The Spencer Tunick Experience Portugal
Dedicated to Giovanna
This is my account of posing for Spencer Tunick in an installation that was organised for the "Imaginarius" Arts Festival in the beautiful town of Santa Maria da Feira, a small town of about 10,000 inhabitants, 30 km south of Porto, Portugal on Saturday, the 13th of September 2003.
I woke up in complete darkness in my Hotel in Feira at about 03:45. There was an electricity black-out all over this sleepy town that would soon be the stage for Spencer Tunick's latest concept. I gave my taxi driver directions to the installation site from the hotel - "Participants should meet at 6:00am Sharp in front of Igreja da Misericórdia, at the beginning of Rua Dr. Elísio de Castro, in Santa Maria da Feira". These special rendezvous instructions we had received the previous Monday by email from the organisers of the festival, SeteSoisSeteLuas - (translated as SevenSunsSevenMoons) (should that not be 300 moons?). We had a few weeks previous registered our interest in posing for Spencer and sent them our details.
The taxi driver seemed apprehensive in leaving me at what seemed an unusual lonely spot in a deserted street and in absolute and complete darkness. He drove around the block to check out the area, presumably double-checking my directions and my sanity. We could not find any street name on the surrounding houses that cosily lined the streets. I assured him that if this was Rua Dr. Elísio de Castro then I was in the right place. He must have wondered why a tourist wanted to be left in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. I said to myself that when he reads that evening's newspapers he'll realise what I was there for.
I paid and thanked the driver, got out of the security of the taxi and stood on the pavement opposite the church. It was somewhat of a difficult environment. I had read in pre-installation reports that the local priest in Santa Maria da Feira had raised objections to the event. He is reported to have said that "several parishioners have confronted me with the situation, asking that we organise a protest. I am not going to do that, but I do consider myself, that the idea is a stupidity and an offence to the moral values" and added that the idea "had nothing to do with art". "Until a few years ago it was a crime to appear naked in public." He also blamed the local authority for helping stage the event. And that the town hall should concern itself with more serious things.
I did not know if the installation was going to be situated on the imposing steps of this old and illustrious church - it actually looked like a good location - I imagined the naked volunteers lying supine on the rising steps all the way up to the top. Maybe not, I don't think Spencer would be insensitive to peoples morals or values. This after all was to be a fun event for all - art in its basic and natural form, not wishing to offend.
I walked up to the top of the steps to view the site for the installation. From the uppermost vantage point, the old narrow Rua was in stark contrast to the wide Avenida de la Reina Maria Cristina in Barcelona where Spencer held his previous huge 7000 strong installation. This was going to be a more private and intimate affair. The old rustic houses on the Rua seemed a good canvas for his soon unfolding workpiece. The parallel rows of terracing, gently sloping down the hill, seemed to give a visual joining at the end of the Rua - just like the way railway tracks appear to meet in the distance. I could visualise Spencer being here, on this very Rua. He must have been shown around various sites by the festival organisers to view possible locations and in his mind's eye creating to bring his concepts to fruition. To many they are just anonymous buildings and streets but to Spencer they are half-empty but glorious backdrops ready to be filled by nude people. He must have considered the usual practical requirements as well - the need for security for the models, a place for them to gather, undress and prepare for the installation - this was an ideal location alright.
I sat down on one of the uppermost parapets and waited - it was now 04:30, one and half-hours to the predetermined start of the installation. The still night air was broken was the sound of a couple of voices, people walking past out of my view, and off into the night. A couple of cars rumbled noisily down the cobbled surface of the Rua and out of sight. It was eerily silent at times though.
Suddenly, I wondered if I was in the correct location after all! Maybe in some other part of Feira, 300 would be models were gathering expectantly for Spencer, ready to strip off and bare their soles. Out of the darkness a coach rumbled up the Rua and then stopped. On our instructions for the event, details for travelling to Feira had been suggested. One travel solution organised was a coach from Lisbon, stopping in Coimbra along the way to pick up more would be posers. I wondered was this that very mode of model conveyance. But, to my disappointment, it did a neat three point turn and shuffled off in the opposite direction. Not a good sign - didn't do much good for my confidence either. There wasn't much good I could do anyway in this complete darkness - no mobile, no light, no map but plenty of expectation and excitement .
I sat silently and waited. The still blue sky was absolutely devoid of any cloud whatsoever. The stars twinkled brightly in this indigo satin sheen. I picked out the Great Bear or Ursa Major. I followed the line of the stars Dubhe and Merek all the way up to Polaris - the North Star. It should of course point north to fellow travellers - but from now on it will always point to this magical place in Santa Maria da Feira. When you look up at Polaris - think of us.
At dead on 05:00 a car resonated out of the darkness and halted in the middle of the roadway at the base of the steps of the Igreja. Three blokes got out and the car drove off. I thought it was a taxi leaving three joyful revellers home from a party - but then the caps went on - it was the police. However, it was a welcome arrival. I recalled my experience from Barcelona, with the Policía Urbana, setting up to cordon off the installation site on the Avenida. The presence of the PSP (the Portuguese Police Service) in stark contrast to Spencer's New York experiences, gave an official patronage and acceptance to his work as an art form. The 7sois7luas organisers of the event too, I felt, had really gone out of their way to invite and actually get Spencer Tunick to come here, to everyone's festival. A magnificent coup by any means.
As the cops spread out in differing directions, I moved down the tiers of steps of the Igreja and sat on the bottom row. Two young chaps, who too must have been hanging around waiting for the off, noticed me and came over to sit a short distance from me - they too must have figured out that this was the place. A white Ford Transit minibus then pulled up in the centre of the street - hazard lights flashing, ready for work. Three blokes got and shook hands with the coppers. I guess as part of the joint planning of the event between the event organisers and the local authorities including the PSP, the plan was "synchronise watches and let's all meet up at 05:00" - full marks for punctuality.
