It’s not often I’m awake at 3am, and if I am, it’s usually because I’m still awake. But at 3am yesterday (Monday, March 1st 2010) I was awake, getting ready to take a taxi to the Sydney Opera House to be part of Spencer Tunick’s latest installation, “The Base”. I’ve been a fan of his work for years, so the chance to be a part of it was a huge thrill!
I had registered for it some time ago but was very much in two minds as to whether I would go, because on Sunday evening we had thunderstorms and heavy rain. I ultimately decided that if it was still raining at 3am, I’d stay home. At 3am, it was overcast but dry, and luckily stayed that way.
There had been some talk in the press about whether he would get the turnout he wanted – he was hoping for around 2,500 people. He need not have worried, as over 5,200 people showed up! The queue was astonishing – at its longest, it started at the Opera House forecourt, continued right through Circular Quay, and around the corner to the Museum of Contemporary Art (how appropriate!). When I arrived, shortly before the requested time of 4am, the queue was only about two thirds of the way through the Quay, and I thought that was long!
Although there was a festive – almost party – atmosphere, I couldn’t help but notice all the homeless people sleeping on the benches or leaning against the various shops at the Quay. What a shame we can’t organise better help for them they way we can organise large events such as this. But I digress.
The queue did move fairly fast, I passed through the gate at about 4.30am. I was handed two items – a plastic bag (for my clothes), and a ticket;
I assumed everyone got a ticket, but as we moved to the East side of the Opera House we were seperated into two groups. Those of us with the tickets stayed on the forecourt, those without continued through to the adjacent Botanical Gardens. It was very crowded, as this photo shows, and this is only a small portion of the crowd that eventually turned up;
Around 5am someone with a megaphone told us we should sit down, as nothing was going to happen until sunrise as they were using natural light. It reminded me of school excursions, and this wasn’t the first time I’d think of school as you’ll see.
Somewhat later Spencer Tunick talked to us and described the event as a collaboration between us and him, and also told us we had 500 more people than Melbourne had attracted when he was there in 2001 (huge cheer!). In fact I believe that in the end, we had 1,200 more as Melbourne got 4,000.
It was then explained that the group in the Botanical Gardens would strip first and line the first lot of Opera House steps, and then those of us in “group two” would go around the back and be behind them. Although we were told there were ropes and rectangles to show us where to stand, I never saw either, but in the course of the shoot we were directed how and where to stand anyway.
Although they were using a powerful PA system, the multiple news helicopters hovering nearby made it quite difficult for all but the people in the front to hear anything! In some ways it was annoying they were there, although as it happens, one of them shot footage later shown on the news that has me in it;
No, I’m not going to tell you which one I am – does it matter?
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. As the daylight finally started to become strong enough – it was still heavily overcast and thus could hardly be described as “sunrise” – the garden group was first to strip and walk to the Opera House steps, a distance of maybe a few hundred metres, and it involved walking straight past those of us in group two. A huge cheer and clapping erupted as they marched along. It was such a sea of bodies that individual faces – or any other bits – didn’t really register, and it gives you an idea of how big a crowd we’re talking about that it took almost ten minutes for all of them to make that short journey.
Then it was our turn to strip and make our way up a different set of steps to take up position on the area behind them. I’ve never been hung up about nudity – mine or anyone else’s – but even I have to admit to getting an adrenaline surge at this point that lasted for some minutes. But very quickly everyone around was naked and making their way towards the steps, and suddenly it seemed like the most normal and natural thing in the world. The atmosphere was very positive and happy, with plenty of laughter and people dancing around revelling in the freedom of the moment. If anybody felt embarrassed or ashamed, it didn’t show, and nobody seemed to be making any effort to cover themselves in any way.
Although natural human curiosity allowed us to all look at each other (indeed, it was pretty hard to put your eyes anywhere without seeing part of someone!), there was never a sense of prurience about it. As I believe Tunick has been quoted as saying, it’s probably the closest you can get to to another person while naked without it being sexual, and that’s certainly what it was like. We were just people with no clothes on – no big deal.
Once assembled into roughly the right positions, a great deal of “crowd control” was necessary to get people to fill in gaps, spread out properly, and so on. This involved the hard-to-hear PA, and in some cases, assistants with megaphones going to parts of the crowd to relay instructions. There was a lot of waiting involved, and people happily engaged in conversation, laughing and screaming with delight and cold when the wind would turn and rip a wicked breeze off the harbour. I don’t now exactly how it started, but people took to clapping to keep warm – except that they were clapping on their bums, which was quite hilarious to watch!
The first series of photos involved us all simply looking forwards, hands at our sides. We then turned around and faced away from the camera, hands in the air. Then we all lay down – at this point I was especially grateful that it wasn’t raining, but even so, that concrete floor was cold! There were some more funny moments during the lying-down shoot, as there were numerous pigeons circling overhead, so as they would fly over parts of the crowd, people would “oooo” in the same way sports crowds do in anticipation of a goal about to be scored, only the anticipation here was of being crapped upon! Not sure if anybody was.
