"Promoting exposure of a person"

Artist Spencer Tunick is in hot water with the NYPD for attempting to photograph 150 nude people in Times Square.

By Jenn Shreve

Published June 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

On April 25 at 6:15 a.m., artist Spencer Tunick was arrested and his equipment confiscated as he attempted to photograph 150 volunteer models in New York's Times Square. He's currently charged with reckless endangerment, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, promoting exposure of a person, unlawful assembly and criminal possession of a forged instrument (the permit he held was allegedly altered). But according to his lawyer, Ron Kuby, these charges are a load of trumped-up hooey. The reason for this and past arrests is always the same, Kuby says: "Because there are naked people in public places." Tunick's models, you see, pose nude -- whether as a crowd or alone -- in public spaces. "Living sculptures," Tunick, 32, calls them. He recently completed his "Naked States" tour, during which he visited and photographed nudes in all 50 states.

Although Tunick has been arrested before, the Times Square incident was the first to make national news. In a May 6 New York Times editorial, William Safire defended the artist, saying, "We libertarians view this bluenosed suppression of artistic expression as a foolish waste of the police's time." A prescient statement when you consider the events that followed. Tunick's repeated attempts to reapply for a permit to photograph his nudes on city streets were rejected. When he was finally given approval to assemble and photograph a group of clothed models on June 6, he was greeted by 50 police officers and six paddy wagons. "It was the police vs. me on this early Sunday morning when not a soul was on the street. It felt like the '60s. It was oppressive. I photographed everyone lying on the sidewalk fully clothed with their hands raised," he told me recently over the phone. Meanwhile, Kuby is filing a federal civil rights lawsuit to obtain an injunction against the city of New York that will prevent the police from arresting Spencer and his models for public nudity during his next shoot on July 18.

I met with Tunick in late May at the i-20 Gallery in Chelsea, where he is a featured artist.

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How would you describe your work?

I form living sculptures with hundreds of people nude, lying on their backs or in other positions. Not touching. Not sexual. Forming a shape. There's no sexual directness to the work. It's a very beautiful pink sculpture, spotted with tans and browns and yellows.

What are the logistics of finding people to pose?

I hand out 3,000 flyers. On my invitation, I always include specific instructions and a sample of my work. Usually 5 to 10 percent show up for the shoot. Everyone who participates gets a small, signed print. Then I make six bigger prints, so I'll have something to make a living off of.

I take everyday people and bring them into the contemporary art world. A lot of people come into the photograph thinking they're going to see naked bodies, and that it's going to be a sexual experience. When it's over, they may not remember even seeing a breast or a penis. It might just be this crazy pink blur they see. People also volunteer to pose by e-mailing nakedpavement@hotmail.com.

Does everyone who shows up get to pose, or are you selective about who appears in your pictures?

I know it sounds really wacky, but usually people who wear gold don't pose. People who wear silver do pose. People who have pearl earrings or pearl necklaces don't pose. I never give it to anyone wearing a suit unless they've undone their tie, and there's some kind of leather or shell hanging from their neck -- something that hints at their individuality. No one wearing Tommy Hilfiger would pose. The hip-hop crowd -- white or black -- wouldn't pose.

You can tell by what someone's wearing if they have a sense of freedom. Mostly I pick people who are wearing something in fashion, who demonstrate that they've learned about the human figure and about art, even in the smallest way. To pose for me, you have to let go of your ego. Just for a few minutes of your life, you have to be a performance artist.

How long have you been shooting these photos?

I've been doing single person nudes since 1992. I started my group photographs in '94, when I photographed 28 people in front of the United Nations. Then the next summer, in '95, I realized this was something I wanted to start to working on. So I started handing out flyers. This is my fifth summer.

There have been a lot of changes made in Times Square over the past two years -- the removal of porn stores, for example. Do you feel that your arrest was related to these changes?

Yes, I do. I think the first sign that a society is going in the wrong direction is when they stop the artists, writers and intellectuals from creating their work. These are small steps in inhibiting the rights and the freedoms of visual artists. If I can't do it, no one can. Every single photographer or artist in this city better stay inside and not go outdoors -- and not photograph even one nude.

I didn't expect to be arrested or jailed for 18 hours. The crime didn't fit the punishment. I lost my identity in jail. The police put handcuffs on me. I felt like my hands were going to be ripped off from my body. It was just a very horrible experience. One day my work is going to be in a museum, and the children and grandchildren of the people who put me in jail are going to be looking at it. They're going to have to look at their parents and their grandparents and wonder how they could have put me in jail for this. It's ridiculous. This shouldn't be happening to me.

In your wildest dreams, did you ever expect to be defended by William Safire?

My lawyer, Ron Kuby, told me that William Safire and other reporters have a genuine affinity for my work. It's not necessarily that they're standing up for the right to be free. They believe in my vision. That's a great compliment. Out of all the press I've gotten for this -- and I've gone on this roller coaster ride before -- the William Safire piece validated my work. I just felt lost in the drift. He really just made me feel good about myself again.

Have you been in trouble for doing your work in the past?

In Indiana, we were chased out of the parking lot by security. They had no idea what I was doing. Of course they would equate it with pornography -- even though it was in the parking lot of the museum.
During another shoot in Indiana, the police stopped my van. They said they were going to confiscate it and confiscate my camera and film. I had to slow them down and say, this is art. This is a 50 state project.

I've been arrested before, but they never put me through the 18-hour system. They usually just ticket me. We defend our first amendment rights. It gets thrown out of court. But now I think Guiliani can't tell the difference between pornography and nudity. They better take a closer look at my work. People might laugh because it involves nudity, naked people. It's not Woodstock. It's not a fraternity joke. It's not about nudism. I'm not a nudist. This case will represent every single artist who does work in public -- in New York, around the state and maybe around the country. Who knows how far it will go?

When I walk out of my apartment in New York, I don't want to feel caged in. I also don't want to be sent to the beaches and the forests. I don't want it to be sent to the ghetto. I want to be here doing my work in New York and be left alone by the authorities. I want to be urban. I want to be juxtaposing the body to the anonymity of public space. There's vulnerability there. You question who you are. What's life about. Right now, I feel like I'm in this Pac Man game. I'm this little running artist. These coppers with blue hoods are going chomp, chomp, chomp -- chasing after me.

It seems that depicting violence as art, on TV or elsewhere is much less problematic than showing a nude human body.

I think it was Lenny Bruce who said in a stand-up piece, that you could cut off a woman's breast and show that. But you can't show a naked breast. That's not the exact statement, but it's sad.
On CNN, you can see someone's head open with his brains dripping out, but you can't show a non-sexual nude body. It's always blurred out. If you don't show the most beautiful things in society, it's just going to reverse on itself.

Mayor Guiliani went on television and said that he used to dabble in photography but not that type. Then on another station he said, I believe in First Amendment rights but not in public. To say that to me! I'm not taking away his salary. I'm not taking away his desire to work. Not only did I lose my vision and my artwork, but I lost the possibility of paying for my rent for the next six months. I don't know what I'm going to do. I feel like wrapping 1,000 bodies around city hall and shooting it from a helicopter.

Do you feel like you're being pressured to make a political statement?

I don't want to be a political artist. I want to form shapes and abstractions with bodies. Slowly but surely, though, because of my time spent in jail -- and them trying to stop my work -- it's happening. It's eating me up. What painter goes into their studio thinking that they're going to be arrested? What sculptor makes a public sculpture thinking that when they place it down, they're going to be arrested? Not many.

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You can view examples of Spencer Tunick's work at i-20's Web site. To pose for Tunick, e-mail nakedpavement@hotmail.com.

Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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