Moving in different directions, yet in a structured way, they began organising the site as planned. Dragging the pre-located guard rails across the roadway and spacing them neatly across the road about 50m from the Igreja. Whilst I was watching this toil, one of the organisers and a cop walked over to the two chaps sitting beside me and started speaking to them. It was obvious by the body language and pointing that they were being officially requested to move from this important haven to a new waiting area on the other side of the guard-rails. The copper then approached me and started babbling in Portuguese - not understanding a word yet comprehending that he wanted me to do the same, I knowledgeably said "Si, obrigada" and headed for safety. The three of us stood on the correct side now of the perimeter and waited. Other people started arriving in ones, twos and threes and waited uncomplainingly for our glorious moment to arrive.
In some of the pre-event reports for the installation, I read that the event could only go ahead if the organisers could gather a minimum of 500 people to pose. In another report I read that a maximum of 300 people would be allowed to participate. As I had travelled a long way - 1708 miles to be precise - I was determined to be first in the queue and secure my place, so clung on dearly to the guardrail and watched events unfold.
One of the organisers approached two other chaps standing at the guardrail and began conversing with them. He then approached me and began speaking to me. I apologised that I did not speak Portuguese and in a perfect Oxford accent, said that he spoke English. He asked me what I was doing here and where I was from. He seemed surprised that I had travelled all this way on my own just to pose for Spencer Tunick, yet welcomed me warmly. He said that the volunteer models would congregate outside the cordon until the appointed signal and time and after that would be let in to the staging area in front of the steps of the Igreja.
Nearing the rendezvous time of 06:00, more and more people staring arriving - some now in bigger groups of 6/7/8. They congregated at the guardrails, down the street, on the footpaths and on the grass margins. It was actually quite warm considering the hour and people had dressed as per instructions in loose fitting clothes (the trademark of all life models everywhere). Groups of young men, young girls in groups, older couples, mixed groups of mixed ages and solitary individuals male and female started to arrive and fill out the gathering throng.
Photographers too also started to gather at this stage of the proceedings. People passing the cordon into the installation area were swiftly intercepted by the policeman and dispatched back over the border. The crowd had built up to about 200 by about 06:00. Conversations were struck up as each person arrived or just passed by someone - it was a tremendously affable atmosphere. People gathered in-groups, whether they had arrived on their own or with friends. The camaraderie was palpable. Some of the volunteers were standing, others were sitting on the kerbs or low walls- but all on their faces carrying some apprehension mixed with excitement. Some people wearing official credentials were let in past the cordon and proceeded up to the installation site - pointing knowingly as they sauntered.
A group of about five people approached the guardrail and the policeman, as was now his routine, stopped them in their tracks. They wear pulling a couple of wheelie suitcases behind them, which I recognised as camera cases. They appeared miffed that they had been stopped from proceeding. They spoke in English to the policeman, something along the lines of "this is a fine state of affairs, us being halted". I said to them to explain to the cop that they were involved with the organisation and part of Spencer Tunick's entourage - whereas with perfect timing and right on cue, one of them pronounced "I am Spencer Tunick". So much for me being an aficionado - I never recognised him either - put it down to the ungodly hour, please! This entrance of the great artist was in stark contrast to his triumphal entrance into the great hall in Barcelona. There he was our revered one - cheered and applauded by the amassed 7000 repeatedly. Here his arrival was more mellow and toned down, knowingly casual. But very welcome all the same. The five proceeded up the incline of the Rua to the white transit van, still at the base of the steps of the Igeja. People came over to Spencer and he imparted his vision of the installation in his instructions to them. Pointing here and there, hands framing scenarios, looking down the Rua at us, the models, measuring us, quantifying us to gauge the filling out of his masterpiece.
Spencer strolled back down the incline in our direction. He approached us and thanked us for coming here. I shook his hand and thanked him for organising such a wonderful experience. Photographers started snapping away at him. He drifted off into the crowd, chatting to nearly each and every one of us. It was obvious, that out of respect, he was building up a rapport with his models. We would all be singularly naked, but collectively, as Spencer envisioned, the nude bodies en masse would become more involved and create a unique artform. It reminded me of an artist putting his model at ease in the studio, as the model prepared to disrobe for the first time and stand naked in front of an art class. The same trepidation must have been felt by a lot of young people gathered here this morning - but they were going to do it - you could sense the resolve and determination to "pose nude for Spencer Tunick".
Spencer returned to the guardrail as the sun rose in the clear sky. It was nearing that time. The ladders had been positioned. The entourage gathered at his feet as he rose to deliver his usual address to the multitude. As we have seen before in other installations - Spencer stood at the top of a ladder and using a megaphone, he spoke to us. He welcomed us again and said that this would be a wonderful experience. This is a completely nude photographic event - no jewellery, no necklaces, no shoes or socks put your glasses under your arms after you see where you are going and be happy! He spoke in English to the assembled but also had a Portuguese girl translate for him. One thing I noticed about the people I had met beforehand is the impeccable English the vast majority of them they possessed. The translator was pretty shy at having to stand in front of 300 people and asking them to take their clothes off and in the end, didn't do much translating, letting the crowd listen directly to the maestro for themselves. I also guessed she would not be fully participating with us ala Spencer's little helpers in Barcelona - alas she would be the one missing out.
Spencer informed us that at first we may be conscious of our nudity, but as time wears on, we would become more comfortable and enjoy the installation immeasurably. People laughed - unbelievingly - but what he said was true. At the end of the day, I would bet the majority if not all the volunteers would agree with his sentiments. Spencer described the three outdoor settings in which the photographs would be taken and another one, which would be done inside a building that, had been especially set aside - more anon. He said that the first pose would be in the street, the Rua Dr. Elísio de Castro, up behind him opposite the Igreja. From there we would dress again (please he said - to much laughter) and walk down the street to a different location where we would do two further poses for him.
