Naked and Fearless!

an essay, in progress…

“We’re naked and fearless!  We’re naked and fearless!” sang the two young women as they skipped past me.

They, and I, were taking up positions for the first of three mass nude installations the noted artist Spencer Tunick was busy assembling on Cleveland’s waterfront early the morning of June 26.

All 2,750 of us had just dropped trou at the announcement by Tunick’s producer that it was “time to get our kit off”.  Everyone disrobed without hesitation;  there were a few whoops, a buzz of voices and a lot of happy laughter as we exposed our skin to the 57ºF temperature.

The participants were a happy mix of ages and body types.  I noticed one gentleman in a wheelchair, and another with a prosthetic leg.  An elderly woman attended with her daughter.  Any skin color other than white was underrepresented – I guessed there were about two dozen black folks taking part.  The crowd seemed pretty balanced gender-wise, and in fact was reported later to be over 50% female.  Average age skewed younger;  there were a few old folks, a number of middle-aged men (like me), and a chunk of thirty- and forty-somethings.  Some were tanned, most were pale, and one hell of a lot of men had tattoos on their backs (I expected this more of young women).  

Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art had invited Tunick to create an installation during his showing at the museum last January.  The event was lightly publicized by the media;  I heard about it on NPR and then saw a small item in the Plain Dealer.  It was enough to generate hundreds of applicants, and Tunick was not able to find any indoor space large to accomodate even 500 people.  It was decided to schedule the event for June.  

By the Big Day, over 5,000 people had registered.  Tunick expects a 50% turnout, and that’s about what he got – still enough to edge Montreal’s 2,500 for bragging rights to the largest North American installation.  I hope more U.S. cities summon up the nerve and the energy to make similar events happen, because make no mistake, it took a lot of work and donations by MOCA staff and patrons to get the necessary permission from the Port Authority and to get equipment and crowd control set up.

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  • I had tried several times over the weeks preceding Tunick’s visit to talk my wife into at least volunteering at the event.  There was no way she was going to pose nude (poor body self-image) and she simply did not want to be present at all, apparently because a crowd of nekkid folks would make her feel uncomfortable.  She was very supportive of my participation, however. My 14-year-old daughter was completely grossed out, naturally.

    The PR director of MOCA contacted me a few days prior to the installation to ask if I’d mind being interviewed for a piece in the News-Herald.  I called the reporter who was doing the story and began the interview by stating that my last name was off the record until I declared one way or another at the end of the session.  As the questioning proceeded, I got the impression that he was angling towards a “tee-hee!  all these people got nekkid!” story and requested that he not use my full name.  As it turned out, his was one of the few thoughtful, thorough pieces published the day after and I regretted not allowing him to quote me.  He didn’t use my interview because he found a couple of other east siders to talk to during the event.

    My worries on the eve of the Big Day were, oddly enough, over how to dress.  I knew the morning would be downright chilly.  How to layer clothing so as to stay warm yet be able to peel down quickly and then get dressed again quickly?  I settled on warmups, a long-sleeve cotton jersey, and a heavy denim shirt;  moccasins, sans socks.  No ‘derwear, naturally.  I didn’t want to fall on someone while attempting to get dressed.

    I bounced out of bed to kill the alarm 3:30am and managed to shave, shower, make a pot of coffee and grab a bagel without waking anyone, including my faithful watchdogs.  The streets and highway were quite empty, of course, and I saw no one as I turned off onto the road leading to a parking lot close to the action.

    The first rush of anticipation arrived when I rounded a corner and saw a long line of cars queueing for the lot from the west (I had approached from the east).  It looked like the early crowd for a Brown’s game!  People, and a lot of them, were actually going to go through with this!  I was delighted;  I had been hoping for a great turnout that would help open some eyes around the country to the fact that Cleveland was a bit more liberal and progressive than the rest of the state and most of the fly-over region.

    Being an unescorted middle-aged man, I was concerned that the first half dozen people I saw were – you guessed it – unescorted, middle-aged men.  I was worried that the crowd was going to be like that at some nude beaches I’ve visited:  a few couples, and a lot of male pervs hanging around looking for a glimpse o’ pussy.

    As I arrived at the check-in line, my concerns were allayed;  the long line was populated by couples, small groups of young women, a few small groups of young men (who probably had come there straight from the bars) – people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and gender preferences.  The mood was light, happy, joking, and eager.

    [ more to come ]

  • As I mentioned before, the crowd was well-behaved.  One young couple streaked as we waited.   I chalked this up to exhibitionism fueled by alchohol consumption.  A young man removed his clothes and kept them off for the duration;  I think he was either a naturist or else decided to get past the shyness – or the chill – before he lost his nerve.

    The women in particular were a class act.  After the group installation they had to disrobe again as the men sat fully clothed, and walk through the crowd to get to the area that Tunick wanted them to pose in.  They did so with good will and good humor.  They made the men’s session fun with their attention, their kidding, and their comments at how cool the installments looked as we changed poses.

    So how, might you ask, did I feel about taking off my clothes on a chilly morning at Cleveland’s waterfront in mixed company?  I loved it.  I’m middle-aged, overweight, and underendowed, not that I care.  I wasn’t there to show off, and I didn’t expect anyone to look at me.  It was indescribably pleasant to be legally nude in such a public setting, and the empathy, respect and even love I felt for my fellow participants both surprised and invigorated me.  

    If you get a chance to take part in a Tunick installation, do not hesitate.  I guarentee that if it even occurs to you that it might be fun/interesting/important, then it’s worth it for you.

    I’ll post a reduced-fidelity scan of the print when I receive it.

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