“Here?” I ask. “We undress here?” The man beside me already has his pants off.
His name is Matt and he got a head start while the Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, gave a welcome speech on lower level one of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As Bonachela talked Matt had removed his sneakers and stuffed his peeled-off socks inside. About 150 of us begin to follow suit.
Matt, naked already, beams at me. “This was my idea!” Matt, it turns out, is the New South Wales co-founder of Young Nudists of Australia. When he saw the nude dance performance advertised – Bonachela’s choreographed response to an exhibition of nudes from London’s Tate collection – he contacted the gallery to suggest a naked night.
Bonachela had tabled, and discarded, the idea. “We had talked about everyone participating, disrobing, at the gallery,” he says. “When he got in touch, I was like, ‘We still have time, let’s do it.’” The slowest-selling show was swiftly rebranded as nude-only and sold out within a day. Two nude nights were added. They sold out too, faster than the clothed shows.
Matt was delighted. “I’m no connoisseur of fine arts. We want to show people that the nudist lifestyle is not just old people playing volleyball. These one-off events are a way to interest people in nude social recreation.”
Connoisseurs at Australia’s major arts institutions are indeed interested. Naked tours lead by the Melbourne artist Stuart Ringholt returned to Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art late last year after premiering there in 2012. Ringholt’s tour was so enlightening for the MCA’s director of audience engagement, Gill Nicol, that she is leading a women’s naked tour in March for International Women’s Day.
“I learnt so much,” Nicol wrote. “It is just you, literally bare, and with your feet firmly on the floor – no phones, no clothes, no bags – just an authentic, real experience.”
Ringholt introduced nudity to the National Gallery of Australia in 2015 with tours of the perspective-defying work of the US light artist James Turrell. “We eat light, drink it in through our skins,” Turrell wrote. Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival, meanwhile, programs a nude dawn swim in the river Derwent each year to mark the winter solstice. Up to 800 people dive into what organisers call a “ritual” that “invites them to shed their skins and inhibitions”.
Curator-speak aside, why are people drawn to the experience? Is it a gimmick for middle-class art appreciators to be titillated in a sophisticated setting? A plunge into the unknown in pursuit of shock’s retreating frontier? An appropriation of niche scenes like nudism for artists who’ve run out of ideas? A desire to occupy our bodies at a time when we feel more disassociated from them than ever?
In Europe, nakedness is not novel. “If you see a [dance] performance and there isn’t a naked body, it’s weird,” Bonachela says. “In French Canada you have companies doing full nudity for the full show.” Yet it is Bonachela’s Sydney festival show that is by all accounts the world first: nude dancers in front of nude paintings before a nude audience. The extra combo deal.
Bras and boxers shed, we file as a fleshy mass towards the exhibition. Walking in the same direction, it is all wobbling arses, jarring tan lines and back tattoos. It’s been a hot day; I smell sweat and its combatants. “Isn’t this great?” Matt whispers. On entering the exhibition we disperse, as instructed, to see dance pieces going on simultaneously in multiple rooms and suddenly people’s privates are public.
I was told as a girl that making eye contact with a stranger signalled availability. The comment has never left me; not for a day. Like many woman I’m afflicted by a conviction that unwanted attention is my fault. Still, eye contact has been a habit I’ve struggled to shed. As a writer I am in constant, reflexive observation. I stare a lot. But I’ve learnt to drop my eyes if my look is returned, especially – no, always – if it is a man.
Here, the tactic backfires. My gaze keeps falling on penises and pubic hair. To be clear, I’m OK with that. Some of my best friends have genitals. But I don’t want to look as though I paid to perve. Besides, the exhibition features work from Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Gwen John and Tracy Emin, as well as the sublime bodies of seven dancers. Why waste eye time on randoms?
I keep my head erect and eyes level. I don’t fold my arms or clasp my hands because it communicates a defensiveness I’m elated to realise I do not feel. I find myself assuming the closest I’ve come to Tadasana (mountain pose) outside a yoga studio. With nowhere to hide, yet everything on display, in a rapid and total way – I quit trying. And Matt is right: it feels great.
I tap his expertise further. “How does it work? Can I look at people?”
“Just don’t stare.” And by and large, people don’t. I’ve felt more scrutinised and objectifed in boots, beanie and a winter coat.
For textiles like me (the name nudists give people who’d rather wear clothes), this rush of freshly minted freedom distracts me from the task at hand: art appreciation. That is until I see a male and female duo entwined and circling Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss. The dancers are not only naked, they are very close to us. We watch in awed silence. No shoes clack, no bags rustle, no slacks slide.
An unclothed audience is quiet yet bold. The clothed audience, says Bonachela – who strolls the eight rooms tonight as blithely naked as the rest of us – held back a lot more. “They were quite shy because they’re let into this room with nude people, oh my god,” he says. “The nude audience immediately spread through the whole gallery. They go in!”
My second highlight is a coquettish cabaret-style routine danced by a female duo. Their hair hangs loose and they are makeup free. They look like two uncannily toned women who’ve sprung up from towels on a beach, unclipped their bikinis, and begun to joyfully dance. We laugh, agog, delighted. I barely clock Francis Bacon’s stunning, tormented triptych of paintings behind them.
They don’t recoil from high kicks. “When I created this work I was not going to be shy about it,” Bonachela says. “Like, I am bending forward and this is my bumhole. This is how between my legs looks. I didn’t choreograph like, ‘Let’s hide this.’”
It is not all beautiful moments. Waiting in the Domain before the show a leathery guy on a park bench eyes me and I fervently hope he’s not a ticketholder. Later, at the show, I retreat into a smaller room to be alone and look at art. When I turn to leave, three men close the exit with their naked bodies and a panic rises, primal, a need to escape. They turn harmlessly to the art, just three silly bottoms, and I sidle out.
When my clothes came off, so did an exhausting volume of psychic weight
In the room where Ron Mueck’s Wild Man looms, the hyper-real and oversized sculpture gripped by paranoia’s paralysis, a trio of three male dancers overwhelms me too. And in the main room when the dancers reach out to spectators and waltz them around, arrange them in formation like artworks themselves, I again retreat to the darkened room of The Kiss, one layer of interaction too much. When my clothes came off, so did an exhausting volume of psychic weight – but processing its disappearance is tiring too.
Putting my underwear on in the foyer feels far more intimate than being naked a few minutes before. It evokes the sexuality of a striptease while there had been little of overt sexuality or sleaze about the 45 minutes among the artworks.
It is likely Australian audiences will have more chances to be exposed to living, breathing naked art. “This has been a highlight in my career,” Bonachela says. “So who knows, I may bring more nudity to the stage. It may have another life.”
Guardian version here.