Spencer Tunick in Blarney: Porn at the End of the Rainbow?

Weeks before, in the pub, it seemed like a great idea. But as the deadline for American photographer Spencer Tunick's naked photo shoot approached, my buddies dropped out one by one. In the end I got a taxi to the grounds of Blarney Castle. The taxi driver pointed out two protesters in the distance. It's not that long ago in Ireland that they might well have been real protesters. But it was clear that they were just having a laugh. I was able to tell the driver what their placards said long before we could actually read them: Careful Now & Down With This Sort of Thing. I wondered if Spencer Tunick would get the joke.

I arrived as instructed at 3am. It was night and it was cold. Photography, by its nature, doesn't generally happen at night so there was no reason for us all to be there so early. It was almost two hours before anything at all happened. While the weather in Ireland is variable, it's easy to look up when sunrise will happen. There was no good reason to have us all waiting (albiet clothed) for so long. Quite a lot of people were drunk. There was also a lot of pot. I know little of such things and had been unaware that there is such a wide variety of blends available.

Blarney Castle was a sensible choice. The grounds are lovely and it is easy to restrict access to the area. I was a bit disappointed by what I felt was a bit of an Ireland + Building = Blarney Castle cliché, since the building is of little historical, cultural, or social value to Cork people. Shandon or Patrick St. might have been more meaningful to locals, but they would have meant nothing to a global audience. Besides, part of the charm of Tunick's work is how he takes well know locations and shows them in a fresh light. The pictures are simultaneously familiar and strange. So the well known location is important.

When it came time to get naked I was surprised at how comfortable other people seemed to be. I knew I wouldn't be bothered by it myself, but I thought that made me a weirdo. I'm not, it turns out. Or if I am, at least I have company.

Anyone who participated in the hope of seeing lots of naked women would have been disappointed. Although there were plenty female participants, if you are one of a thousand naked people all facing the same way, all you are going to see is thousands of ass cheeks. I concluded years ago that I my dick is of modest proportions relative to the rest of the population. But I was not quite prepared for the onslaught of statistical data supporting my conclusion. While surrounded by hundreds of women and their lovely curves, all I could think of was may place on the curve.

The first sequence of shots was in front of the castle. First we faced the camera with the castle behind us. Then we turned our backs to the camera. Finally we bent over and made cobblestones of ourselves. The press was close by for these shots. When in the cobblestone position I was a bit uncomfortable. Unfortunately Spencer did not make it clear when he was taking pictures and when he was not. So, like others, I was uncomfortable for a lot longer than was necessary.

For the second sequence of shots we moved to another field. The castle didn't seem to feature in these shots. Each woman took a red rose and each man a white. We were initially instructed for form lines of men and lines of women, so that there would be bands of colour. But later we jumbled things around a bit. The instruction to "open your flower" was an unfortunate turn of phrase that raised a few chuckles. We first faced the camera looking through our flowers. Then we turned to the left and held them high. Finally we lay flat on our backs and held the roses aloft. I wondered if the flowers meant something. But I expect it was the colour that Tunick was interested in.

That concluded the main business. In all we had been naked for about an hour and it was a bit cold, but not nearly as cold as I had expected. Some people's clothes had been moved, perhaps to clear them from the shot, so these people wandered for a while looking for their clothes. One gentleman seemed so lost that I was tempted to strip off again and give him my underpants.

The next set of shots was for women only. They were taken up a hillside where they were photographed under some trees. From a distance we could see them as they undressed, but couldn't see the shoot itself.

While I was waiting around I reflected on the morning's events. Spencer was very focused on getting the pictures just right. He stressed on several occasions that it wasn't all about being naked. It was about making Art. However this didn't sit well with the TV news cameras, radio reporters, and other press. Surely if the main focus was the end product then Tunick need have only sent some JPEGs to the TV stations and newspapers. If it was purely about the art, he need not have invited them to report on the process of making it. And while I myself find photography fascinating, I have to concede that it doesn't make for great radio. The popular press is not that interested in Art. It is interested in spectacle. How often does Art make the front page of Irish newspapers?

So why were they there? Therein lies some insight in to Tunick's work. It is as much about the process as it is the product. Perhaps even more so. He is as much phenomenon as photographer. Some of his pictures are not even that interesting to look at. It is the mere fact of there existence that it is interesting. How they were made is what engages the viewer. The fact that a thousand people met in a field and got naked to make art is the point. The finished product is secondary, perhaps irrelevant. If identical images were produced in Photoshop or by rendering 3-d models they would not be engaging. No one would buy them. The media were invited because Tunick's work has become about the hype, about his celebrity, about the interviews, and about the public's response. He would achieve much the same outcome if took no pictures at all. Although he would have nothing to sell.

When the women's shoot was over, it was clear from the whoops and hollers that they had enjoyed themselves. They felt good about themselves. Some of them were full of energy and one larger woman got her groove on for the distant crowd of on-lookers and started to strut her stuff. I love that Irish women are so comfortable with their bodies.

Although all of the women were asked to be in the women only shoot, exactly 100 men were required for the photo shoot in the river. When I arrived that morning I had decided that I was going to be down the back keeping a low profile. Being one of a thousand naked bodies was fine. Being one of 100 naked men would have made me a bit more identifiable. But I decided I might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. I had brought a cheap and cheerful tea-towel with me in anticipation of being rained on, so I'd even be able to dry myself after my dip in the river.

Exactly 100 men were required because each was going to have one of 100 gold coins. I wondered what was the deal with the gold coins. Was it a statement about materialism? Was the river going to be cleansing us? Was it going to wash away our worldly possessions? Was it a commentary on modern Ireland? Once we were poor, but now Ireland is one of the richest countries in the western world. But if you take away the Hilfiger and the Armani underpants are we still the same people underneath?

Of the 700 or so men that had taken part in the main shoots only about 150 remained. As we gathered around, Spencer selected men from the group. I found this surprising. Much has been made of how Tunick's work celebrates the human form in all its shapes and sizes. Hand picking participants for the close up shoots seemed to run contrary to that philosophy. I guess in any work of art the hand of the auteur is always present. But when Duchamp, without whom none of this would be possible, elevated everyday objects to art he deliberately chose mundane, even unattractive, objects. I was ready to be a ready-made! But Spencer said he was looking for men he would like to find at the end of his rainbow. Bizarrely for a happily married man, in those few moments I desperately wanted to be at the end of Spencer's rainbow. I was always last to be picked at school. I was that useless boy in goal. This I could do well. I could be naked in the cold for as long as it took to make me art. Alas it was not to be. I was not one of the beautiful people. And I wondered to myself if it was better for my ego to be rejected while naked or while dressed.

In case we accidentally appeared in the background of the shot, us rejects had to leave. That was a pity because I would have found it interesting to see the shoot. Also I imagined that the instruction that this sequence was only for those without tattoos and tan-lines was another of the many things that had been poorly communicated. If one of those beautiful people was found to have a tattoo after he'd stripped off, I wouldn't be there to take his place. I couldn't even be a beautiful people understudy.

As I walked away dejected I started to but two and two together: Blarney, gold coins, rainbow. The men only shoot was not a critique of consumerism in modern Ireland. In Tunick's world Ireland + Man = Leprechaun! While I am prepared to forgive the Ireland + Building = Blarney cliché, the leprechaun stereotype is too much. Ireland has changed from a priest governed miserable backward country in the 1960s to one where a thousand adults can comfortably get naked together in a field. But Tunick still sees Ireland though the eyes of a 1960s tartan clad yank. While the event illustrated how open-minded the Irish have become over the years, Tunick and his company of naked leprechauns illustrate how backward the artist's own thinking is. The participants may have learned a lot about themselves from their interaction with the artist, but I expect that Tunick has learned little about the country, its people, culture, and economy. Despite Tunick's protestations that his work is Art and not pornography, he has managed, none-the-less, to degrade his subjects. I wouldn't be surprised to see the pictures published in the St. Patty's Day special of some nudey mag in the U.S.

As I binned my rubbish and tucked my dry tea-towel into my coat pocket I thought a bigger man would donate his towel to a naked and wet beautiful person in need. But I'm not a big man.


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