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For Artist Spencer Tunick, Naked Bodies (Sometimes Stéphane Janssen's) Are the Medium of Choice

Stéphane Janssen has traveled the globe taking his clothes off for the sake of art.

The Scottsdale-based art collector has posed dozens of times for New York artist Spencer Tunick, who creates and photographs art installations using nude bodies as his medium. Now, after years of collecting and posing for Tunick's photographs, Janssen has teamed up with ASU Art Museum to display more than 20 of Tunick's works from his collection.

They’re featured in the “Participant: Photographs by Spencer Tunick from the Stéphane Janssen Collection” exhibition that opened January 14 and continues through May 28. It’s a rare glimpse into the worlds of both men, who share a love for travel and nudity in art. And it highlights the unique nature of their relationship – in which Janssen is a patron, participant, and friend.

Janssen first spotted Tunick’s work in 1999 at the international art fair Art Basel in Switzerland, where he purchased a photograph called Nevada featuring a jagged line of naked bodies lying face up in the dirt. He knew nothing about Tunick at the time but says the artist’s nudes reminded him of brushstrokes in a painting.

He met Tunick in 2000 while visiting the art space SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, and participated in his first Tunick installation later that year – lying with about two dozen others on asphalt outside a small meat market in Harlem. More New York installations, including one at the famed Strawberry Fields John Lennon memorial in Central Park, soon followed.

“After that I was hooked, and we became close friends,” Janssen says of Tunick.

Since then, Janssen has posed more than 30 times, mostly with large groups. He's posed holding a soccer ball over his genitals in a stadium, posed during a pillow fight on a castle lawn, posed painted red and gold in a city square, and posed while standing in the Dead Sea — where ASU Art Museum director Gordon Knox was a participant, too. He's even posed for photographs at his Belgium and Scottsdale homes. Since 2004, Janssen's good friend Peter Siko has participated with him.

Janssen’s reflections on several of his participant experiences are included in a book of Tunick's photographs titled Participant, which was published in conjunction with the show. An arrow on the cover points to Janssen’s place within a sea of bodies punctuated by white pillows.

Nudity in art is nothing new, of course. It’s been prevalent in Western art since early Greek civilization, and Michelangelo’s David sculpture is one of the world’s best-known artworks. But it’s not every day that you encounter an artist whose practice comprises photographing nudes en masse.

So how did Tunick, who hails from the rural countryside north of New York City, come to specialize in creating and photographing installations of nude bodies?

Tunick worked as a teen for his father’s photography business. His grandfather and great-grandfather were photographers, so Tunick grew up appreciating the craft. Frequent trips to New York museums fueled his art appreciation.

He took filmmaking classes in college but discovered his ideas "were a little less narrative" than others'. “I preferred working with multiple ideas in a short time.” After graduating from Emerson College in Boston, Tunick attended the International Center for Photography in New York. He'd spend time touring Soho and Chelsea galleries, and poring over library books — which is where he discovered artists using photography to document processes. 

“I loved the nude from looking at a lot of nudes in art,” he says. “But I wanted to do something that’s more physical, outdoors, and more fantastical.” At the time, he was drawn to fashion photography more than art photography. “I wanted to combine a fantastical world with the gritty world of New York.” He loved what artists like Edward C. Curtis were doing, and recalls being lured by the physicality of film itself.

“I took a little bit of what they were doing and what performance artists were doing and came up with my own style,” Tunick says. He photographed individual nudes first, but says it was hard to convince people to pose because he didn’t have samples of similar works. At first, he relied on people he knew. “I convinced some of my friends to get nude for me." 

The shift to working with large groups started as a matter of convenience.

Once he had 100 or so people interested in posing, he discovered there weren’t enough weekends or warm days in New York to make taking all those photos possible. So he started scouting locations for a group installation, settling on a busy street in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York – where he remembers about 28 people showing up to be photographed lying face up in the street. “Police were so in shock that they diverted traffic instead of arresting me,” he says.

