In July 2016 3,200 people took part in Spencer Tunick’s art installation the Sea of Hull to celebrate Hull’s rich maritime history and highlight climate change.
Commissioned by Ferens Art Gallery to highlight Hull’s status as the 2017 City of Culture and to whip up a PR storm in advance of the launch, Spencer was in town to create his typically immersive nude art. Participants were body painted on the Saturday and photographed nude for a smaller installation in the wake of the Humber Bridge on Sunday.
Groups were determined randomly according to the registration desk people selected on arrival into B1, B2, B3 and B4, which denoted the respective four body paints.
I’d travelled to the location with a naturist buddy Rod Currie and we both ended up at the B1 registration desk, a light blue. To my naked eye B2, B3 and B4 appeared to be increasingly darker hues of green. Once captured on film, the four colours blended together to create Spencer Tunick’s Ode to the Sea.
With a call time anywhere between 2:30-3:15am the Queens Gardens had never seen so much activity. Floodlights illuminated the respective meeting points and staff were on hand to dispense the colours.
Periodic announcements were made, excitement increased until finally after much anticipation, Spencer himself emerged and spoke to the assembled throng from the top of a ladder. He introduced his support staff, including Steve who would be central to crowd control (and our amusement) and gave an overview of what he’d planned for the day.
Spencer instructed us not to smile “it’s too distracting” and asked that we remain impassive, entreating us not to smile for his videographers who were filming events as they unfolded. For participants, it was obvious from the outset we were submerged in a surreal experience and the sheer scale of the numbers involved, the attendant press and a rogue drone meant all our senses were being challenged, quite apart from adjusting to the sensation of being naked in Hull City Centre in the early hours.
The first challenge for some and highly anticipated but not for old hands like ourselves, was the act of stripping off and daubing ourselves with paint. Spencer had stressed anyone who wasn’t covered adequately would be pulled out of the frame. No-one wanted to fall by the wayside. The team whipped us up into frenzy. ‘Go, you have 3 minutes’ and with that we frantically tried to cover ourselves completely to Spencer’s critical satisfaction. The artist at work can be quite exacting and Spencer didn’t disappoint. He was also mindful of timings, with the centre of Hull being closed off from midnight on Friday 8th July until 10:00am on Saturday 9th July.
Once bodypainted, we were instructed to move on to the Rose Garden. By now it was probably about 4:15am dark, dank and foreboding. We filed in to the Rose Garden from Queens Gardens on either side of the park, surveying the bizarre sight of hundreds of people in different hues, moving forwards inexorably. Once out of the confines of the park into the beauty of the formal planted rose garden, the enormity of what we had signed up for became apparent and the realisation we were about to create a piece of artistic history in Hull.
Spencer Tunick was positioned at the top of the BBC building, surveying the scene. The attendant press were resplendent on an open top bus adjacent to the Rose Garden. Once Spencer was satisfied we were sufficiently deep and dense enough, he began to capture his iconic images which will be unveiled next spring at Ferens Art Gallery.
Woe betide the people who were in the shot and not supposed to be. “Get out of MY picture.’ Spencer has a very keen eye, so crouching down behind a wall didn’t spare them either. “You, over there behind the wall. I can still see you.” Spencer’s team, including Steve who seemed to bear the brunt of his exacting demands rushed around coordinating us and errant passers-by, walkie talkies in hand.
Mindful we had to remain impassive and revelling in the scale and solidarity of such a large group and my B1 identity, my mind was whirring as I drank it all in. I was an alien and Spencer was a usurper who we were wordlessly watching and monitoring. Far from smiling, I spent the entire day giving Spencer the ‘evils’ although he wouldn’t have seen me, I was a drop in the ocean. He’d told us earlier to be happy in our minds when we were experiencing the day. Mine was a funny sort of happy, it was a totally immersive alternate reality for a few hours and not one that everyone would want to share but others had their own reality.
In total we were positioned into seven scenes. I was lucky enough to be in all seven although there was some discomfort involved and we certainly had to endure low temperatures. So much for the British summer!
I’ve been a public naturist since 2011 and spend most of my weekends at naked events and taking part in naturist activities but I don’t strip off if the weather is adverse or unseasonal. On this Saturday however, those of us who took part in all seven scenes were naked from about 4:00-8:30am and it was both adverse and unseasonal. The things we do for art!
My favourite scene was one where we were laying on the floor of a main thoroughfare in Hull. What a beautiful city! My eyes lit up at the historic architecture as we left the Rose Garden and I chatted to local participants to learn more. Meanwhile the attendant press trailed after us in their open top bus where they could gain access and the crowd, which had a festival–like feel to it from the outset, called out and waved to the cameras gamely.
