Skin in the game: is live artistic nudity more than titillation?

From Lourdes to the Berlin metro, artists are continuing the tradition of stripping off in public – but is it still radical, or just lazy?

Berlin is known for a progressive attitude to nudity, from its debauched nightclubs to the naked sunbathing that takes place in parks and at the city’s numerous lakes. But things are changing. Last year, one of its most popular saunas, Verbali spa, buckled under tourist pressure and mandated bathrobes in many areas.

It’s these shifting attitudes that performance artist and activist Mischa Badasyan and his partner, photographer Abdulsalam Ajaj, are putting to the test with their work Weil Ich Dich Liebe (Because I Love You), which captures ordinary citizens of various ages and sizes undressed inside 16 of the city’s metro stations. In one photo, a row of naked men curves around the edge of an empty subway platform, framed between gleaming white columns and a filthy, gravel railway line. What’s striking is how the series offers Berliners the chance to slow down and see what goes unnoticed in the banality of getting from one place to the next – I hadn’t noticed the magenta railings of Prinzenstrasse, until the image of a lone, hirsute-backed, bald-pated man made this detail stand out.

“When I moved [here], each station being different caught my eye: they’re amazing,” says Ajaj, who came to Berlin from Damascus. After trying for six months to gain permission from the city to shoot their series, and failing, the artists put out a call for participants and decided to work illegally in the early mornings – usually before the trains began running – with whoever showed up. The pair exhibited their photos at L’Art pour Elkaar festival in the Dutch city of Maastricht earlier this month and plan to hang posters of the images around the German capital.

“We’ve lost the feeling of belonging to the city,” says Russian-born Badasyan, who thinks unfamiliar experiences can forge connections between people and their surroundings. “But now, when people from these interventions return to the stations we’ve shot at, they feel: ‘This is home.’” Quelling bodily anxiety is another aim of the project: “A trans volunteer said it was the first time he’d felt comfortable with his body.”

Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull installation, Kingston upon Hull, 2016.
‘Creating an intellectual dialogue using social sculpture’ … Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull installation, Kingston upon Hull , 2016. Photograph: Jon Super/AFP/Getty Images

Their naked interventions have faced criticism for being “stunt art”, and that’s a charge Badasyan is familiar with: his 2014 project Save the Date, which involved him having sex with a different man every day for a year, caused controversy. The artist himself saw it as an exploration of loneliness and emotional “horror”.

Whatever your opinion of Badasyan’s work, you can’t deny it raises questions. Namely, is the naked body still transgressive in 2018? And is it only certain bodies that offend?

For the American photographer Spencer Tunick, there’s no way to work with the body at all in public spaces and avoid charges of sensationalism, “even if your intent is to escape that,” he says. Tunick has been shooting mass nude installations since the 1990s in places such as the Sydney Opera House or on a Swiss glacier. A decade ago, his work was criticised as a “wacky publicity stunt” – but he is adamant that “creating an intellectual dialogue using social sculpture is difficult. No one’s paying admission to walk into their city.”

Many in the industry remain wary of modern works involving nudity. “I don’t take them too seriously,” says Olga Hammermeister, art director of Berlin gallery BQ. “Nudity in art is mostly boring. A lot of works are cheap copies of icons, like Marina Abromović.”

Hammermeister also believes that too much nudity has led to an inflationary effect where the value of nakedness is lost. “From a business point of view, it’s also difficult to sell,” she says.

Not everyone is so dismissive. “Shocking or scandalous works can offer interesting commentary,” says Suzanne Royal, a curator at Enter Art Foundation in Berlin. She points out that often the intention is not to shock: “Performance artists often work naked to avoid performing the outfit.” Like the idea behind Germany’s freikörperkultur, or “free body culture”, nudity can be a way of shedding artifice, or removing the class semiotics of clothes. In the former East Germany, it was also a way for people to claim freedom under a repressive government. “A lot of artists are gimmicky but not unserious,” points out Royal.

Which nudes are considered art is not only a contentious issue for critics, but also a current struggle for women artists. The billboard activist group Guerrilla Girls famously revealed that, in 1989, less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum were women, yet 85% of the nudes were female. The New York-based curator and artist Coco Dolle asks: “How do women, who have been men’s muses for so long, reclaim our bodies in our own work?”