As he spoke, the police and organisers were rounding up errant photographers, slipping past the cordon, who were armed with every conceivable camera and lens - from super-zooms to compacts, from betacams to homevideo machines - some professional some not so professional. I hope they got good photographs though and that we can all share them at some stage. Spencer actually commented to a question from the volunteers about the photographers, stating that they needed to be there and see exactly themselves what was going on otherwise they would just make up stories and vilify Spencer as something that he is not. He had a point there. We were doing this in a public place after all and also should not be ashamed of what we were to participate in. Spencer also has a right to publicise his art.
Detailed instructions of the poses followed. Spencer beckoned Andrew, his little helper, to demonstrate the first pose. Andrew sheepishly introduced himself and gave us his Tony Blair impression on Spencer's prompting - he demurred on the George Bush impression though! Spencer said that this first pose is the prone position, is one that he has not used in a while - he used it in a photograph taken in a sunlit wood, I remember seeing that photograph but cannot recall the location, maybe it was in Breda in Holland? As usual, he wanted people to look away from the camera and be anonymous - this gives the effect of placing nudity not individuals in a scenario and is quite impressive. Spencer not happy with Andrew demonstrating the pose on the ground at the base of his stepladder - sent him up the grass bank of the Igeja to model from a higher plane. People weren't happy with this - "higher", "higher" "further" "further" we ordered poor Andrew. He was nearly out of sight over the hill towards Porto before he realised that we were taking the piste. But we knew what to do anyway. Spencer also said that one of the other poses would be something that he has never done before and that it would be just beautiful! (Oh, we couldn't wait?).
Spencer promised that in return for posing today we would get a photograph of the event as our reward. He said that he would go through the photographs at a later stage and pick out one for us - for this we had to sign the model release forms in order to obtain our postal address. These forms were dutifully passed out by some of the organisers. People filled in theirs and shared their biros - a good conversation starter by the way. Biros were passed around, sometimes disappearing into the crowd but always seemed to find their way back to their owner. People leaned on their knees, on other peoples backs or on the top rail of the guardrail - I leaned on my Portuguese phrasebook, the best use I had for it all weekend. When all the forms had been duly completed, Spencer ordered the opening of the secret door, allowing the hoards through to the magic place.
We shuffled through the narrow gap in the guardrail and handed over our release forms and once scrutinised and collected safely in a cardboard, we were through. We walked nervously up the incline and assembled at the base of the steps of the Igreja. Déjà vu repeating itself all over, once again! I was here before too. We chatted together and waited. The stepladders were transferred up the hill to their new position in front of the Rua Dr. Elísio de Castro - our first dais. The anticipation was rising. People were talking together, nodding towards the Rua as if asking for verification - "we have to get naked and walk down there"? Oh yes! Girls huddled together, single young men shuffled nervously, others just enjoyed the moment. Spencer appeared again and rose up the stepladder. This is it. Not saying a word, he grabbed everyone's attention. He reiterated the instructions and told everyone to enjoy themselves. He said that since he did not use flash he needed to wait for the correct warm glowing light of the dawn sun to illuminate the scene.
As we waited the photographers were let into the installation area from behind the barriers. They numbered about 40 at this time. The were ushered up the steps of the Igreja and took up position on one of the high parapets of the church front. They had a good vantage point from which to snipe down on us. Whilst we were going to be publicly nude in a short time, I believe a bit of privacy is needed when we are undressing - an almost personal ritual. In art schools around the world, the model is always allowed undress in private and present him/herself naked to the life class in splendour of the dropping gown. A modest request but such decorum is required. This decorum was offered us in Barcelona. It may have bothered some more than others, but hopefully nothing untoward will come of this and it should not have upset anybody's day.
Spencer walked down the Rua about 20 metres and with his light meter perused the sky knowingly - taking readings as he consulted with his wingman. He exchanged shutter speeds and consequential aperture settings. Nearly there! As he walked back to the ladder, the level of expectation and premonition rose off the scale. Hearts beat faster as he took each rung of the stepladder. When he reached the zenith, the assembled prepared for the immortal words. Spencer put the megaphone to his mouth and stated that this would be a beautiful experience and with out further ado, people just started stripping off their garb. No permissive instructions needed or given.
It is an awe-inspiring sight to see and especially to be part of 300 erstwhile politely dressed citizens suddenly disrobe in a frenzied, uncontrollable manner - from decent to decadent. It reminded me of those walking tourist groups you see strolling around historic city sights and suddenly undressing. All genre of techniques were employed - people folded their clothes neatly as they shed, others rolled theirs into a ball (me!), some undressed coyly, others quite defiant - but at the end of it, we were all naked. Naked and standing still and silently as if it was a dream. I could perceptively hear the staccato of shutters from the photographers and the sighs of disbelief from the people observing what we had just accomplished.
We left behind our clothes, along with civilisation, as we walked proudly down the Rua Dr. Elísio de Castro and into surrealism. Friends chatted together, some nervous, some exhilarated. People looked at each other and at themselves. Some held hands, others huddled in groups. We looked all around us - marvelling at the moving sea of naked bodies ebbing down this narrow canvas. We felt the texture of the smooth cobblestone on the soles of our feet. We felt the warming breeze on our skin, funnelling up the narrow street. There was great fun and joy, glee and vitality.
As we were walking we looked up at the windows of the houses on the narrow street. There were people at them - staring out of them in utter disbelief. We waved at them and them back at us. They we smiling at us - 300 naked people walking down their street! We beckoned to, inviting them to come out and join us - they declined. I remember at one window what looked like Gran, Mom and the little 'un gazing incredulously down on this unforgettable spectacle.
