No. 18: Spencer Tunick Photograph

Artist: Spencer Tunick
Title: Photograph at the Piazza Navona
Date: 2001
Culture: American
Provenance: Signed copy given to EAH as “payment” for being a subject in the photograph. Currently hanging in her bathroom.

In 2001 I spent a glorious semester in Rome. Classes were held in villas and palazzi and museums. I spent my afternoons wandering the city, down narrow cobbled roads, through ancient ruins, visiting Renaissance churches and gardens with an obligatory stop for a cappuccino along the way. It was divine, and I was tremendously spoiled.

Toward the end of my time there, I was eating at a restaurant with friends when someone handed a flier to our group. The artist Spencer Tunick would be photographing people in front of the Four Rivers Fountain at sunup the next day, it informed us. Come! Get naked and lie on the ground! We’ll send you a signed photo for your trouble.

Well, being as we were a group of art students, and being as we were in our early twenties, this of course seemed a fabulous idea. It will be an event! Much like a happening!

So we got up early that April or May morning and trekked over to the Piazza Navona from our lodgings on the Aventine Hill. We stripped naked and lay on the cobblestones. In retrospect I’m quite happy that we were shy and hid in the back, where you couldn’t actually see us. But I’m also disappointed, since wasn’t being photographed nude the whole point? Anyway, we lay there a bit cold and embarrassed and naked. All I remember about Spencer Tunick was that he was kind of barking at people to stop fidgeting.

Several months later the photo arrived at my parents’ house in Brooklyn. I have to confess I didn’t quite know what to make of the photo. Tunick’s website says of his photography that the groups of nude figures “en masse, without their clothing, grouped together, metamorphose into a new shape. The bodies extend into and upon the landscape like a substance.” Is that what you see? My mind takes me to darker places. A pile of naked bodies outside makes me think of violence. Genocide. Had I been wearing a more critical hat that spring day in Rome, I might have abstained from participating in this project because I’m not altogether sure how I feel about it.

Art criticism aside, I’m glad I did it. I have the photo hanging on my bathroom wall (I figured it goes well in a room where you get naked), and it reminds me of that delightful semester in Rome, when I had the luxury to make silly decisions. It reminds me of that morning when one such decision allowed me to feel ancient cobblestones on my skin as I looked up at the slowly brightening Roman sky.

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