But he wasn’t always so lucky. Tunick stopped photographing groups of nudes in New York in 2001, fearing he’d be arrested. By then, his work was gaining recognition, and he wanted to be able to spend more time with each installation, rather than rushing to photograph subjects before authorities interfered. So Tunick started working in other parts of the world, from Europe to Israel. “Museums began to commission me,” he says. “I got invited with open arms instead of being arrested.”

During the course of his career, Tunick has photographed nude people of all ages in all sorts of settings. Think art museums, stadiums, parking garages, buses, castles, parks, bridges, and more. Sometimes he uses props such as books or veils, or other design elements. 

His mission with each photograph is different.

Some of his works are overtly political, while others simply elevate the aesthetic of the human form. He’s currently planning installations to coincide with both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. “There are works,” he says, “where I confront ideas that are not abstracted.” Specific topics he’s addressed through his work include DNA sampling, gun violence, terrorism, global warming, borders, and the “it’s who you know” approach some take to getting ahead in the art world. “It’s sort of me shouting with body positions about issues going through my mind.”

But Tunick rarely leads with that approach, saying it’s “hard to get permission” when his ideas are political. “When I come into a space,” he says, “I try to play down the politics.” He recognizes, however, that the body itself can stir some powerful emotions. “The human body on its own is such an explosive object.”

Unsurprisingly, nudity doesn’t faze Janssen, who takes a matter-of-fact approach: “Nudity is how we come into this world.”

Both Tunick and Janssen see significant differences in American and European approaches to nudity. “In Europe people are much more relaxed about nudity,” says Janssen, who was born in Paris. “America was founded by people who were much more religious than we are in Europe.” He’s intrigued by the fact that some Americans buy “disgusting magazines” filled with pornography, yet object to nudity in works of art. “Pornography,” he says, “is a very different thing.”

“All my life I have seen naked people,” Janssen says, referencing works by great artists such as Boticelli and Bosch (both Tunick favorites, by the way). “I was never shocked by nudity in art,” he says. “There’s nothing offensive about Tunick’s photographs,” Janssen says. “They’re not sexual.”

Still, there’s a difference between appreciating nudity in art and actually being the one who’s getting naked.

Janssen admits he was reticent when Tunick asked him to participate in the Harlem installation, which became one of Janssen’s favorite photographs. “I am old, I am fat,” he recalls telling Tunick at the time. But Janssen says the Harlem experience changed his perspective. “I looked at the people and there was such diversity,” he recalls. “There were thin people, fat people, beautiful people, ugly people.”

Tunick hopes Janssen will continue participating into his 80s. But Janssen says his posing days are done, because its just too physically challenging at this point – in part because of a metal rod placed in his spine, making shifting positions painful. Moving forward, he’ll continue as patron and friend. 

Perhaps Janssen will convince Tunick to photograph a large-scale installation in Arizona.

The artist says he’s already scouted locations, including Biosphere 2, just outside Tucson, and Camelback Mountain. “It’s such a natural setting up there, looking down at the urban sprawl,” Tunick says of the latter. But between scouting and creating an installation, there’s a critical step that doesn’t always come to pass: getting permission to use a particular location. “It just takes the good will of another individual to champion creating a work at the site,” says Tunick. “You have to be very brave,” he says. “Sometimes people don’t want to get into that.”

Tunick says it’s possible he’ll photograph one or two bodies in a desert setting while he’s here, but told New Times before traveling to Phoenix for the exhibition’s opening that he didn’t have any large installations planned. Still, Tunick says he could easily use social media to “gather 200 people in 10 minutes” here. Arizona is rife with issues he finds intriguing, from water to immigration, and he’s planning to be here for five days. We kind of hope he goes for it. 

“Participant: Photographs by Spencer Tunick from the Stéphane Janssen Collection” is on view at the ASU Art Museum through May 28. Find more information on the ASU Art Museum website.

Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble