I was wearing two days of stubble on my chin, a squirt of cologne and nothing else. My wife was wearing hot red lipstick, magenta nail polish on her toenails and around her neck, a pink pearl pendant suspended from a fine gold chain. It glowed against her honey-colored skin. We stood side-by-side, holding hands, naked, along with 60 other souls who had signed up for an after-hours tour of the new galleries at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Curiously, neither of us felt any embarrassment.
Five minutes earlier we had all been standing together in the foyer of the MCA, fully clothed. Now after a mixed and frantic disrobing in a room on the second floor we shuffled unselfconsciously around Katie Peterson’s 2007 installation, Earth-Moon-Earth—a pianola playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—in a scene that made me think of photographer Helmut Newton’s erotically charged images from the 1980s. It was a chain of thought rapidly dismissed. The evening was cool and a fearsome draft swept up the stairway from the main gallery entrance.
Besides previous tours Ringholt has conducted in Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart, he has also held anger workshops, notably at the 2008 Biennale of Sydney, where abuse flew about the Art Gallery of NSW like confetti, and tears were shed as participants hugged one-another afterwards, completing the cathartic cycle. Over the years he has also propelled himself into embarrassing situations as a way of confronting social blunders and embarrassing situations—such as walking through public crowds with toilet paper hanging out of the back of his trousers, or with snot running from his nose.
It may all sound slightly ridiculous but there is a serious and therapeutic side to such performances. Ringholt is a firm believer that fear and embarrassment should be confronted head on and that only by doing so will we, as humans, ever triumph. As for his own social fears and shyness—these have been well and truly overcome through the naked tours.
However on this tour there was little if any collective fear or embarrassment. Several times Ringholt talked about this being a “naturist” tour, a word that should have made me run for cover. Naturism is a sub-culture, much as veganism can be a sub-culture. But I was startled to hear Ringholt talking of art-lovers as forming a sub-culture—a minority perhaps, but not a sub-culture.
It was easy to spot the naturists in the crowd (less easy to spot the vegans). Their bodies had a telltale all-over tan and silky artificial gloss, and there was a confident engagement in the way they took and held one’s gaze. You could also spot the exhibitionists, male and female, with carefully tonsured nether regions, some with startling appendages.
But at least our guide, Ringholt, was naked too, the centre of attention as we crowded around to listen to him opining on Stephen Birch’s sculpture Untitled (2005)—featuring a life-size Spiderman staring at a hairy-faced worm-like form protruding from the wall—or Robert Owen’s use of great blocks of geometric colour in Sunrise #3 (2005), which Ringholt claimed seems to emit a vibration that can only be felt when naked. However, I felt nothing; my wife felt ever colder, and certainly did not experience any synesthesia.
My mind wandered as I tried to spot the several museum attendants who had gamely shed their clothes too, their badges of authority reduced to clip-boards and walkie talkies. I thought too of the CCTV security footage, held for three months according to Ringholt; and I hoped that some spotty security guard in the bowels of the building wasn’t perving at us.
For me the serious side to the tour had somehow misfired, or even been lost, among the flesh-fest and the drinks on the Sculpture Terrace, beneath a star-studded sky, the view of the Sydney Opera House opposite and a temperature that was rapidly dropping.
I was expecting to learn something, or if I didn’t then I thought I was participating in an art experience, a bit player in a performance put on by Ringholt. But I wasn’t.
Ringholt seemed not quite to have worked through the tour in his mind; the point seemed elusive even as I asked him whether I had just participated in a performance work or simply walked naked through a gallery? Unfortunately, Ringholt decidedly failed to convince me that it was anything other than the latter. A view shared no doubt by the crowd that gathered on the street outside when they noticed 60 naked bodies climbing the stairs alongside the MCA’s picture windows.
However, the tour will stay in my mind not least for the revelation that body piercing is limited simply by the extent of one’s imagination, for example, and that the beauty and efficacy of tattoos lie not in their size or extravagance but in the position of the artwork on the body; and that being naked before a work of art does not necessarily heighten its enjoyment.
Walking naked around the MCA was certainly an experience. But would I repeat it? No. My lasting thought as we left the building was that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world whose bravery by disrobing on such a chilly night, simply because I asked her to, is beyond admiration.
See AAP 78 for a Profile of Stuart Ringhold by Michael Young