We stopped and started, "Further" directed Spencer. More directions from the artist to his models followed - spread out, fill that gap, keep going and finally stop. All this while, we had our backs to Spencer and the observing photographers and as we turned round, we proudly presented ourselves for all to see and wonder at. As I looked round I found myself now standing in the absolute front of the naked assemblage - literally staring barefaced at all those observing. There was no going back though.
Spencer now had his materiel in place and could commence. Up on high, atop his stepladder, his acolytes handed him his megaphone. Assume the position we were instructed. Remembering poor Andrew, we all began to lay down, prone on the cobblestones of the Rua. The earth was cold and the pose difficult - but we complied. There was a lament from everyone as our naked bodies touched base with Mother-earth. Then there was silence. We were instructed to look away from the camera, down the Rua - ears resting on stone.
Spencer offered more instructions via his little helpers to fill gaps and spread out some of the people. He repeatedly kept ordering people to "keep your heads down" in that American accent of his. He must have got down off his ladder at this stage, obviously not content with the proceedings. He stepped over me - I must have been doing it right - and headed down the Rua correcting people's poses as he went. He turned around at the bottom and returned, still moving people, twisting heads, lifting legs, pulling arms and instructing his models. When he was satisfied he stepped back over me at the front and again climbed the ladder.
Go for it. Cameras were handed up to him so that he could commence painting. Shutters and motors whirred and instructions for different cameras were complied with. We lay motionless for an indeterminate length of time - it could have been 3 - 5 minutes only - but it was a genuinely reflective period for a lot of people. Through this moment, they garnered their thoughts and realised they were now lying naked and willingly posing for the artist, Spencer Tunick, whom they have all heard of and now gladly enjoined him in his art. Fulfilling their dream to participate in one of his installations. More silence and serenity abounded.
And then people started getting up. I did not hear any call to rise, but followed the people as they rose and stood up. People rose to their knees first, others jumped straight up, everyone dusted themselves down and looked splendid in their nudity. There was a certain amount of rejoicing and applause but nothing like the euphoria that erupted in Barcelona. I sensed that people were still coming to terms with the enormity of their circumstance. Spencer thanked them and we all started to move back to opposite the Igreja to retrieve our apparel. We were now in full frontal gaze of the photographers up in their battlement - but at this stage the bashfulness had dissipated almost totally.
Successfully finding the location of our hastily discarded coverings, we started to dress. Half-dressed, we received and unexpected yet not unwelcome instruction blaring out over some anonymous loudspeaker. It was Spencer. Take your clothes back off and go back down the Rua we were ordered - charming! However, no second mention was required - off came the clothes again, into little heaps and we headed back down the street naked. Again I was last to reach the Rua and of course when we turned around, was first in line.
Spencer wanted us stand up straight and to face him on the ladder. He wanted us to be expressionless, no smiling or laughing - just anonymous. He said look at him, look at him! We did just that. In line astern, squashed against the narrows, people stood motionless and to attention and gazed inattentively at the artist. The fact that Spencer photographed our faces in this pose meant that he was now using our individuality and nudity in a conjoined form - this photograph was now of real people. I recall he used this pose before in pictures I have seen from installations in Brazil and Santiago de Chile. Cameras were again handed up to him - about four in total - wide angle, telephoto, large format, the whole range. Spencer asked for his new camera and was handed it. He clicked away merrily, framing his models in the scene, lift his head to view the pose - painting his picture. After a number of shots from each camera he was finished for this location and shouted his thanks. We moved off.
Off for real this time, we walked naked back to our clothes and began dressing. The photographers in the battlements got another opportunity to watch us naked folk struggle on with our daily garb - but at this stage we didn't care. The change in people's attitude that Spencer envisioned had become reality.
Half dressed, no shoes, some looking dishevelled, some looking immaculate, others still dressing we gathered up whatever possessions were left and 300 commandos meandered from in front of the Igreja and shuffled down the Rua. This time we were able to take in greater detail the different sights as we walked down the Rua. There were differing shops such as photographers, antiques, Cuban goods and children's outfitters lining this narrow Rua. We spoke to our new friends and revelled with them. People in groups were reflective yet ebullient. I noticed the same three women upstairs at the window and waved to them - they smiled and waved back. They took the whole event in good spirit, which in itself was welcoming for us and an acceptance of Spencer's art. We continued on down the length of the Rua to our next destination on our journey into modern art.
Strolling out of the shadows of the Rua we arrived into the glistening morning sunshine and were greeted by a magnificent manmade amphitheatre, called the Anfiteatro da Praça Gaspar Moreira. This was to be the site of our next pose - the one Spencer has never done before, as he told us - and indeed it had great potential for a unique installation. We were ushered onto the 7 rows of limestone seats and we each took our place in line. People who had been split up from their mates waved across the semicircle of the Anfiteatro, signalling that they were comfortable with the new friends they had just made, and see you later!
The sun was now much higher in the clear blue sky and getting warmer and warmer. We sat quietly whilst everybody took up residence. Good manners abounded, people shuffled up and down to give space - no umbrage taken if bumped into, others helped people up on to a higher step. Dressed or naked, this was all part of the bonding and shared experience that we now reaped such excellent joy.
Spencer and his entourage were still assembling themselves also. His little helpers were trundling along with the camera wheelie-cases, the ladders were manhandled and clattered into their new positions. The megaphones tested and made available for when Spencer should wish to address us. We took advantage of this hiatus to take in to our recollection of this day and the view now all around us. There was a temporary stage made of scaffolding and planking in front of the rows of seats we were occupying. Obviously part of some street theatre event put on for the coinciding "Imaginarius" festuval that Santa Maria da Feira in renowned for. But we were the ones on stage and our participation would not be temporary. It would live with us for a long, long time.
