Now that Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has lived a long and fruitful life, what would you say is his crowning achievement? Uhhh-huh-huh...he saw naked people.
A revealing portrait of an artist and his subjects
If Haley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense had turned to you and said "I see naked people…" you could assume he'd been watching director/producer Arlene Donnelly Nelson's documentary Naked World. Her subject, contemporary artist Spencer Tunick, wants you to see naked people. Thousands of them. And if you watch this movie, you will.
Oh boy. I really wanted to open the "porn or art" can of worms today. Put unease at rest; if Naked World makes one thing clear, it's that Spencer's photographs are not about porn. So watch all the naked people with a clear conscience.
The murkier question is whether Tunick is a legitimate artist or a ballsy, exploitative con man. Actually, with respect to his numerous dissenters, I think the better question is whether Tunick will be considered a great contemporary artist ten years from now or simply as a decent photographer with a novel idea who became briefly popular.
Let's backtrack a moment. Spencer Tunick is a guerilla-cum-legitimate photographer who puts naked people into unusual formations and snaps away. His best works feature thousands of nude forms undulating like waves on the pavement of Montreal, or forming new terrain on a river bank in Melbourne. Like an edgy Anne Geddes, Spencer recasts the human form. Arlene Donnelly Nelson and a skeleton crew follow Spencer around the globe during his "Nude Adrift" project, during which Spencer attempts to photograph nudes on all seven continents in as many major cities as possible. In terms of pure logistics alone, this is an ambitious documentary project.
Donnelly Nelson's film is intrinsically tied to Spencer and his project. Tunick is not so much a photographer as an installation artist. Installations can be purely conceptual, such as Claes Oldenburg's perfectly rectangular hole in the ground refilled with the remixed dirt, or they can be visual, such as Christo's huge swaths of fabric covering Central Park. In Tunick's case, an installation consists of thousands of urbanites shedding their clothes and huddling together on cold pavement to make a statement.
That statement is at the heart of Tunick's work and Naked World. Is Spencer's statement "Hey look! I can get 2,000 people to drop trou in Melbourne!"? Or is it something deeper, something artistic, about the dehumanizing effect of miles of concrete or the self expression of repressed urbanites?
Tunick himself is frustratingly mute on the subject. Donnelly Nelson takes every opportunity she can to record Spencer talking about his statement, but the ineloquent Tunick rarely rises to the occasion. Donnelly Nelson makes up for it by interviewing dozens of his models, delving into why they posed nude for him and how it made them feel. The overwhelming refrain is that posing nude for Spencer unlocked a sense of freedom and gave them peace with their own bodies. The large installations almost always end in bursts of spontaneous cheering. The people involved tell you that Spencer Tunick is a transformative artist, and that the pictures are secondary.
Naked World is alternately routine and moving. At least one of the sequences is unambiguously captivating. After several frustrating arrests in New York, Spencer is openly embraced by the city of Montreal. He stands on a stepladder in the middle of the street and watches as his naked models trickle in. After working with tens of surreptitious models in New York City, Spencer is excited at the prospect of photographing hundreds of people in peace. But the camera pulls back as realization dawns on Spencer. Not hundreds, but thousands of naked people are swarming up behind him, literally extending to the horizon like a river. Pitch-perfect music and a judicious reveal shot give us both a sense of Tunick's emotional state and the sheer enormity of the fluid river of naked people streaming by.
Magnificent sequences like this are interspersed with tiring location scoutings and typical talking heads describing the social mores of their cultures. This content is conceptually interesting and gives us a glimmer of how some could consider Tunick a great artist. For example, one of Spencer's photographs is a rather uninteresting shot of an older African man standing in a field with houses behind him. Donnelly Nelson shows us that the location is a District 6 neighborhood in Capetown, South Africa, and the man is a former resident who watched his town get bulldozed to the ground to make way for white luxury residences. In context, the photograph takes on great significance.
The footage is generally clean, though it was obviously shot with a minimum of setup and fuss. Still intercuts of Tunick's photographs take on the telltale stairstepping of PAL to NTSC conversion. Audio is sufficient to do the job and not much more.
Three extras fill in our understanding of Tunick and Naked World. A brief still gallery shows additional photos, which isn't substantive. Better is extended raw footage of a New York installation in Grand Central Station with all women models. This footage is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it brings Tunick full circle from street vagrant to condoned artist in his home base. Second, it shows some of the logistics and social considerations of the installations; a security force of mostly male cops stares (and in some cases, leers) at the nude women during and after the shoot. I don't blame them; I agree with the Russian museum curator who said that Tunick's work is erotic, and the women lounging around Grand Central in the buff range from grotesquely overweight to statuesque and model-worthy.
The final extra is a commentary featuring Arlene Donnelly Nelson and Spencer Tunick. In some ways, this commentary is more of the same as Tunick re-phrases things he's already said in the documentary. But Donnelly Nelson gets to chime in, and we see that she seeks to soften Tunick's inflammatory remarks towards the people who worked to make his installations possible. Her comments are interesting because they pertain to the logistics of making the film, while Tunick reflects on his emotional state during certain scenes. The commentary is successful at providing an engaging, informative counterpoint to the film even though it doesn't fully escape the path laid out by the film.
Naked World has slow spots, such as an overlong sequence of gloomy foreshadowing before Tunick and his associates land on Antarctica, but in general it sells the vibe of what the "Nude Adrift" project means for artist, subjects, museum curators, and people on the street. When Tunick returns to the States, we sense that he and his artistic approach have changed. The documentary instills a conspiratorial sense of naked rebellion in the viewer. At least it did in this viewer: your experience will be shaped by the personal and cultural views you have of nudity and art.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by director Arlene Donnelly Nelson and artist Spencer Tunick
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