Visitors to the National Gallery of Australia have been asked to take off all their clothes before they can view James Turrell: A Retrospective, an exhibition which celebrates Turrell’s work with light and colours. About 50 people at a time duly stripped to attend the show which ran after hours on April 1st and 2nd and was emphatically not, the Gallery insisted, an April Fool’s joke.
Viewing art naked as a way to remove the last material barrier between artist and audience was a favourite idea of Turrell’s, who first introduced it in Japan, where an unclad audience viewed one of his “Perceptual Cells”. When Turrell, now 70, suggested to the National Gallery in Melbourne that they give the notion a try, they asked well-known absurdist artist Stuart Ringholt, who is based in the city, to guide the unclothed tours.
Ringholt was enthusiastic. ‘Intellectually’, he says, ‘it’s an interesting idea, nudity. …Turrell’s work is minimal — he doesn’t work with materials like clay, paint and other traditional materials: he just works with light.’ He quotes Turrell, ‘Light is very difficult to shape. You end up shaping everything around it.’ Precisely why, says Ringholt, these immersive light installations are best experienced without clothes.
Indeed, looking at images of clothed people bathed in the colours of Turrell’s Ganzfield Room, their clothes seem banal, almost ridiculous. It is easy to imagine how subtle and enchanting would be the play of light on bare bodies.
Clothing, Ringholt told a reporter from Australia’s NewsCorp, is a kind of second skin, a barrier which itself carries colour and thus doubly overwhelms the direct relationship of light and body. ‘The nude viewer is reduced to just themselves, because there is no second skin… the body can [directly] feel the vibration to colour.’
Looking at pictures of the nude audience inside the exhibit, it is hard to dispute that they are beautiful and this beauty has little to do with body shape or size. Rather it is a sort of serenity that comes from having overcome embarrassment and fear of the body.
Only when you stop trying to be beautiful do you discover that you already are.
That’s what I take out of it, anyway, even though I am far too repressed to give it a try myself.
But look, in this gathering of people made innocent and vulnerable by having shed their protective layers it is only the fully-clothed gallery attendant who seems ill-at-ease.
Stuart Ringholt (born 1971, Perth) has had solo exhibitions at institutions such as Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne; the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; and Club Laundromat, New York. His major group exhibitions include Melbourne Now, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2014); The Last Laugh, apexart, New York (2013); and dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany (2013). He is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
Ringholt has led many nude art tours, partly because ‘It is against the law to be nude in public in Australia, and by being nude you are breaking the law: but because we closed the museum to a certain few, it becomes private space and also a space of protest.’
Having the courage to disrobe in public, he says, is also a stance against sexism and a culture of sexualisation: ‘We’re actually less sexualised with our clothes off — when you’re clothed, it engages the imagination: there is something very sexy about a beautiful ankle in a beautiful shoe, or clothing that frames the body beautifully. Whereas when it’s all out, people start focusing on the face — it’s no longer about the butt, the hairy bits and the nipples.’
However, as he explained to the Newscorp reporter, ‘There are always more younger women than younger men, because younger men are very fearful of getting shrinkage.’
Ringholt’s video Helen Lane (2009), filmed in a lane outside his North Melbourne studio, was featured for four years on Blip.tv before the site decided that it didn’t meet its terms of service. The excellent article on Ringholt at Frieze magazine, describes the video thus: “a thin man precariously grasps at the handle of a ‘Wacka-Packa’, (a powerful motorized device typically used for compacting earth on construction sites), that thuds across the lane releasing shards of cobblestone and sending the tree attached to its top into orgasmic quivers. The… video is, quite simply, absurd.”
James Turrell (born May 6, 1943) is an American artist primarily concerned with light and space. Turrell was a MacArthur Fellow in 1984. Turrell is best known for his work in progress, Roden Crater, a natural cinder cone crater located outside Flagstaff, Arizona that he is turning into a massive naked-eye observatory. (Source, with no trace of irony: Wikipedia)
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