(Written for Last Word, The Kolkata Telegraph, published on July 24, 2005)
“How could they do that?” my friend said. We were discussing photographer Spencer Tunick’s “installation” in Newcastle, for which he persuaded roughly 1,700 ordinary people to pose naked. My friend is a bright writer, but to her the idea that you might strip in public along with a bunch of strangers was repugnant.
She hated the images Tunick produced, found them unsettling and very disconcerting. In Mumbai, the critic Khalid Ansari excoriated Tunick: was this really art, he asked, this display of “ugly, disgusting bodies”?
I looked at those two adjectives and suddenly, what Tunick is trying to do fell into place. If you look at his images without prejudice, you can’t help but be touched and surprised at the amazing patterns human bodies can make: like shoals of fish in the sea, like pink and white streaks of light. Very few people have perfect forms. The men have bellies that sag, or skinny legs, or drooping shoulders; the women have heavy hips, fat bottoms, sagging breasts, too little muscle on their stomachs or too much.
I suppose you could call those bodies “ugly” and “disgusting”, if what you’re used to seeing is the absolute standard of perfection that the media forces on us. Male nudity has never been as titillating or as much of a commodity as female nudity; to me, the value of Tunick’s pictures was that they made me realize how seldom we are offered pictures of naked men, how little we assess or analyse or think about the male body.
Female nudity is all over the place; in “wardrobe malfunctions”, in the films, on the Net, hinted at in ads. And what we see is…perfect. Tunick’s photographs made me realize how little those images have to do with real women. Real women have bodies that unfold like maps, every wrinkle and scar and curve of fat telling its own story. Real women have cellulite and boobs that aren’t aerodynamic marvels. I hadn’t noticed how seldom we see real women, how eagerly, pathetically, painfully we try to live up to some impossible ideal of beauty.
“We live in a world where the media can go out of its way to mock those in the public eye whose bodies aren’t perfect and it’s easy to absorb the message that an extra 10lb or 50lb makes you unworthy. When people pose I think it heightens their awareness of their own bodies, how precious life is…,” Tunick said of his work.
You have to be really blinkered, really sick, a slave to the idea that there is only one standard of beauty and perfection for the body, to think that those bodies in those photographs are “ugly” and “disgusting”. Spencer Tunick’s images offer hope, a counterpoint to the world of swimsuit calendars and beauty contests, a sense of wonder in the ordinary, astonishing bodies that all of us are stuck with.
I think of all those young men ferociously working out, filling their bodies with steroids; all those anorexic, neurotic young women who know that no matter what they do, their bodies will fall short of some adman’s ideal. And I wish they could look at these images, pictures that don’t idealise the nude but celebrate the human figure in all its variety, and see that beauty can lurk in the most imperfect of things.