Being part of The Ring by Spencer Tunick

And as I glanced up at 4 a.m. I saw him there – at the tea station with a cup of tea in his hand looking for a place to put his teabag. This middle aged man with a pointy beard, a beer belly, naked and painted gold from head to toe.

A perfectly normal action made unusual by the fact that all around him was a sea of clothed people.

A perfectly normal action viewed normally by said sea of people, knowing they would join him in golden nudity within the hour.

I remember where I was when I first read about the new Spencer Tunick art installation – “The Ring” in Munich. I was relaxing in bed, at my friend’s house in Cape Town, reading the German news on my ipod. I knew immediately that I would want to take part, and that the race I had planned for that weekend would probably have to take a backseat. 10 minutes later I had signed up.

I posted a link on facebook, inviting my friends to join me – which was disappointingly devoid of enthusiastic support – I guess I am still the slightly crazy one in the circle of my friends.

A few days before the installation I received an e-mail with information on where and when to meet. Being fairly new to Munich, I had to google the location and how best to get there. Yikes! Calltime was 3 a.m. – which would mean getting up at 01h50, and leaving the house of my light-sleeping flatmate very quietly… But I was ready to miss the Germany soccer game of the night before in order to get some sleep before the event.

As I boarded the nightbus from Harras to Odeonsplatz at 02h21, I found myself looking at all the passengers, trying to figure out who was heading home after a party, who was just awake and off to take part in some art, and who was going from the party straight to the art.

With such limited public transport options to get there for 3am, I was surprised that the bus only had about 15 people on it – but together with some otherwise-arrived persons, we all wandered through the Hofgarten, round the corner to the Marstallplatz – behind the opera house.

Here I was lucky to enter from the left where we had only a small queue – and with my pre-completed Model Release Form, I passed through the controls was handed a tub of paint, and directed to the right hand side of the Platz. I had thought I wanted red paint, but was happy with the gold when I got it (even though the reds were eventually more plentiful, and had more “camera time” so to speak).

I wandered around our section of the square alone, hoping and not-hoping, to find a face I knew. (I still haven’t told my colleagues that I did this, and I don’t know how I would have reacted if I had spotted one). I didn’t find any, but I was smiling at the cross section of people that had come to take part – from the group of good looking young guys or gals, to the single men and women, through the older couples holding hands while waiting. Somewhere on the red side a south African flag waved in the breeze as it was used a meeting point marker. Some of the youngsters got beer delivered to raucous applause. Everyone mingled at the tea station (which I avoided, in an attempt to prevent needing to use the loo).

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person checking out my fellow participants at 4 in the morning. I remember glancing at a few people and thinking, “I can’t wait to see what they look like naked”, or “I wonder how they look under their clothes?”.

At about 4 we were addressed by Spencer Tunick and his Translating Assistant and thanked for being part of this momentous occasion. From atop a tall ladder, megaphone in hand, he gave each colour group their instructions.

Ours was to wait, while the reds got naked and started rubbing paint onto their bellies and legs. It was fascinating to watch how some started on their legs and torso while still wearing their underpants – while others got naked immediately, and certainly prevented getting paint on their jocks. There was much chatter and laughter from the 1000 Reddies as they overcame their communal shyness and reliased they were all in this together.

About 15 minutes later the Goldies, still clothed, sent them off with great applause and cheering. It was beautiful to watch these red bodies – with gleaming white smiles and spooky eyes leave the square. Many had very interesting hairdos from using the paint like shampoo on their heads!

It took a remarkable amount of time for this mass of people to leave – barefoot on the cool cobblestones of central Munich – and head through the Hofgarten to Odeonsplatz. They were gone a very long time – during which Lauren (another of Spencer’s assistant’s) told us that our turn would come soon.

2 Reds suddenly came back onto the square, dressed and fled – I still don’t know the story behind that – but we all applauded them anyway.

A little after 05h30 we were then given the all clear – to clear all. And so without any fuss or complaint everyone around us dropped their drawers and took sneak peaks at their neighbours – noticing with some relief that the fewest of us are perfect underneath – and that we all have different grooming habits – fascinating!

We all took our liberally shaken golden paint and applied it to stomach, legs, chest, face, everywhere. We freely helped our neighbours to cover their backs, elbows and behind their ears. There was no shame in checking out or being checked out from head to toe by strangers for rogue areas of flesh uncovered by golden paint. In one case 3 of us assisted a neighbour to get his long and thick hair into a golden ponytail – and it took all our leftover paint to complete that task!

Shortly afterwards we were told to follow Lauren out of the square, down the cobblestone-paved road , around the opera house to the Max-Joseph Platz.

Now that we were all naked, it felt strangely normal and not unusual to be wandering the streets of Munich in the nick. In fact the handful of clothed people we passed were the ones that looked out of place.

We stopped in Maximillianstrasse, not far from the Four Seasons Hotel, and lined up in 3 rows that we would enter the PLatz in and form a large ring around the statue. As we entered and stood in a long circular line, our personal space barriers were made smaller and smaller.

