did and you can hear the audience yelling, "Get them on! Get them on!" There was one that ended in total chaos. We did a gig in the International Students Hostel in Regents Park – that was our worst reaction. We had people running on stage trying to drown us in apple bobbing buckets, smashing all our records. It was complete carnage. We were meant to play in this small cabaret area where there was this woman playing the cello and about five people in the audience, and at the last minute our friend said, "Do you want to go in the main hall instead? There are several hundred people and they're all really drunk," We said, "Okay." But the most important thing for us is that there was a reaction. If it was a case of, "Oh, we've seen that all before," we'd get upset. We wanted people to remember it; if it had some effect then we'd succeeded.

How planned were your performances?
CB: They were more planned than people thought, although we'd never rehearse. We never tried to sing or dance "properly" because that would have made it too much a performance. There was always a spontaneous element. We'd plan things and then see what happened on the night. We'd end up with surprises.

Neo Naturists, May Day Performance at The Diorama, 1 May 1990. (Courtesy of the Neo Naturists Archive)

There was also a ritualistic aspect to some of your work – handing out prawns instead of communion wafers in clubs...
WJ: Yeah, finding the connections between churchy rituals, other rituals. I was a life model and used to spend quite a lot of time in art college libraries, and I'd usually gravitate towards the anthropology section. It was about mixing up different ideas about people.

And what was the reaction from the art world?
CB: They thought we were a bit of a joke, really. Some people really liked us and some people were quite threatened by us. A lot of people didn't know how to take us. We've got this debate coming up at the ICA, but we were turned away at the door of the ICA several times back in the day.
WJ: I can remember we went down to this Cork Street party in the 80s. At the time, Cork Street was the centre of the art world and we went down in body paint. Somebody called the police, so we ended up running away and doing all these other parties. But then a couple of years ago when they were doing this "Save Cork Street" campaign they found this old photo of us and used it as one of the campaign photo – a "back in the heyday" kind of thing. I thought this was outrageous. We were never shown in Cork Street; they in no way supported us at the time. With hindsight, they perhaps liked the idea of presenting us as the "bohemian side of Cork Street", but at the time they were one of the things that we were rebelling against.

The Neo Naturists, 2016. Installation View, Studio Voltaire, London. (Courtesy of the Neo Naturists Archive; Photo: Andy Keate)

You've collaborated with many artists over the years, not least Grayson Perry. How did that connection come about?
WJ: Christine and I were doing stuff in London together, but her sister Jen was living in Portsmouth with Grayson and they started doing body painting together. We all got together; he was very much part of it at the beginning. But we worked with quite a lot of other artists, too. We did work with Michael Clark and with Derek Jarman and all sorts of people. One person we ought to mention is James Birch, because he really helped us. He had this gallery at the end of the King's Road and he gave Christine, Jen and I our first exhibitions.

Are you finding a new generation inspired by the retrospective?
CB: It has been a bit overwhelming. It's just lovely to think that people are taking notice. Studio Voltaire have been absolutely brilliant and treated us in a way that we were never treated back in the day. And that has never really happened to us before.
WJ: The reaction of the younger generation has been brilliant. We've always fought against the system and said, "Well, we don't give a fuck if anyone likes us or not," but when people actually do, it's great [laughs].

@HarrySword

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