The alarm woke me at 0230. I got dressed into the old clothes recommended in the joining instructions, left my hotel room, and stepped out into the dark night.
I walked the 10 minutes to the rendezvous, past the late night revellers and in step with couples wearing onesies, tracksuits and a variety of outfits that could only mean they were heading in my direction.
We were all in Hull to take part in a Spencer Tunick art installation Sea of Hull. For those who don’t know, Spencer Tunick is famous for using naked people as brush strokes on his canvases of usually urban landscapes.
Hull is the UK’s City of Culture in 2017. Tunick’s commission is part of the show. Not only that, but the presence of thousands of naked people in city streets is guaranteed to generate publicity for the big event next year. It certainly worked. I saw pictures in the German publication Der Spiegel the same day.
What possessed me to put my name forward and make my nude modelling debut at the age of 61?
There were a number of factors. I went to university in Hull and have retained a great affection for the place. I wanted to contribute to its City of Culture achievement. I also have ancestral links with the city. But more than either of those things, I wanted to be naked in public without fear of arrest.
I can’t really explain this. I can only suggest that it’s like making a statement that I exist as part of nature. The removal of normal social constraints would be, I thought, quite liberating. And while that felt true of my personal motivation, the event itself was actually more reaffirming of our social instincts.
We signed in and were given a see-through plastic bag with a letter and a number on it. I was B2. I walked to Queen’s Gardens where thousands were already gathered in their assigned quadrant – B1, B2, B3 and B4. Each participant was handed a tub of coloured body make up – a different colour depending our your quadrant. Mine was a fetching light blue.
As a singleton, I found myself in a throng of couples and small groups. Given what we were about to do, I found the idea of striking up a conversation with anyone quite inhibiting. We stood around for a long time.
Then we were briefed by Spencer himself. We returned to our quadrants, told to strip off and apply our make-up.
The gusto with which 3,200 people shed their clothes was impressive. Like we’d been waiting all our lives for this moment. Within minutes we were head to toe in blue, purple or green. Men and women of all ages and sizes. Some were even in wheelchairs.
The make-up had a peculiar physical effect – like we had turned into statuary.
But the gradually overwhelming sense was that we were a community. We were sharing an experience with total strangers, yet felt we belonged to something bigger than ourselves.
The humour developed and spread. Its premise: that we were some kind of alien religious cult and Spencer was our god. When Spencer barked at us to “face the wall” we imbued it with quasi-mystical qualities and chanted: “The Wall. The Wall.” One of Spencer’s assistants, Steve, was continually referenced by our god, so every time Steve was asked to do something we responded with an unearthly ecstatic moan – Steeeeve. Steeeeve.
When we made our way up a street to our last installation – 3200 naked people in coloured body paint – there was a group of young folk on a balcony overlooking the scene. Someone shouted up to them: “You look weird!” And within the humour was a grain of truth. For that hour, we were mainstream. People in clothes were outcasts.
One question most people ask about being naked in a crowd of naked people is whether it is erotic. I guess the fear is that proximity to another naked person could trigger an unwelcome physical or emotional response – an erection or crushing embarrassment. It didn’t. I was struck that I could stand next to a beautiful naked young woman, appreciate her, and not be aroused. The cold air temperature probably helped. But it was more than that. A sense of community. A sense of togetherness that transcended our usual everyday emotions and reactions. A sense that their humanity, their ‘humankindness’, mattered a great deal and was worthy of care and preservation. Respect and trust was an unspoken contract between us.
Afterwards, my blueness washed away down the shower drain and eating breakfast, I felt a sense of elation. I had been part of something extraordinary. Life-affirming. Human. I would definitely do it again.