It seems nudity still has a large role to play in art. So what can we gain from new nude works created by those formerly excluded from making art, and what does their self-portraiture tell us about body politics, cultural suppression and power?

Historically, women’s bodies have been “obsessively subject to male artists’ idealising, fetishising, and mechanising,” says the artist Carolee Schneemann. “Inclusions of our nudity defied and disrupted the masculine traditions.” Schneemann’s prolific feminist work in the 60s and 70s avant-garde movement focused on female sexual pleasure in a time when the word “vagina” couldn’t be spoken in a movie. Although she was largely influential in the development of performance and body art, she’s only been celebrated by the art establishment in the past few years, winning a lifetime achievement award and the first comprehensive retrospective of her six-decade career in 2017, at New York’s MoMA. Her piece Interior Scroll (1975), in which she read a text unravelled from her vagina, commented on the dismissal of women’s art. Her long fight to be recognised as both “image and image-maker”, considered at first narcissistic and pornographic, continues with young women artists today.

Mischa Badasyan, Weil Ich Dich Liebe.
‘We’ve lost the feeling of belonging to the city’ … Mischa Badasyan, Weil Ich Dich Liebe. Photograph: Abdulsalam Ajaj

The Luxembourger artist Deborah de Robertis uses her body, and occasionally her menstrual blood, in her performances. Standing naked below a shrine of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes in September, she donned a blue veil on her head before being arrested. “Female nudity acts like a filter which is hard to see beyond,” says the artist, who is best known for her unsanctioned piece Mirror of Origin, when she disrobed in the Musée d’Orsay and sat naked before Gustave Courbet’s hairy vulva painting, The Origin of the World . With a camera on her head, she gave the passive female subject a gaze. “The institutions become the object,” she says. “It’s important to remember: what creates scandal is not the nudity itself, but the emancipation.”

There is undeniably a sense of freedom and excitement that comes from creating nude art. When I lived in Brooklyn in 2008, I heard that Tunick was taking a photograph at the Four Seasons in Manhattan. The subversiveness of being collectively naked in a room usually occupied by power lunchers sounded like fun. And it was – there was a camaraderie akin to a post-protest buzz. Although I wasn’t terribly taken with the image I later received in the mail, with its symmetrical composition of the carpeted room, what did move me was being vulnerable with other people – a momentary break with the daily anonymity of big-city living. It was also politically energising. When I go to the beach or visit the sauna, my naked body with its armpit and pubic hair says to anyone who looks that obeying expensive, time-consuming, and painful gendered norms is optional. When I’m nude in the context of art, this goes further: I declare my rejection of the policing of women’s bodies as aesthetically valuable – an artwork – rather than “disgusting” or “unclean”.

But if the predominantly lighter-skinned volunteers in Tunick’s photos are any indication, finding liberation in public nudity may be more difficult for some.

“Because black people’s bodies were put on display at slave auctions [often naked], we’re less likely to put ourselves out there,” points out photographer Nona Faustine. In her series White Shoes, Faustine photographed herself wearing only a pair of white heels at historical slave sites in New York “to talk about the history of violence perpetrated on the black body from slavery to present. It was also a celebration of my body ... We’ve been made to feel ashamed of nudity, but I found redemption.”

During the Renaissance, when women were depicted hairless to signify class, art created unrealistic pressures on female bodies. Today, advertising, porn and media expectations of how girls and women should look engineer corporeal anxiety to detrimental effect. Only 20% of British women feel confident about their bodies and a quarter of UK girls are depressed by age 14.

Collective nudity in art can work as personal and social therapy against negative and idealised body images, a chance to see what women actually look like unedited. Humanised depictions of ordinary bodies are essential for transforming western history’s male-dominated framework of women as decorative.

The lingering scepticism towards nudity in modern art is telling. Nakedness brings to the surface deep-rooted cultural tensions felt by people of all genders between our relationship with our bodies and our sexualities. More radical works where women, people of colour, and others previously excluded from representation liberate their image, will likely be met with increased hostility as the resurgence of conservative political power affects a return to regressive attitudes on the body in art. As Faustine says: “Our bodies are highly politicised.”


Mary Katharine Tramontana

The GuardianTramp

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