Spencer appeared in front of us again, as he is wont. Curtains up for scene two. Again he thanked us for thus far and hoped we were enjoying ourselves and the experience. A huge "Si" was rejoindered. He said the next photographs to be taken would be in a unique pose for him and us - getaway, we do this everyday! He wanted us to pose in our seats in the Anfiteatro at 45 degrees to the person beside us, overlapping our bodies and looking away to our left, away from the camera again in an anonymous pose.
Spencer then told of the last pose he wanted, which was over by a fountain about 50 metres to our left, and showed us the position. He said that after that pose we could all go over to the café in beside the Anfiteatro and have a chat amongst ourselves over a well deserved refreshment. We looked over to our right to locate this café. The waitress was putting out the usual paraphernalia on the tables and was completely unperturbed by the prospect of 300 erstwhile nude people patronising her humble establishment. He added he would join us later.
He lastly said that although this would be the last pose with the entire group, he wanted to take away only the girls to an indoor location that had been reserved for him for a special installation. The men were extremely disappointed with him for this - requesting an explanation. He stated that he usually took single gender photographs and that he took a men only photograph in Holland. It was simply the turn of the girls then. There was still some dissatisfaction around - but that's his call and you have to respect him for all he has achieved for us here now.
He was extremely talkative to those assembled there and built up a unique rapport with the participants, he spent a lot of time with us just chatting and joking. Another question put to him was the proximity of the press and the views they had of us. Again he stated that he needed them on his side and the best way was for them to be close and actually see what was going on - or not see and just make things up about him and us, which is a fair point. Either way they were there and we rally didn't care.
Spencer then began moving people in from the sides, up from the front and down from the back - he stood back a few times and recommenced positioning his models. He was not happy with a few people who had distinct tan lines and repositioned them away from the front of the group pose. He said that this visual singularity would interrupt the flow and confuse people viewing the photograph. I have no tan line so was not asked to move - actually I have no tan! He told people to remember your position and go over to a building opposite, undress and return to your designated site - I can do that!
So up off the seats and across the to the other side of the placa. We filed through a gap between the stage and a row of ornamental ponds - these reminded me of Barcelona, with all the splashing to be avoided, lest similar exuberance reoccur. We arrived at no special spot outside the assigned building and simply all began to undress. No problem to us all now - complete indifference to getting nude in public. As we undressed, I noticed that the press and photographers had moved to with 25 metres of us, behind a guardrail that was being policed by the PSP. A good number of civilians were also gathered to view the events - it must have been a brilliant sight to them to see 300 ordinary people get naked and walk away from their clothes.
Since people were more confident now they undressed slower and more deliberate than before, almost nonchalantly. I took the opportunity with this extra time and asked a fellow participant to take a photograph of me here in front of the Anfiteatro. Sure, no bother, was the response. After one or two photographs, I offered my gratitude and took back my camera. Tucking it safely away in my backpack, I stood up and turned around - to find everyone gone. I was alone and standing on one side of the placa and all the 300 others had long since departed and taken up their seats on the other side in the Anfiteatro. The cameras from the press pen were pointing at me - a solitary nude figure. There was a chap, part of the official entourage, with a video camera standing on the stage recording my every move. Nothing for it but to brazenly walk across the width of the placa (which was about 10 miles wide by this time) and retake my allotted seat. I could feel 300 naked pairs of eyes on me as I walked across to my position - but do you think I could remember it - oh no! Suddenly, a space was provided on the front row and I headed for it and took refuge - phew! Ready when you are Mr Tunick!
Ready now to be captured again forever. Spencer now took to his ladder and got into position. We knew the pose but he offered additional instructions. Then he made an announcement to the rank and file - he had run out of film. It would take a few minutes to reload all and he just told us to sit back in this now glorious sunshine, enjoy the moment and say hello to your neighbours - all the time being naked! We did just that. A cacophony of conversation just erupted, laughing, shouts across to friends and just general banter abounded from the tiers of the Anfiteatro. It was a great moment indeed. I looked around at my fellow models, remembering faces from the very first time we gathered outside the guardrail and made acquaintance. There were rows and rows of real people that I now could recognise. Whist sitting there pensively, I observed a young couple, her with a child in her arms, him with a camera in his, looking out from an upstairs window of a house overlooking the Anfiteatro. It must have been a brilliant picture for anybody to look outside their bedroom window and see 300 naked people at their front door. I noticed the young man took and photograph very quickly and disappear quickly back into the shadows of the room. It was if he was embarrassed to be seen all clothed in this naked gathering, like a streaker but in reverse! Anyway we weren't embarrassed and kept on enjoying every naked moment.
Out from the other side of the placa came a man with a young child in his arms and another in tow, followed by an older girl and what looked like mom, walked majestically across the placa. They were greeted by a huge cheer, to welcome what would surely become a cherished family momento for the future. They took their seats with the rest of us and joined in the enchantment.
Spencer returned after the requisite number of minutes and retook his position atop his stepladder. We settled down to business again. We took up the pose, our faces pointing east into the rising sun. Spencer took loads of photos with each and every camera as they were handed to him. He descended the ladder and came forward to us and took more photos from differing angles and distances. We were real posers now. I observed people doing their best to have expressionless looks on their faces, others pulled prim and proper faces - this was serious stuff now. Not only were we used to being naked but we were now used to modelling for a famous artist - all earnest endeavour and enjoyable. The organiser with the video camera came along after Spencer and recorded every individual as they sat naked on the steps. He did a number of sweeps and we just posed and posed. Some smiled, I winked. I hope this record is seen sometime on a Spencer Tunick film, if so, you will see the relish and zest that is captured on everyone's faces.