700 people had to fit into the ring, and this meant that we were all told to continually “keep moving forward” even when the front of the queue would be going nowehere. We just needed to get closer to the person in front. And closer. Everyone tried to limit the skin contact with those they didn’t know – but eventually even that barrier fell away when we were asked to turn through 90 degrees and face the statue – shoulder to shoulder we stood. And fell.

Yes, we had to “fall” and lie on the chilly paving stones around the statue. The photos turned out amazing, but at the time we were a little surprised by the instruction.

The group was, as I imagine at all these installation at times very quiet, and others full of laughter and joking. This didn’t always go down well with Spencer – as he had a vision he desperately wanted to complete under definite time constraints (sunrise). But I must say that he took it very well, and our laughter and joke outbursts were limited enough. That’s not to say that Spencer didn’t have people moved that didn’t fit into places, or have them rearranged to make areas thicker or thinner.

While we were waiting we eventually spotted the Reds waiting in a huge bunch down the road – a whole city road covered by naked red people, chanting and chatting.

Once we had had our photos taken around the statue – facing it, at right angles to it facing the sun and lying down with body parts over each other – we parted where I was standing and let the Reds in.

It was a strange mix of sense of community “we’re in this together” and friendly rivalry between the colours. There was a lot of joking “can I see your tickets please?” mimicked one as they entered, or “you all look like a bunch of lobsters” or “bit of sunburn then?”. There was a fair amount of not-always-subtle downward glancing as people checked each other out. Very optimistic at 13 degrees Celsius!

The centre of the golden ring was then lined by a row of red for another photo. After that we all moved forward slowly to surround the statue. We needed to do that in 2 takes, as 2 over-enthusiastic Reds raced forward, and Spencer wanted it to be a slow motion shot. And once we had all crowded together he mad us lie down. Easier for those on the outside than those on the inside – some of them remained crouching to get as close to the ground as possible.

Next, Spencer had us move to the steps of the Opera House and line up in 7 bands of alternating red and gold masses of people flowing down the steps. This is when we had one of the most heart-warming moments of the morning – an older man was struggling to leave the square – his feet must have been hurting too much on the cobblestones. And without any prompting, 2 young men walked over and raised him under each arm and carried him off the pavers. Needless to say there were many smiles and much applause for them ☺

It struck me that it must be amazing to have such power – to make over 1000 people leave their comfort zone, get naked together, and do what you ask them to do. Most of them wouldn’t lie down on the square in clothes on a good day – and now they did it without questions on a cold morning.

I also noticed again the complete spectrum of body shapes and sizes that were represented – from the almost anorexic, via the ordinary, and the gym bunnies to the very large. We were all the same for a morning.

After that last most impressive photo, Spencer announced that 100 gold women would be taken INTO the opera house (very sad to miss that) and the rest of us were free to leave.

We all wandered back – now passing a few cars and trams that were slowly staring as they passed, full of unbelieving smiles. We still didn’t have a care in the world.

Back at the square – where our bags looked like victims in a gold or red bloodbaths of paint on the ground – we casually took photos of each other, still completely naked, so we would remember this day. We were given white overalls that looked like forensic investigator outfits. To wear under our clothes. And then we all spread out over the city heading home.

I looked around at my fellow participants – now with the red and gold only sticking out above the necks and at the end of their sleeves, and they all looked less beautiful than an hour before. Clothes really change a person. And after a short interview with a reporter from somewhere undetermined, I headed off on foot through the city centre.

I thought it would be awesome if we all casually had a cup of coffee of breakfast in different parts of town – gold and red here and going about their business as though nothing was unusual. I did have a cup of coffee on the Viktualienmarkt – and we were not alone.

I crossed over the Marienplatz (the heart of the city) as various brass bands dressed in traditional Bavarian outfits were setting up for a competition. I passed several early morning tourists and late night revellers – most of whom just stared without saying a word. One laughed himself half to death after I passed. Others at the tram station spoke to me about it – sad that they had missed it because they had had to work.

It was sad to wash it all off – probably the longest shower I have ever had – but seeing the photos on the news websites a few hours later made up for it.

Now 3 days later, I’m still revelling in the sense of freedom this gave us, the sense of unity amongst strangers – the feeling that we’re part of this together. It was an awesome feeling and experience – and I suspect I might do it again if I am in the same area as Spencer at some point!

(with thanks to various news websites for these photos)

6 thoughts on “Being part of The Ring by Spencer Tunick

  1. Great report – thanks for sharing this! I was one of the Reds, so it is good to read what you Golds got up to. Well done for taking part, and I’m glad you had a good time!

  2. i am so grateful. i am german and for me history got head in a certain art that the jewish spencer tunick gave us this gift. tkx

  3. I was also one of the reds, and this was a magnificent experience! By the way, it was my South African flag, and I used it to find my fellow CouchSurfers, as there was quite a few of those in the crowd, and we didn’t all know each other in advance 🙂 Spencer came over to me and said, “You know you can’t pose with that?” Hehehe, I got to talk to him personally 😉
    See you at the next event!

  4. Thanks for this report. Bayerische Staatsoper is planning an exihibiton of the work. Please get in touch – I’ve got a question. Thank you!

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