I am being a bit self-indulgent here, but since a fair number of people have been quite curious I thought I’d go over my impression of being a naked Smurf last Saturday.
On Saturday morning I participated in the Sea of Hull installation in, well, Hull. In 2017 Hull will be the UK city of culture and the council and local art gallery had commissioned the artist Spencer Tunick to create a series of artworks for an exhibition next spring as part of the overall effort. Tunick’s work is mostly in large scale installations of nudes, usually around well know landmarks and on various themes. I have been a fan for some years and when the email came around asking for participants it was a fairly easy decision to sign up.
A slight aside; I would not consider myself a naturist. I do not find the idea of being unclothed and going about normal things such as cooking or sitting chatting with a cup of tea an appealing prospect, far from it (although to those that do, fine by me). However, as someone who has always (and still has) body image issues I have tried hard to find things which challenge me and actually every time I have come away with a better appreciation for what God has given me – and a respect for others. I’ve previously taken part in a mass skinny dip in Wales for charity (about 400 people) which at the time was a world record, and it was a hilarious experience – I felt like a 5 year old and there was much giggling to be had. I hoped with Hull there would be a similar feel, and the absurdity of adults acting differently from normal was certainly present, but there was something else too, which I will come to presently.
(As another aside, I will point out that the Lovely Wife was not participating with me – this is absolutely not her thing at all. At the skinny dip, she spent the time helping organise everyone – this time she slept through it)
So how did it work? Well the hardest thing about it was the time. I had to be on site for 2.45 am in the morning, and while I am a ‘morning’ person that was a struggle even for me, as was dodging the drunken yobs wandering aimlessly through Hull city centre (presumably having been thrown out of the clubs that were still in full swing). Having registered I was directed to a queue to pick up a bag with the jar of paint that would be the adornment for the day. Then it was mainly sitting around waiting for instructions. I was on my own, but there were a lot of couples and small groups. Ages were widely spread, from students through to the elderly. Eventually we were briefed on what was going to happen – once we were ready, it would be a series of installations through the city centre. After the briefing – more waiting, this time really for daylight.
Once this arrived, the notice went out to get ready, so off came the clothes and on went the paint. Now I will say one thing here. If you ever do anything like this, just get on with it. The most difficult bit about being naked is the undressing so the less time you can spend doing that the easier it is. Once that was over, a rather sweet collaboration developed with your neighbours to check that the bits you could not see – including your face – were properly covered in paint, as everything (including hair, something of a challenged for many of the girls) needed to be completely one of four shades of blue that you had been randomly allocated to when you registered. Once done, we all trooped off to the first installation, cajoled by assistants with megaphones.
From that point on the main difficulty was following the instructions over the noise of over three thousand people nattering to each other about how strange this was, how weirdly good some people look painted green and just how bloody cold the breeze was. I’ve never seen so many goose bumps.
Although occasionally things did seem to take rather longer to set up then perhaps they might, most of the shoot went smoothly and we were released to go back to our clothes at about seven in the morning. There was a certain level of grumbling about the rather loose interpretation of ‘a short time’ – the promise in the instructions for how long we would be undressed, which in fact was the best part of three hours. But most people took it stoically – in the end if it had been five minutes there would not have been much less of embarrassment (if indeed there was any). Walking back to the hotel was a surreal experience – people with heads and hands painted blue and green otherwise dressed normally did make you feel you were in the middle of a low budget 1980s science fiction movie, and people starting their journey to work greeted by the same image probably found it even stranger.
Having managed not to terrify the Lovely Wife as I got back to the hotel room and having managed to get most of the paint off, I am left to reflect on a very odd experience. I enjoyed it, and am quite proud to have taken part in a collective art installation – we’ll be back in Hull next year when the final art is exhibited (all that has been in the newspapers is the press coverage not the final photos).
In addition, it taught me in the most graphic way possible the levelling that can happen between people and the subsequent unity that can then evolve. Naked and painted all over means you have no idea what someone does, how well off they may be, even the colour of their skin. It is an interesting way of stopping you making judgements about people and for a few hours folks with nothing at all in common in their normal lives worked and laughed together. If we could only try and achieve that with clothes on and without paint, this country would be a much nicer place.