The photograph that Spencer took (pictured below) in the Anfiteatro was reproduced around the world in many a newspaper. It was indeed a unique and beautiful photograph, a unique and beautiful installation and a unique and beautiful experience. You can pick me out of this photograph - I'm the pale one on the lower left! If you spot me, write and say hello!
And then that one was over - applause all round. That was an incomparable moment and well worth the effort. We got up off our seats and walked naked over to our next and, for some anyway, the final location photograph. We filed through the same gap as before - minded the cold water (so far so good). We all were impervious to our nudity at this time and with stoical abandonment of our apparel, we strolled naked the 50 metres over to the fountain and steps outside the Tourist Office in Santa Maria da Feira. This was the Chafariz da Praça da República .
Spencer set up his ladder and he rose to the top to give instructions to pose. We stood naked beneath him and listened intently as he gave detailed positions for us. For the first time, he gave us a theme for the installation. What he wanted was a scene from the aftermath of a Roman or Bacchanalian feast. I recall from an installation he did at the Piazza Navonna in Rome a similar set up with a fountain as the modelling platform - it was good that we could recreate it here - us sharing with those great people in Rome and them with us. Spencer was uniting the world with his art. He told us to go over to the fountain and some even get in it - which one chap duly did. Spencer wanted us to lay down but not in a deliberate pose. Spencer advised us, "no deliberate poses", and "no legs spread towards the camera". (that one got a few laughs.) He wanted us to look as if we were asleep or just totally exhausted from some gigantic hooley - brought back memories of Craggy island!
We turned on our heels and headed for the fountain. We climbed all around the steps and walls of the fountain. I kneeled down against it and rested my arm on the wall, with the cold water lapping against my elbow. You can see me in this picture - yes you've got it, the pale one! Other people took up various postures lying on the steps or the paving stones around the plinth. Some sat like Rodin's Thinker, boyfriends and girlfriends embraced - it was a classical scene. Naked bodies adorned the four sides of the monument. Spencer walked around the four sides of the fountain taking photographs - snapping away from all angles. We were really into this modelling lark by now.
Then suddenly a freezing tsunami crashed down all over my back - about 50 gallons of icy water, no exaggeration. The chap beside me in the fountain decided to adjust his position and just like in a bath, the wave sloshed back over the side and drenched me - knew my luck would run out someday!
We stayed in that position for a while and until we got the all clear. We stood up and looked around for Spencer - more instructions required please! He was on his ladder, down in the placa at the base of the fountain. He called us forward away from the fountain - this time he wanted everyone just on one side of the fountain. We were told to spread and lie down, again in natural poses not contrived but of our own choosing. This time I stayed as far away as possible from the water as possible but still managed to find myself up at the front - you wouldn't want to be bashful at this stage! As I lay, I watched Spencer instruct his models how to pose - he shouted to people to stop smiling, to look away. Again he spotted tan lines and ushered two girls away from the front. They got up and indignantly shuffled around the back - white bits now out of sight. I wondered about the hours that they spent perfecting their tan only for it to be now rejected as incomplete. Still in more modest situations they would be envied.
We took up our poses and Spencer whirled around taking yet more photographs. We relaxed and let him get on with it. The sun was really up at this time and the setting was ideal as any for such an event. The clicking went on as we posed. I looked at my fellow models lying there, relaxed almost meditating and deliberate in their postures. The world around us had disappeared by now and we were oblivious to our nudity.
But then it was over. Spencer said one final thanks and we all got up and gathered our thoughts. People had just come through a euphoric experience. Yet they were melancholic when they should have been more cheerful. A sort of sad it was over but happy to have taken part feeling. They were reflective on the enormity of their adventure and the thoughts of returning to other people's notions of normality - they had all changed.
We walked back to our clothes near the Anfiteatro were we began to dress. A couple asked me would I take a photograph of them at the fountain - I said of course. I took my own camera with me, not to miss another opportunity to somehow personally capture again my experience. We walked naked back through the now half dressed throng over to the fountain. I took a number of photographs of them with their camera - the sun shone a beautiful orange glow on the scene and the photographs taken would turn out to be a cherished momento of their experience. I asked them to take a couple of me also at the fountain, which they duly obliged. Afterwards I said thanks and was handed back my camera. I checked how much memory I had left, looked up and everyone had gone. Alone again! Alone and sitting naked on a historic fountain, in the middle of a public square, in the middle of a small town where the local priest was, at best, not impressed.
Whilst sitting there ruminating on my predicament, I noticed the girl from the town's tourist office standing at the front door, arms folded, leaning on the doorframe bemused at this naked guy sitting on some famous chap's lasting monument. Being the gentleman that I am, all I could do was calmly wave and stroll with a certain blasé back to the sanctity of my fellow participants - happily she repaid the wave with one of her own and a smile thrown in for good measure.
Still naked, I walked across the placa, past the chap delivering bread to the delicatessen, the waiter putting tables & chairs outside a café and rejoined the now dressed group. You know how difficult it is getting through a large crowd to get to the other side - people in deep conversation etc., tend not to notice you and don't move aside to let you through. But when you're naked, people move. Did you ever have a dream you were walking naked down a street full of dressed people? Well I never did - but I know the feeling. All I needed now was for somebody to be recording this event.
Sauntering in a dogleg fashion through the mass of dressed folk I squeezed past mi compadres and endeavoured to locate my clothes. I hoped that they were still there. I didn't notice any fig trees in the placa and would have been in some dilemma having to negotiate my way back to the hotel au naturel - although I'm sure the girl in the tourist office would have supplied me with a few pamphlets to cover my modesty. But all was well. I located my clothes, still in the neat heap I had left them. This time I dressed properly, shirt tucked in and shoe laces secured. People never even noticed me once I was dressed. Everyone then started to drift over to the café beside the Anfiteatro, as arranged. I located my friends and we walked over to join everyone else.
