What was I doing, standing shivering and stark naked – except for a shimmering layer of gold body paint – in the middle of Munich at six on Saturday morning? I wasn’t even drunk.
Tunick is known and notorious for his huge installations of nudes in urban and natural locations around the world.
The naked people makes his art an instant headline-grabber – but the display of normal human flesh with no hint of sex, simply using bodies to make art, quickly turns voyeurism into contemplation.
Within the naked masses, flaunters, voyeurs and anybody jiggling their bits are categorically unwelcome – as the organisers make clear from the start.
This is not only to protect participants, but also because Tunick seeks “to continue the tradition of celebrating the nude and treating the true forms of real humans no differently than the classical, Vitruvian ideal,” he told me, citing the ancient architect who developed theories of proportionality.
Not looking forward to getting naked
Meeting in the chill of three in the morning, I joined a 500-metre-long queue of people aged 18 to 80 awaiting entry to an ad-hoc garrison to get ready to take their places on the floodlit Marstallplatz.
Handed a small tub of red or gold body paint, we were then directed into a compound according to colour. I got gold and shuffled forward to get a welcome cup of tea provided from the sidelines. Despite it being the beginning of summer, it was still only about 10 degrees, and I wasn’t much looking forward to getting naked.
But it could have been worse. A previous Tunick installation took place on the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland. While mingling in the crowd I came across someone who was there. What was that like? “Cold,” he said. But nudity was nothing new to him. As a naturist who often does things in the buff, he had once gone on a nude cycle through London with his mother-in-law. He showed me a picture.
Then the games commenced. Tunick addressed the red group, telling them to “listen up” as they received precise instructions about how to apply their body paint and where they were going.
He became fierce when it emerged that a couple of people were drunk – strictly not allowed. “I’m serious!” he bellowed into his megaphone - and they were ejected.
As the encroaching dawn softened the darkness, the magic began. The crowd opposite us transformed from a gathering of assorted people to a squirming throng of bare bodies united in their nudity.
Suddenly everything had changed
There was a moment when everything was the way it was, then it wasn't, and then it was red. Half the square was filled with naked red devils, their teeth gleaming white, their eyes lurid, almost demonic in the half-light. It was as if a wrapper had been peeled off the known universe to reveal an alternative reality – an extraordinary experience.
On a signal from Tunick’s assistants, the red horde trooped, dancing and cheering, out of the square toward Odeonsplatz for the first photos. We soon-to-be-goldies applauded them on their way. A long wait, while the dawn snuck out of the darkness; and then it was our turn.
Again, the masses around me went from an everyday crowd to a swarm of flesh rapidly discarding final bits of underwear. It was my turn. I stripped, stirred my gold body paint with my finger and slapped a handful on my stomach.
The paint was cold and gloopy, but I was infected by the heady sense of abandon that had filled the square. It felt like Glastonbury, like toddlers in crèche going wild with the finger paint. We laughed and joked and helped each other get the paint on our backs. Once the paint was on I didn’t feel so naked.
Within minutes, the square was filled with gold statues.
Tunick has previously described these projects as “euphoric”. I felt a sense of freedom and joy which increased as the hours wore on. We weren’t just watching an event; we were the event.
His work has inspired a wave of followers. A woman had come from Israel to take part, a message on Tunick’s Facebook page announced. His assistant Lauren Russell said there was an 80-year-old American man who had been to all the installations over the last 20 years, and had pictures of them all on the walls of his home.
A shoot in Mexico City included 18,000 participants – but they still had to turn people away. “My recent installation in the Dead Sea of Israel is something I am particularly proud of,” Tunick said. “Whoever thought there could be naked people en masse, making art in the Middle East?”
Trams passed, jangling their bells at us as we encircled the monument in front of the Nationaltheater. One driver simply stopped her tram to take a picture; we cheered.
Tunick yelled from atop a towering cherry picker: “There’s always a car! Get that car out of here!” An assistant shooed away a taxi.
The red mob joined us in ringing the statue and for a photo on the steps of the opera house.
Gold statues with pulses
I was one of a group of women invited into the Nationaltheater to pose for pictures on the marble staircase, and inside the sumptuous Königssaal. Something resembling a climbing frame had been set up in the middle, and we – gold statues with pulses – draped ourselves around it.
The Bavarian State Opera had commissioned Tunick to create a photographic installation inspired by their new production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, directed by Andreas Kriegenburg.
The Opera will show a film of the making of the installation in July and will exhibit the photographs in January, when they bring back the Ring for the Wagner bicentennial in 2013.
These images juxtaposing the ordinary and the unexpected jolt the viewer out of the sameness of everyday life.
“Imagine the power of a live photographic image with thousands of real, human bodies,” said Tunick.
The beauty and the buzz were well worth a few hours of braving the elements with your kit off, even if I’m still finding little bits of gold paint in odd places.