Interview: Spencer Tunick

Few living artists get as much exposure as Spencer Tunick. But then again this live installation specialist and photographer works exclusively with nudes, hundreds and sometimes thousands of them.

His latest project, shot over Bank Holiday weekend, is set in Salford and Manchester. Tunick is using the project as a response to the region’s best known painter of crowds, L.S. Lowry.

“I think if you were to take the frame off of a Lowry work and stretch it on a canvas that had no ornate frame on it and hung it at the Basel Art Fair or Frieze, it would be something that a young artist would make today,” he enthuses.

Thanks to the “scrappiness” and “gestural spontaneity” of Lowry’s paintings, he says, “The images themselves could have been made by a young 22-year-old artist coming out of Goldsmiths . . . It’s sort of the artsy crafty way of painting before it’s in style now.”

In fact Tunick first saw his cityscape setting through the eyes of Lowry, driving from the airport directly to the Lowry Galleries, who have invited the photographer to help them celebrate their 10th anniversary.

“I was just drawn to the fact that there are chimneys and smokestacks all throughout the landscape of his work, and now there are very few left in Manchester,” says the American artist.

Indeed one hoped-for location for his latest work featured one giant chimney, which was subsequently demolished a few weeks before the shoot.

“Heavy industry is gone from Manchester and in a way the new industry coming into Manchester, I guess, would be culture,” says Tunick.

Where once were factories, he continues, you now have a large student population, a vibrant gay and lesbian scene, new museums, and now nudes.

“So for me the masses of bodies represent the inward motion of culture, as Lowry’s masses of clothed bodies, of factory workers and pedestrians, represented industry, the former industry,” he explains.

Tunick has never used an entire project to reference another artist’s work in this way. “I wanted to be a bit more conceptual with the exhibition,” he says. Indeed where do you go after photographing 18,000 people in Mexico City as the artist did in 2007?

This time round 1,000 volunteers have taken part and eight locations, including Peel Park in Salford (pictured), were chosen in secret.

“We don’t announce the locations, because it’s not a naked run with 500 runners and 100,000 people watching. It’s quite a private piece – as private as you can get in a public space,” he says.

Tunick has also decided to freeze bodies in motion for this piece and it will be the first time he has displayed such work. Asked about the effects of this technique, he says: “It’s a cross between the negative connotations of George Orwell’s 1984 and the positive representation of a nude utopia.”

It seems Greater Manchester may be bidding for utopian status. This weekend’s shoots have been organised with full co-operation of the local authorities, whereas in New York the artist has been arrested five times for breaking public nudity laws.

“Well it’s very hard to hide 500 people so we have to get permission,” he explains. “Kate Farrell, the curator, has done an amazing job securing the locations from local government and co-operation from the police. So now the police will actually be helping us as opposed to being our adversary.”

Prior to choreographing a small army of naked Northerners, Tunick was unclear about the ability of the British to cope with the cold in the nude but assured me they would have heated buses.

“It’s definitely more of a fiery group in South America compared with Germany or Holland,” he says. “Often where the body is not as accepted in society there’s more excitement about the act of participating and you know sometimes it’s just really easy – the people are just really easy to work with – and sometimes they are so excited to be naked and be on the streets that it takes time to calm everyone down and start making some art.”

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