I don’t know what time it was - time had stood still since 6 o'clock this morning. People were sitting on chairs, on the steps of the Anfiteatro, on the pond sidewalls and even on the ground - drinking coffee, water and chatting away ebulliently. Exhausted from the morning events, they rested themselves and enjoyed the companionship. We greeted each other as we passed, I recognised people from the different poses and locations that we gone through this morning and they recognised me.
I had been given postcards from a friend who runs the "thespencertunickexperience.org" website to distribute around. I had about 250 and thought I would be bringing some home. However, they went down a treat! People asked for two or three to pass on to their friends. I kept having to replenish my float from my backpack - people queued as they waited for me. I went around the tables of those sitting and drinking. The different nationalities I encountered at this time reminded me of the internationalism and multiculturalism of Spencer's art and the coming together in a mutual experience his art provides us. There were French, English, Spanish (Gallician), German, Russian and Irish people mingling comfortably with all the great Portuguese folk that welcomed us here today. I noticed for the first time the ranges of people that participated in this experience - male and female obviously but also young and older, middle class and hippies, engineers and students, businesspeople and housepeople. All in all, a very salutary experience for everybody.
Spencer at this time was giving interviews to television news-crews and journalists. Other participants were also giving similar interviews - but all dressed this time, not like in Barcelona were some participants gave their interviews still naked. I stood near one Portuguese girl giving her eulogy of the day to camera. I could not understand what she was actually saying, but from the body language, tone and magic of her speaking I knew that she just had probably one of the best days of her life and a truly wonderful experience - and so say all of us!
I sat down with my friends and had a cold bottle of water - this time well aimed down my throat not my spine. As we sat, I looked around at the happy people living it up in their memories of the day. Spencer by this time had finished the media tasks and was mingling with the volunteers. He chatted happily in English to them and they responded thankful for the opportunity he had obliged them. I had read in a web report, pre-installation, that he was contemplating a huge installation of 8000 or so to beat the Barcelona one in Santiago de Chile and asked him if this was on the cards. He reply was non-committal.
Some people asked him for an autograph, which he was happy to supply - but where to write it? Ah yes - those postcards that I had just handed out. I ruminated that these cards enriched with his autograph would be kept and treasured as a keepsake of today - I didn't see any discarded at the end of the day anyway. A girl came up to me looking for another one, she had given her's to her friend. I had none left and the look of disappointment she had on her face still remains with me this day - so much so that when I recognised her from one the photos in the Anfiteatro - and brought back memories of the spirit that pervaded the entire day.
She came back to me after a couple of minutes though to gleefully state that her friend had another one spare and had given it to her. Happy for her I also gave her my biro and told her to go over to Spencer for an autograph. Extremely satisfied with her good fortune she did just that and was rewarded with a signed copy. The biro was returned as per normal etiquette - so at least I have the biro that Spencer used that day (must put in on ebay?) As Spencer was signing the postcards he asked one girl where she got them and asked for one for himself. Her friend had one extra and gave it to him - so he went off with a souvenir too.
During all pause in events, I noticed Spencer's little helpers, including Kristin, relaxing peacefully over the far side of the Anfiteatro. The wheelie cases for the cameras had been packed up. It must have been a long day for them, dragging those heavy cases around all morning. One of the little helpers wrote to me later saying that the installation was very interesting to watch but was a little bit sad that she had not participated.
After an interval of chat and recollection, Spencer called the assemblage to attention and as predicted, he summoned all the girls together to got pose for him in the final special installation of the day in the Biblioteca Municipal da Feira, the local library. Girlfriends and wives said farewell to their respective spouses and gathered around Spencer. He led them off like a fairy tale scene out of Hamlin. Out of sight from the poor down trodden discarded male members of the species, they trundled in dutiful procession down the narrow street beside the Chafariz da Praça da República. The redundant males and some reluctant females sat forlornly in the café and drowned their sorrows. Some followed on after their loved ones.
I sat around with some of my new found friends, Claire, Angeló, Anna, Joáo and Elisabete and each spoke of really enjoying their day and of wishing to relive every moment. Grateful for the opportunity, 300 new members joined the brotherhood and sisterhood of the installation. The sun was now beaming solidly down at this time and getting very, very hot so it was time to leave this magic place and rejoin my place back in the real world.
I headed off once again through the Chafariz da Praça da República and up the hill. I noticed the relinquished male partners gathered on the lawn outside the Biblioteca. I walked up that way to try to capture some of the event and experience that was still going on. No men where being let into the Biblioteca - the security man in a beret gave very assertive declination to any would be (male) entrant. He then disappeared from the front door, presumably to go view for himself the female nudes now gracing aisles 6 & 7 - the art and sociology sections - very apt! Locals returning books, videos and DVDs were also turned away - even the cleaner arriving with her bucket and mop were deflected away.
After a while, some of the girls started coming out. I noticed a couple of them give a huge sigh to their male partner as they emerged from the Biblioteca into the bright sunlight. What ever went on in the Biblioteca, it must have been very intense. There wasn't a great sense of fulfilment and wonderful sense of experience that accompanied the ending of the main installations. There did not seem to be as many girls leaving as there had been participating down in the town. It is different though modelling inside where you, as an individual, are the main subject rather in an outdoor installation where the place and the nudity are conjoined as the subject. I hope to see some of the photographs from inside the Biblioteca some day or hear some of the stories of what went on that morning.
