Earlier this year a call went out asking people to take part in a mass nude art installation in Hull. This weekend 3,200 turned up. Sarah Freeman was one of them.
It’s 4am. I am standing in a park, naked save for a thin layer of blue paint. The man next to me shows me his bottom and asks whether he’s missed a bit. He hasn’t. Satisfied that his dignity is intact, he gets on with covering the tops of his ears and the bottom of his feet. Welcome to Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull.
Tunick has a long history of getting people to strip in the name of art. He’s done it in New York’s Grand Central Station, the Place des Arts in Montreal, the Cutty Sark in Greenwich and he was commissioned to do it in Hull by the Ferens Art Gallery in readiness for next year’s UK City of Culture celebrations.
Which is how 3,200 of us - the biggest ever nude installation in the UK - found ourselves gathering in Queen Street Gardens in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Aside from a few eager souls who prompted Tunick to take to his soapbox to remind us not to get undressed until he gave the say so, it was all initially very British. In the orderly queue for the one cafe selling cups of tea, most talk was of how kind the weather had been and didn’t Hull look different in the dark. Nerves though were clearly in evidence.
“It doesn’t look very big, does it?,” said one man to his wife as he examined the small pot of paint each of us had been given on arrival. “And I’ve got quite a bit of surface area to cover.”
He needn’t have worried. There was more than enough paint - in four striking colours of blue, reflecting Hull’s maritime history - to go around and once Tunick gave the order to strip, all those British sensibilities were shed along with old hoodies and jogging bottoms.
“It’s funny, but I’ve spent my entire life being completely body conscious and yet here I am naked with a group of complete strangers,” said Cathy Featherstone. She lives in London now where she works as a set decorator, but went to university in Hull 20 years ago and still has a fondness for the place. “If you’d have told me then that one day I would be stood stark naked in Parliament Street as a 40-something I don’t think I’d have believed you. I’m not sure I quite believe it myself, but it felt like too good an opportunity too good to miss.”
That’s why I was there too, but there were a hundred reasons why people had registered to be part of Tunick’s installation. Some were there because they’d been badgered into it by friends. Some like 80 year old Stephane Janssen from America are Tunick groupies - she’s posed for him 20 times already. For others it was an act of complete spontaneity.
“I was listening to Front Row on Radio 4 a few hours ago and they had a piece on Sea of Hull,” said Chris Dabbs, from Northamptonshire. “I just thought, ‘I like art, I fancy being a part of that’. I hadn’t registered, but I managed to find a mobile phone number for one of the organisers and here I am. I was actually at a party in Birmingham a couple of hours ago.”
With clothes off and paint on, we made our way into the city centre our nakedness masked by the sheer mass of numbers.
Tunick choreographed the piece from on high, popping up on various cranes, cherry pickers and office buildings, megaphone always in hand. Instructions were conveyed to his team on the ground and one, Steve, seemed to bear the brunt of his artistic temperament.
“Steve I didn’t tell them to walk on.” “Steve, I didn’t tell them to freeze.” “Steve, where are you?” And so it went on.
Not that the crowd minded. Instead we chanted Steve’s name like English cricket fans do whenever Joe Root takes to the field. Am not sure it helped, but even Tunick had to smile when we reacted with Carry On silliness after he told us innocently, “Please, people if you see a hole, fill it.”
The email which had been sent to participants a couple of days earlier said we would only be nude for a short time. In fact it was the best part of three hours, but we packed a lot in.
In the gardens built on what was Queen’s Dock we made like the spokes of a cartwheel, we spent quite a lot of time all looking in the same direction at the Guildhall and in another street close by we laid down like a human carpet.
“You look beautiful,” said Tunick. He was right. There were all shapes and sizes, young and old, tall and short, skinny and fat, but somehow we fitted together like pieces of a big blue jigsaw.
By the time we headed down to the waterfront, past a group of students who were still up from the night before, and onwards to the Scale Lane swing bridge my body paint was showing signs of wear and tear.
“Oh God, look you’re peeling,” said the woman next to me. She was right. I was shedding paint like a snake sheds its skin. So much so that bits of me that haven’t seen direct sunlight since a beach in Cornwall circa 1979 were now proudly on display.
“What I meant to say was that you look like one of those beautiful Greek sculptures which has just crumbled a bit,” said the woman in an attempt to make me less self-conscious.
It almost worked and as we huddled on that swing bridge for one final shot, which Tunick appeared to be taking from the warmth of a room on the top floor of Hull’s Premier Inn, it felt like we had all been part of something special. Chilly and tough on the feet, but special.
By the time he used his megaphone for one last time to call it a wrap, it was just a few minutes past 7am. The adrenalin of earlier was beginning to wear off and with the rest of Hull starting to wake up, all but the bravest grabbed one of those throwaway all in ones favoured by crime scenes investigators for the walk back to Queen Street Gardens. We were works of art no longer, more like victims of some peculiar chemical accident.
There we picked up our belongings, took the odd selfie just to prove that we had done it and put back on our hoodies and jogging bottoms. We’d still be blue for a while yet, but as we began to disperse back to our normal lives we knew that the oddest start to a Saturday was over.
So what had we learnt in those three surreal hours.
Well, if you ever want to lose your inhibitions grab some body paint, Tarmac is surprisingly warm and if there is a problem, Steve is almost certainly to blame.
But most of all we learnt that if this is a sign of things to come, then next year when Tunick’s images are revealed and Hull is UK City of Culture, this is going to be a pretty special place to be.