Then we were all instructed to move further forwards and to pair off, hugging and kissing the people we were with. Sadly I was there alone and while many strangers did pair off for this part, I was in part of the crowd that seemed to consist entirely of all couples and groups, so I did my best to hide behind other couples so I couldn’t be seen in the shot. (Yeah, I know, everybody saw “awww”, and cue the violins). It’s not easy to be inconspicuous when you’re over six feet tall!
It’s perhaps worth mentioning at this point that this event was commissioned by Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, so the crowd was a mixture of gay and straight people … but then again, so are most crowds, it’s just not always so obvious! I’m not hung up about sexuality either (I’m a happily married straight man) so the many gay couples around me hugging and kissing didn’t bother me, it was just another example of people loving people, as it should be, but you could strongly feel in the air the sense of real equality and acceptance, which was an amazing feeling.
In fact, devoid of our clothes, our jewellery, our mobile phones, bags and so on, it was an enormously powerful leveller. Looking at a naked, unadorned person, you’re hard pressed to tell if they’re gay, straight, rich, poor, whatever. For anybody with body image issues, I’d encourage you to go to an event like this, as every size and shape was represented. Hairy, smooth, large, skinny, pierced, tattooed, tall, short, black, white, big parts, small parts … in such a large crowd every variation was on display and nobody gave a damn, we were just people. In my entire life I’ve never felt such a sense of community – we were all equals, sharing an experience.
I’ve digressed again, but it was such a powerful experience I can’t help but want to talk about the psychological and emotional side of it.
Anyway after the shoot on the steps, those of us with tickets were then moved into the Opera House’s Concert Hall, including many people on the stage itself. On the way in we were given more plastic bags, this time to sit on. Fair enough, I guess. Certainly this part of the shoot was going to give a whole new meaning to “bums on seats”!
Tunick was at the very back of the hall looking down over all of us. He was about ten rows behind where I was sitting, so this photo I took with my phone gives you a sense of what the final pictures will look like – although at this time, some people were partially clothed again (trying to warm up after 60-90 minutes nude outside);
Returning to the “school” feeling – you can see the row of seats directly behind the stage. When the photos were taken, all those people were sitting straight upright, arms to their sides, looking straight ahead (but not smiling). I couldn’t help but be reminded of school class photos, except for the nudity.
After some more shots, he sprang a surprise on us – he asked us to stand – on the seats! The seats in the Opera House are folding seats, and let me tell you, balancing while standing on them was not at all easy. I really felt for the people in the front rows, as if they lost their balance sufficiently, well, you can see how far they’d have to fall!
But then he upped the level of difficulty – he asked us to then move so that we were not facing in the same direction as our neighbours, and to then drape ourselves over the chairs and/or the people next to us, as though we had simply collapsed in place. Bearing in mind the need for respect for other people’s space but also the need to retain one’s balance, there was a great deal of unspoken negotiation with regards to how and where to lean and support each other without it becoming inappropriate!
At some point, he wanted to explain where he wanted us to look, so he chose a convenient point of reference that everyone could clearly see. It’s not easy to see in the photograph, but in the middle at the top you can see lots of pipes, and it was this he chose, instructing us; “everyone, look at the organ!”. Do I even need to tell you the reaction that got? (As a side note, that’s as close to a sexual reference as was made all day by him or anybody else that I heard, and it was unintentional). After the laughter had subsided, he decided it was better to tell us to look at the stage instead.
A few more rolls and camera changes and the shoot was done. At this point, everyone turned to face him and gave him a standing ovation that lasted at least a full minute. I’m sure the concert hall has seen its share of standing ovations, but perhaps not with half the audience facing the back instead of the stage, and I can almost guarantee it would be the first nude one!
We were then told we could leave, but we’d have to get dressed first – there was almost a sense of disappointment in the crowd at having to be clothed again! However some groups made their way to the floor-to-ceiling windows around the opera house to take some private photographs while still nude, and why not! Even as most of us left fully clothed, it still didn’t seem at all weird to see naked people having their picture taken, even though they were alone or in small groups, not part of a crowd of thousands. The sense of fun and goodwill was still very much in evidence.
As I left the Opera House to catch a ferry home, I was tired, elated, a little sad that the experience was over so soon (although it was now after 9.30am), but more than anything I kept thinking about the attitude that had been so evident. In the entire time I was there, I heard many snippets of conversation and not once did I hear anyone commenting negatively about how anybody else looked, or what their ethnicity or sexuality was, or how fat or thin, or pretty or ugly, or any other form of judgement we so often impose. For just a few hours, we were naked people, not just physically, but perhaps spiritually as well, and for that reason it’s hard to think of it in terms other than it being a truly spiritual experience. What a shame that the human race in general apparently isn’t capable of such openness and acceptance and equality. Imagine the world we could live in if it was. I can now, because for a few hours at least, I lived there, and I’m going to miss it for the rest of my life.
Postscript: Here’s the final print given to all of us who participated: