Jewish Journal

Spencer Tunick goes “OY Naturalle!”

by Tiferet Peterseil

March 23, 2010 | 2:32 pm

“You should have worn a dress,” my friend, Jim, chastises me, as we walk briskly towards the oblique-shaped structure overlooking the Yarkon river, in Tel Aviv.

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I object. We’re on our way to a cocktail party promoting the artist, Spencer Tunick, whom the promoters are hoping would take notice and possibly put Israel on his itinerary for a clothes-less photo shoot.

“Nothing’s wrong with what you’re wearing, but a dress is much easier to slip in and out of,” Jim replies, with a mischievous grin.

“Jim!” I shout menacingly, warning bells ringing in my ears. Jim’s a good friend but he’s put me into situations – on more than one occasion – that I had to battle to get out of.  “Where EXACTLY are we going?” I confront him, accusingly.  Jim just smiles like the proverbial Cheshire Cat.

“What do you mean,’slip in and out of’?” I demand to know. He just licks his lips.

Why didn’t they cast him in the new Alice In Wonderland flick? I wonder. 

If you’re not familiar with Spencer’s work or haven’t read a newspaper lately, he’s become a major celebrity, raising a lot of…eyebrows. I’ll bet that plastic surgeons pay him a commission on the breast enlargements, tummy tucks, and gallons of botox they use on their patients. After all, he’s single-handedly created a daring new art form – Oy Naturalle. Spencer travels from country to country offering the local yokels an opportunity to appear butt-naked, in order to capture that perfect Kodak moment. We’re not talking about hundreds of people but sometimes, even thousands of willing nudists who stand around or in line, lie prone or just hang loose so he can create “Art in the Flesh”.

“Well, the guy takes pictures of naked people… and this is a ‘Bring Spencer Tunick to Israel’ party, so, you know…” Jim winks at me. “We need to persuade him to come…”

“No, I don’t know. What does that mean?”

“Well, let’s just say I’m sure we’ll be checking our clothes in at the front door.”

“Our clothes?!”

“Don’t worry if you don’t have on your best lingerie. All undergarments are included in the mandatory stripping.”

“Mandatory stripping?” I echo nervously.

“Don’t you just love it when the dress code isn’t formal?” Jim smiles, as we reach the entrance of the club. The guard asks to see his invitation and Jim begins to unbutton his shirt. The guard reaches his arms out towards me and I grab his wrist firmly, “These are staying on!” I warn, pointing to my outfit.

He gives me a puzzled look. “Hey, what you do is none of my business, but I’m just checking for weapons!” He moves his scanner across me before letting me in, and then scanning me with his eyes, whispers, “But I’ll gladly help you with your clothes later.”

Exasperated, I zoom past Jim (who’s removed his pants and is about to remove his Homer Simpson boxer shorts when a guard threatens to use his stun gun if he doesn’t get dressed) and enter a large, elegant looking bar, which, to my relief, features fully dressed guests sitting on stools and at tables. Everyone’s waiting for the premiere showing of Spencer’s movie “A Naked World” to begin. I grab a cocktail and set out to find the organizers of this party.

It turns out that the organizers are actually a group of third year communications students at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzaliya (IDC), who for their end-of the- year project, chose to use Spencer Tunick and his work to “rebrand” Israel and show the country in a whole new light. Using Twitter, Facebook, and launching their own website—undressingisrael.com—the daring group of students are determined to show Israel as artistic, young, exciting and hip. They want the country to go down in history for something other than politics, bombings and wars.

I wonder if suggesting that thousands of naked Jews follow the path of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa or pose clothe-less at David’s Citadel won’t incite the Keepers of the Faith in the Knesset and on the streets to simply create more political turmoil and conflict? 

“Why Spencer Tunick?” I ask one of the organizers.

She explains that posing in the nude is actually sending a message that everyone should feel comfortable with there bodies. “We need to strip off all our outer masks, and just be ourselves,” she tells me.

“Why?” I naively ask.

It’s obviously the questions she’s been waiting for. “So we see that under it all, we’re not that much different from other people. We’ve all got the same body parts,” she adds brightly. This is less of a revelation to me than she would like. I explain that as the daughter of a sexologist, I’ve heard that line before. I, for one, am all for loving one’s body and feeling comfortable with it. But does that necessarily mean flaunting it?

“That’s just it,” someone chimes in. “It’s a graphic depiction of the primal state of Man as he/she was meant to be. We’re not flaunting, we’re recreating the spirit of Adam and Eve! The pre-fig innocence of God’s creation.”

“Does that mean that if Spencer comes to Israel you’d all strip for the cameras?”

“Absolutely!” comes the resounding answer from those around me. It seems our little talk had attracted quite as following. 

“That’s the whole idea. For everyone to get naked,” Jim intones in the background.

“So you’d all take off your clothes along side your parents? Ex-boyfriends? The girl you have a crush on? Your teacher?” I ask in all innocence.

This time no one answers.

“Sure,” one man, with long dreadlocks and handlebars finally pipes up. “In front of anyone. I’m part of a nudist colony, and since the very first day I took my clothes off,  I found it so liberating, so rejuvenating and sincere, that I just wish we’d all be naked all the time.”

I try to imagine a world without clothes. It’s not a pretty sight. Clothes are often designed to hide the ravages of time and double-chocolate desserts. And what about that famous saying, “Clothes make the man!” If that’s true, then what does it mean when a man doesn’t wear clothes? Is he more of a man? Less of a man? 

A young, female, potential stripper leans into me. “Imagine a gorgeous hunk that won’t give you the time of day, except to ask you if his hair’s in place, stripping for one of Spencer’s projects. Now you seem him naked, his muscles gleaming in the sun, and all he’s got is a teeny, weenie, weenie. Stripping is the great equalizer. You can’t hide anything, no matter what kind of façade you want to create.”

“I’m really disappointed in the turn-out,” Jim whispers from behind me. I turn to him.

“You mean because so few people showed up?”

“No, I mean that they all showed up dressed. I don’t get what we’re all here for.”

I roll my eyes. “Don’t worry Jim, the night is young,” I say, encouragingly. 

I turn back to the crowd of students and ask: “Does the small turnout mean people don’t support what you’re doing? Or do they just not know about it?”

“I don’t think Israelis are actually familiar with Spencer Tunick” one student points out. “Part of our mission is to introduce the work of Spencer to Israelis. True, things take a while to catch on here, but when they do….”

Just then, the film starts. Most frames conclude with a bunch of people stripping for the camera. I wonder if Spencer actually does this for a form of art, voyeurism, or just a base attempt at getting famous. And would he himself strip down for the camera, for the sake of “art”?

As much as the men at the party insist that watching naked women parade around has no sexual meaning for them, I notice that throughout the movie whenever a good-looking naked woman is shown, men stop in mid-conversation, snap their heads up at the screen,  and intently “concentrate”.  I wonder if these are the same guys who claim they only buy Playboy for the articles.

For me, it’s a little hard to find the “art” in all this nudity. A bunch of naked people turning every which way on command, actually gives me an uneasy sense of déjà vu, reminding me of some very troubling images from the Holocaust. I wonder how Spencer, rumored to be Jewish himself, sees his subjects?

After speaking to about a dozen people who seemed to intellectualize the whole nudity scene, I finally met someone who seemed to have an honest take on why to get naked in front of a camera.

“For the thrill of it!” she says, passionately. “For the experience of being part of something big and exciting and a once-in-a-lifetime event. Like bungee jumping.”

Hmmm. As simple as her answer is I can relate to her passion for doing something different, daring, and perhaps a little rebellious.

On the one hand, I like the idea of freeing yourself from society’s norms and your own inhibitions—of baring all.

But on the other hand, aren’t there other, possibly better ways to express our freedom? And isn’t wearing clothes actually a very personal way to define yourself? By removing our outer garb, are we necessarily revealing our true inner selves, or are we actually just becoming one of the masses – stripping free from all sense of modesty and humility? By doing something global, are we representing Israel in the best light, or just telling the world “Look! Jews in a Jewish State can get naked too!”

Or is that actually the point?

Glancing at Jim from the corner of my eye, watching him try to persuade two women to demonstrate how they would pose for Spencer, I realize I’m not so sure bringing this genre to Israel is such a great idea. But raising the issue is.

So, what do you think?  If you were offered a chance to give Israel it’s 15 minutes of cultural fame, would you be willing to strip down, bare all and shout “Halleluyah?”

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