Spencer tended to take one picture with us facing towards him, then one rear-facing picture. Steve soon got in on the act. ‘Steve’, said Spencer irritably when things weren’t moving fast enough for his liking or we Brits didn’t understand his instructions; ‘Get on the sidewalk. Get on the sidewalk!’ Some would have known what a sidewalk was but as a group we stood stoically awaiting instructions in Queen’s English. Once corrected and pavement was uttered, we duly moved.
One wag in the crowd picked up the exasperated Steeeve cry and that was it, we spent the rest of the time chanting Steve when Spencer mentioned his name, rather like a football chant with much hilarity. “Who is Steve anyway?” I asked at one point. “Does it matter?” Said Rod. Moot point, not really no.
By now, about 5:15am I’d estimate with the battle bus in the distance and Spencer on a cherry picker, Spencer moved his droplets into place and decreed we lie down. An incredulous “lie down?” went around the crowd like a Mexican wave, akin to the sigh which was involuntarily released when a few droplets of rain came down as we stood rear facing in the Rose Garden.
We lay down. ‘Extend your legs.’ We extended our legs. ‘Extend your arms, even if it means you’re touching someone else.’ We extended our arms. I was laying the other side of steel railings. Positioning myself in my best life modelling pose, I snaked my hand out over the steel railing towards another blue-green alien and we lay waiting for Spencer to take his pictures. ‘Another 30 seconds,’ said Spencer at one point. Another 30 seconds went and we waited and waited, not daring to move lest we ruin the shot. It was cold, it certainly wasn’t comfortable and it certainly wasn’t 30 seconds.
All intermingled, we were now separated into our colour groupings. My B1 group watched and waited patiently while the B2, B3 and B4 were marched around. I wondered at the time whether they were hyperlapsing the action. I’m such a social media geek at times. I was correct though.
B1 was led down a narrow street and Spencer took another shot. More nude-on-floor action. More groans. I lay in another one of my imaginary stunning life model poses, trying to disregard the cigarette butts which were in my eyeline. It wasn’t much earlier people would have been spilling out of the nightclubs, bars and restaurants of the city. Just imagine if you turned a corner and came across a Spencer Tunick tableau after a night out on the town, you really would think aliens had invaded!
After this, directed and posed, we were all brought back together again and Spencer told us to mix the colours up. To once again be swirling around B2s, B3s and B4s was fascinating after probably 90 minutes of solely being with B1s. It’s amazing how quickly a situation becomes the norm. I felt we were a tribe in our own right and the other colours were different tribes. In my mind, we danced around each other, fascinating in our differences and intrigued but also innately knowing the other tribes meant no harm.
The participants were like a representation of life in general, with different ages, body shapes, nationalities, mental and physical illness/disabilities. Spencer, perhaps not used to British sensibilities and political correctness blithely said in one of his interviews, that there were lots of old people there, disabled people, people with bandages and it was like being in the aftermath of a blue war zone.
As we lined up for the penultimate group shoot, Spencer again astride a cherry picker in his irascible way was goading Steve and we him with our chanting. If he was irritated by it he gave no sign and broke out into a smile when the crowd poked fun at his innocent ‘Fill the hole, fill the hole’ entreaty. I was amused too by how Spencer lined his shots up. Once in place he produced something from his pocket and peered through it at the crowd, rather like a ships Captain looking though a spyglass.
Leaving Hull’s retail area we trailed over to the final set up, the bitterly cold Scale Lane footbridge. Only 600 people were able to participate in this Scene because of the weight restrictions. I was ‘lucky’ enough to get on, although it wasn’t long before we all doubted the wisdom of our enthusiasm. It was bitterly cold, the wind searing into our joints and stabbing our souls. It might have been Steve (still not knowing his exact identity) who had Spencer in one ear and us in his eye line. ‘Please’ he implored, ‘fill the space,’ indicating the centre of the Bridge. ‘He won’t take the picture until he’s happy. Do it for Steve.” Those magic words. We complied, although not without demurring, it was painful underfoot because of the shingle.
This time the press pack were ensconced in the Travel Lodge opposite, along with Spencer who made his wishes known in his customarily terse style. ‘Get out of my shot’ he barked to some bystanders who were alongside in high viz jackets. By now, time and discomfort was taking its toll and one lady fainted. Once finished, we filed off slowly, far too slowly. The lucky ones got boiler suits and flip-flops to help raise their temperatures. Rod and I were on the upper deck so missed out but we were still buoyed up by the whole experience.
We made our way back to Queens Gardens, past the town house where earlier millennials had been watching us with great hilarity and videoing our slow procession towards the Bridge. The garden which not long before was littered in clothes and people, reverted to archetype. Were it not for trails of blue and green paint demarking our progress around Hull, you could be forgiven for thinking it was all a big blue-green dream.
Would I do it again? You bet!