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2,500 naked bodies needed: Spencer Tunick announces his return to Sydney | Spencer Tunick

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The US artist who has made an international name for himself by urging volunteers to strip naked en masse in public is returning to Australia.

Spencer Tunick’s next “nude installation”, commissioned by the charity Skin Check Champions to raise awareness of skin cancer and coinciding with National Skin Cancer Action Week, will take place on 26 November at a Sydney beach..

It will be the fourth Australian project for Tunick, who attracted global attention for his Sydney Opera House work featuring 5,000 nude Australians as part of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. In 2018, the artist made headlines for battling with supermarket chain Woolworths to shoot his Chapel Street series in Melbourne.

The beach Tunick has selected for his next project is yet to be revealed, although given the artist’s penchant for landmark locations, Bondi would be a frontrunner. The exact location will only be made known a week prior to the day, to those who have signed up online to be part of the work.

“I’m almost embarrassed to say this but [the secrecy] involves tradition,” Tunick tells Guardian Australia, speaking from his New York studio.

“I have a little formula that works, that feels good. And in these days and times, a week’s notice is like a year.”

A Spencer Tunick shoot in Melbourne.
Tunick offers no hints for what is planned for Sydney, but he is hoping for a ‘rainbow’ of skin tones. Photograph: Spencer Tunick

In the dozens of mass public works he has completed – set on a glacier, in a theatre, in the desert, at a train station – bodies are sometimes painted, draped in sheer fabric, or arranged in order of skin tonality.

Volunteers who register online are usually asked to grade the tone of their skin using a detailed colour chart provided.

The artist says he has not yet decided what techniques he will employ next month.

“We have to wait and see what the data is from people signing up,” he says. “We’re hoping for a rainbow of people in Sydney.”

The aim is to photograph 2,500 people, to symbolise the number of Australian lives claimed every year from skin cancer.

“So in order for me to get that, I need 5,000 people signed up – because only half that amount will actually show up. It’s much easier to get excited in front of your computer screen than it is at four o’clock in the morning when your alarm clock goes off.”

What Tunick sets out to achieve with his work has been the subject of much conjecture over the past two decades.

‘He is doing what Renaissance artists did’: Tunick’s Düsseldorf 4 at Museum Kunstpalast (2006).
‘He is doing what Renaissance artists did’: Tunick’s Düsseldorf 4 at Museum Kunstpalast (2006). Photograph: Spencer Tunick

The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones has written that the headlines generated by Tunick’s work are at odds with the ancient practice it taps into: naked bodies in art.

“He is doing what Renaissance artists did, except that instead of marble or oil paints he uses a camera, and instead of Michelangelo’s ideal types he uses folk like you and me,” he wrote. “So long as we don’t all walk about naked in public, the exposure of flesh in a public place will still thrill, excite, disturb.”

Tunick describes his work as part installation, part photography, part performance art, part land art and part portraiture. He has worked with the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast, the Albright-Knox Museum in the US and Manchester’s The Lowry. He has shown in major exhibitions including the São Paulo, Bodø and Moscow biennales – the latter featuring his lesser known portraiture photography – and has been the subject of three documentaries, including the HBO film Naked States, which covered the artist’s road trip around the US, seeking to photograph public nudes in all 50 states.

The artist also has his critics, invariably accusing him of populism and gimmickry.

“Tunick is not quite an artist, more a stunt artist with just the one trick,” wrote the Australian’s David Brearley, after the artist issued a call out to Australians during Covid lockdown to get naked for his digital platform project Stay Apart Together.

“His vision has scarcely evolved in 25 years. Whatever point he is trying to make, he made it in the 20th century. Whatever questions he is asking have surely been answered by now.”

Participants pose for Tunick in the south-eastern Israeli city of Arad in 2021.
Participants pose for Tunick in the south-eastern Israeli city of Arad in 2021. Photograph: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The artist shrugs off his critics.

“I do maybe one or two group works a year. I do have other bodies of work. To say I’m populist – well, I’m not as popular as one might think,” he says. “I earn less than a garbage collector in New York.”

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