Looking at art is an individual act. Just as wine connoisseurs ritually sniff, swirl, slurp, and (sometimes) spit, I enact my own curious dance before an artwork: moving in, moving out, looking from the side, pausing, moving on, and (sometimes) returning to linger. But the idea of touring a museum or gallery au naturel never occurred to me for all the (to me) obvious reasons. Australian artist Stuart Ringholt, however, is leading tour groups on a nighttime nude adventure through the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia with the idea that shunning one’s clothing can simultaneously be a shunning of one’s inhibitions. With no barrier between you and the art, can you actually appreciate art better in the buff?
Ringholt recently explained the philosophy behind his performance art/tour guidance in a feature in The New York Times. “It’s very beautiful,” Ringholt tells his group at the beginning of the tour. “We are sexualized with our clothes on—with them off, we are not.” Nudity becomes the new norm, he explains, mentioning that even some of the museum security staff not obligated to bare all take off their clothes after becoming self conscious “around so much flesh.” Ringholt sees nude viewers as the last logical step of the minimalism of modern art museums. Bare walls and bare windows naturally lead to bare bodies. This is just the latest in a series of nude museum tours Ringholt has done throughout his native Australia (example shown above), all in line with the rest of his performance art that focuses on fear of embarrassment, which ranges from walking around with a snotty prosthetic nose to having toilet paper blithely stream from your pants as you stroll. After confronting and conquering his own fears for his art, Ringholt now wants to bring that life-changing epiphany to others and promote modern art at the same time.
None of the works on the tour described in the Times piece featured nudity, so the experience of coming face to face with artistic nudity while nude yourself isn’t described. In 2007, the Compton Verney Gallery in England featured a similar after hours nude tour, but specifically as part of an exhibition called The Naked Portrait 1900-2007. As can be seen in this video (FYI, some, but no frontal, nudity shown), the spectators at that show felt a special kinship with the works on display. Ringholt aims at the social taboo of nudity in the context of modern art in general, whereas the Compton Verney show did double duty in confronting nudity on both sides of the viewer-and-viewed equation.
One thing you may notice in that video is the complete absence of women. Even the tour led by Ringholt described by the Times consisted of twice as many men as women. As The Guerrilla Girls, the gender-conscious conscience of the art world, have pointed out time and again, nudity in museums is as skewed gender wise almost as much as the number of male versus female artists featured in the collections. A 2007 poster by The Guerrilla Girls lamented that “Less than 3% of the artists in the Met Museum are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.” Amazingly, a previous count (and 1989 poster) be the group found 5% women artists in the Met and 85% female nudes. Despite their efforts to get women artists recognized, the percentage had actually gone down. Ringholt sincerely sees his nude tours as desexualizing the situation, but the numbers found by The Guerrilla Girls at the Met (which can be taken as representative for most other major museums) show that nudity is about sexual politics as much as sexuality.
Is this just a stunt by a museum looking to get publicity after major renovations? Possibly. But I think it’s much more than just, as the British would say, cheekiness. Ringholt’s nude tours continue his artistic vision and, when restricted to adults with the maturity to handle and appreciate the experience, can be an educational and enlightening new way of looking at art. Physical openness can often be the key to emotional openness, in life as much as in art. The Times writer asks Ringholt to contemplate taking his nude tours to New York City’s museums, but I don’t foresee that happening any time soon. Australia and Europe with their more numerous nude beaches and larger naturist (aka, nudist) communities provide a ready-made audience for Ringholt’s performance art that America just doesn’t have. Would I take the tour, you might ask? I’ll withhold comment (and keep my shirt on) until that day arrives in the U.S. Until then, I’ll have to be content with simply baring my soul before the great works of art.
[Image: Stuart Ringholt. Preceded by a tour of the show by artist Stuart Ringholt 4-5pm (the artist will be naked. Those who wish to join the tour must also be naked. Adults only), 2010. Photo: Nick McGrath. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.]