But for me it was over - or nearly over. I headed back towards the centre of the town to make my way back to my hotel. I walked down a narrow street, in the shadow of a huge old building. As I reached the end of the street and into the bright sunlight I found that I had come up the side of the Igreja da Misericórdia once again. This time it was completely deserted save for two workmen watering the tiers were the flower beds nestled on high. The photographers and press had since departed - yesterdays news. The Igreja looked impressive in the glorious sunshine that now illuminated its white façade. I turned around to head back down the Rua Dr. Elísio de Castro once again to take in for one last time the walk the route fantastic journey that we had all experienced. There was an old man and woman standing at the door of a house chatting. The woman was the gran that we had beckoned to at the window when we first walked this way. They must have been talking about the mad event that went on here this morning. I said hello as I passed - but I don't think she recognised me with my clothes on.
Strolling down the Rua, I picked out the spot where I had lain and the fabulous old houses and shops that lined the street. There was still nobody about but me. I reached the Anfiteatro da Praça Gaspar Moreira, again bathed in fantastic sunlight. The 10 or so people reclining in our café were all that now made use of this beautiful tableau. Five young folk, erstwhile nudies for Spencer, were sitting on the bench outside the building opposite the Anfiteatro where earlier we had undressed. More assembled around them and all moved off down the street towards the centro. As I walked parallel with them I could sense their feeling of what they had accomplished. They met up with their mates and boarded a coach waiting patiently at the bottom of the street. This was the coach that drove up past the Igreja all those dark hours ago. They would have a great time together on the bus recalling their tales as they headed for Lisbon.
I wandered around looking for a taxi, looking at people now coming up out of hibernation in this sleepy town. I don't think the majority of this town knew exactly what had gone on near their homes this morning. When they saw the evening TV news I wondered whether a synchronised gasp would descend on the entire population of this fine place. Up and down inclines, narrow then widening streets I happened across a beautiful square where I pondered that this would be a great site for an installation. But I thought fountain and steps looked familiar - it was the Chafariz da Praça da República again. Remember I arrived in this town in the dark, so I had no sense of bearing (only a sense of baring!). It was all calm now and yet still serene. The placa itself had now been taken over by the tables and chairs of yet another café - he would have had 300 customers earlier this morning. That would have made an excellent installation - 300 naked café customers.
Time to give up completely now though. I bought some water from the café where we had earlier congregated beside the Anfiteatro - the girl there now over her surrealist encounter and back to normal. Not knowing were to get a taxi now, I headed for the Tourist Office, hoping there a lost tourist could be reunited with his hotel. But this was the same tourist office that the girl had gazed amazingly at me strolling naked across her placa. No time for shame - in I strolled, and asked for her assistance. She was extremely helpful and of course spoke perfect English. Whilst I waited for my taxi, I asked her did she see the entire goings on this morning -she said she did and that it was brilliant. I asked her why she did not take part - her modest reply was that she was afraid of being recognised but would have loved to have tried. I asked here did she recognise me she said no. Then I recalled to her my passing her on my way back from the fountain - then it dawned on her who I was. She totally lost it and started laughing.
Then the taxi came and brought me back to my hotel and back to my own reality. In the lobby of my hotel that evening we watched the report of the installation on the news on TVP. We saw the undressing outside the Igreja and the bare volunteers from behind as we listened intently to Spencer's instructions. Then there was the long panoramic shot of our faces as we sat in the Anfiteatro - I saw all my friends and myself sitting patiently, shamelessly nude. The same panoramic photo appeared in the newspapers as they were handed out on the plane on my way home early the next morning. The girl beside me on the plane was flicking through Correio de Manhá when she happened across this very photo - she stopped in amazement at the naked throng sitting pretty in the sunlight. I couldn't resist and pointed myself out to her. She looked at me, looked at the photo and looked at me again. She never stopped talking to me to me for the 2:40 hours of the remainder of the flight about what had all gone one - must use "would you like to see a nude photograph of me" as a chat up line in the future. I'd say Spencer has one new volunteer for his next installation. When I asked her for the newspaper at the end of the flight, she declined - preferring to keep it to recount the event to her family and friends (should have autographed it for her).
Back to work on Monday then and back to reality - "what did you do for the weekend Alan?" asked Hilda and Bernie. Oh I strolled naked with 300 other strangers up and down a gorgeous little town in Portugal and got my photograph taken by a famous artist in return. Yeah right! Even showed them my photo in the newspaper - they accused me of doctoring the photo - have I no shame. None whatsoever! At least Terry believes me - though he thinks I'm mad anyway. I hope to recruit a few of them to accompany me to Spencer's next installation. I read reports of Santiago de Chile, China, London (2004) being mooted and lately a suggestion that I heard in Santa Maria da Feira about Paris for Easter 2004 - imagine 10,000 naked people lining the Place du Trocadéro or doing a mass homage to Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herb - cool!
My final thoughts then: Full marks - It was a brilliant experience - completely different from Barcelona but equally memorable and extraordinary. The people of Santa Maria da Feira and the wonderful folk that I met on the installation were just exceptional and magnificent people - and I remember each and every one of you. I'd say the majority of the 300 would recount this event for a long time with great fondness and affection for their fellow models. The experience will also change a lot of people's views on life in general and their relationships with individuals in particular. I hope you enjoyed what you have read here and if I have converted anyone to the Spencer Tunick Experience then it will not have been in vain. Watch out for any installation coming to a place near you - and do it! I'll be there too - say hello!
Lots of love to my 300 new friends in Santa Maria da Feira.
This essay was written in the spirit of good fun and not wishing to offend anyone. Anybody reading this and recognises themselves or any event, has any photographs of the event to share or just wants to say nanú, hi, hello, hóla, óla, bonjour, salut, hallo, nee-hao, ciao, konnichiwa, shalom, salem or just comment on it – please email me email@example.com
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