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The Dead Sea is dying, and artist Spencer Tunick is using his controversial mass nude photography to draw attention to it. At a press event this morning he released a series featuring 15 nude models interacting with sinkholes that are ravaging the land around the Dead Sea.
Tunick's series depicts a guerilla art action similar to his demonstration with 100 naked women at the Republican National Convention in July. "300 people applied to be in this piece, but I chose 15 to keep it small," he tells The Creators Project. "We didn't have permission, so this was a run-and-gun kind of work. We were doing it secretly so as to not be stopped or attract any protestors." Tunick poses the models around the sinkholes in surreal formations, eventually burying them in the sand to "bring the skin closer to the issue." The models, however, were never exposed to real danger, even in the fiction of the photos. "They're not so much trapped as out of place, in a Magritte-like way," Tunick explains.
The same can not be said for the Dead Sea itself. According to the Geological Survey of Israel, the sinkholes are the result of Israel and Jordan siphoning water from the Sea of Galillee and the Jordan river, causing the Dead Sea to lose more than a meter of water per year. The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies' Head of the Center for Transborder Water Management, Clive Lipchin estimates that over 10,000 sinkholes have opened up since the early 1990s, but others put the number at closer to 3,000. By Lipchin's count, a new sinkhole emerges approximately once a day, each representing the possibility of a nearby residence, resort, or road caving in. "The lake is living up to its name," Lipchin tells us. "It's actually dying."
This is where Tunick comes in. He gained some notoriety in 2011 for capturing another photo series at the Dead Sea. Shot in an area called Mineral Beach (which no longer exists because of the sea's waning volume), his Dead Sea series features 1,200 naked bodies floating in its buoyant waters. When he released the surreal images, they sparked awe in his fans, but outrage from local conservatives. "What did they call me?" he asks a companion during our interview. "Abominable?"
Israeli lawmakers, in fact, proposed a piece of legislation called The Spencer Tunick Law that would remove protections for nudity in art. The bill didn't pass, but Tunick has remained a troublemaker in the eyes of many Israelis ever since. Now he's using his media clout to highlight an issue of both ecological and personal significance.
"My passion for the Dead Sea dates back to when I was a child," Tunick says. He frequently visited his grandparents, who moved to the region in the late 60s, throughout his youth. "It's the same affection one might have in the US for wondrous natural elements such as sequia trees or redwoods. If the sequoia trees were all dying, people would come out en mass to do something about it."
Tunick's goal is to generate enough discussion around the issue that the Israeli government will be prompted to take action, which Lipchin explains would entail pumping a billion cubic meters of water—equivalent to one half of Israel's yearly consumption—from the Mediterranean Sea into the Dead Sea. Lipchin envisions an underground tunnel similar to the train passage linking Paris and London, which could also generate hydroelectric power for a desalinization plant and bring more fresh water into Israel and Jordan.
With 15 years advocating for the Dead Sea under his belt, Lipchin admits that the plan isn't flawless. Even he has questions about mixing the chemical compositions of the two seas, but he's adamant that something has to be done soon. "Engineers know how to do this. It can be done and it has been done in other parts of the world," he says. He believes last year's agreement between Israel and Jordan to build a Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline is moving too slowly to save the sea. "Nothing is happening," he says, "Every year we lose another meter, and more sinkholes open up."
Reporters at this morning's press junket expressed surprise that the sinkholes were still a problem, says Tunick, despite articles in publications like Times of Israel about the situation. If that's the case, then the Dead Sea has a real PR problem, and hopefully art actions like this will be the solution.
See more of Spencer Tunick's work on his website.