I'm walking down a busy high street, in an unfamiliar city, dodging people and glancing into shop windows, when suddenly I realise in horror that I am completely stark naked.
At this point I usually wake up, but this time it wasn't a dream. The busy road was Alfred Gelder street and the city was Hull - and not only was I naked as the day I was born, I was in the company of 3000 other nude people.
When I signed up to take part in Spencer Tunick's 'Sea of Hull' installation my main motive was being part of a work of art. I seemed to have blocked out the naked part until 4am on Saturday morning when I found myself staring at half-naked people around me and wondering what the hell I was doing holding a pot of blue body paint. My shade of blue (B1) seemed several shades lighter than everyone else's. It was the consistency of sun cream, so I pretended for a while that I was on a beach somewhere, and hoped I wouldn't have to ask a complete stranger to do my back.*
I have no problem with naked bodies and am actually rather fond of mine, but wouldn't describe myself as a naturist. This experience was entirely new and I felt anxious, unable to decide whether it was better to be naked on your own amongst strangers, or if it would have been better with friends. The atmosphere was as anticipated; completely friendly, welcoming, and intimate, in a sex-less sense. But what threw me the most was the utter vulnerability; that came not just from removing your clothes, but from leaving all your possessions in a park, having no sense of time, where you are, or where you are going to be sent next.
Once we were painted and moving the experience became even more surreal. The combination of thousands of blue people and 4 o'clock in the morning made me feel like I was in some kind of dystopian dream-scape. Tunick took us through the first installation in Queen's gardens and at this point we were first exposed (sorry) to his rather bossy instructions: 'If you see a hole, fill it!' he boomed over the tannoy, much to our mirth.
The next three took place in various city centre streets. At different points we were standing, bending and most painfully, lying down to make waves in the middle of the road. The last was on the new Scale Lane footbridge, an iconic piece of art in its own right. It could only bear the weight of 800 people but I was fortunate enough to make the cut; sadly this proved to be literally true, as the bridge is paved with gravel which shredded already sore feet.
By 7.15 am it was all over, and we made our way back to Queens Gardens, I was glad by then to get dressed, not because of the nudity, but because Hull at 5am is really bloody freezing.
I've had time to reflect on the experience since then and am no art critic, but found the following things particularly surprising:
- being nude feels liberating and transgressive, yet during the time when you are naked you are required to be completely obedient. To orchestrate a piece like this requires vision and planning to a degree that I didn't fully appreciate until part of it, and Tunick clearly does this brilliantly. But at a point where you are literally stripped down to your essential humanity, you are also being posed and organised; you have no control over your body for several hours. It wasn't unpleasant necessarily, but it did make me feel a sense of empathy; there are people after all who experience this through misuse of power everyday.**
- we are social beings. I know this but am fiercely independent, so forget sometimes that we completely rely on being part of communities and need connections and a sense of belonging. During the coldest point of the night people started to huddle together to keep warm; strangers helped each other with the paint. I could never have covered some of my back; I couldn't physically reach. We have to have faith in others to get to where we need to be.
- rising sea levels mean that much of Hull could be underwater by the end of this century. As we lay on the pavements, making waves with our bodies I thought about this and Tunick's vision of the sea taking over the urban landscape. This piece of art is playful but also has meaning; Tunick's recent works have been more political, and this too felt like an important reminder of the impact of climate change.
All in all, it was an unforgettable experience and one that touched me on a number of levels. The paint has finally gone, but the memories will stick around for a long time to come.
The Sea of Hull will be displayed in the newly refurbished Hull Ferens Gallery early in 2017. Many thanks to my travelling companion Steve Goodfellow who kept me fortified with rum and good humour :) For more photos from the event click here
*Luckily a kind lady offered. Also thanks to the man who told me I'd missed my eyebrows and ears :)
**I was thinking in particular of the horrific stories of police violence against people of colour here.