CLEVELAND — It may come as no surprise that the Republicans who gathered here for the Republican National Convention (RNC) put forth a political platform that many considered to be anti-woman. Donald Trump’s coronation as the party’s presidential nominee marks a new pinnacle of power for a person who very publicly demeans, degrades, and devalues women. Two artists, New York-based Spencer Tunick — famous for spending the past 22 years photographing more than 75 massive installations of nude volunteers in all manner of urban and natural settings — and Cleveland-based Megan Young — an interdisciplinary artist and 2016 Creative Workforce Fellow whose work facilitates and highlights acts of resistance through movement-based work — chose the RNC as the context for their respective public art happenings featuring female-identifying bodies, nude in one case, clothed in the other. Both intended their interventions as explorations of and resistance to current politics surrounding the female body.
Creating a space for resistance in Cleveland during the RNC was key for both artists. Young originally approached Planned Parenthood as the location for her piece, “Longest Walk,” but the organization declined, not wanting to attract any extra attention during a week that was already likely to be charged. Still, Young intended to draw attention to how the female body is “a contested site” and to “reclaim space in public, in society, in politics,” as she wrote on Facebook. Undeterred, she opted for Market Square, a bustling public space across from Cleveland’s West Side Market on West 25th Street, and then, for the final performance, she chose the approved demonstration area in Public Square, an outdoor plaza downtown that was recently renovated in anticipation of the RNC. Personal encounters with anti-abortion demonstrators helped Young shape the piece, and she was adamant about resisting that type of dehumanization. Tunick, for his part, told me that he felt a responsibility to make work during the RNC “to stand up against Trump and to stand for the freedom of his daughters,” though the synopsis of his work, “Everything She Says Means Everything,” avoids such direct political stances.
Both Young and Tunick relied on the help of collaborators. “Longest Walk” included between six and 25 female-identifying volunteers depending on the day, drawn from among Young’s closest friends. They performed six times in five days, moving in an “emergent structure” of simple forward and backward zigzag steps around a square in a circular pattern, leaving space for members of the public to participate, which many did — including a 10-year-old girl who repeatedly said she was “so embarrassed,” but continued nonetheless. Pink posters made by Chicago-based artist Angela Davis Fegan with purple letters that read “We Will Walk Until ____, Longest Walk” were either carried or posted in the square for a few hours before and until a few hours after each iteration. Participants and members of the public filled in the blanks with “#blacklivesmatter,” “equal pay,” and “body shaming and domestic violence stops,” among other messages. Participants’ messages were posted on Twitter (#longestwalkRNC) and Facebook throughout the week. Tunick’s call to action was more generic and broad. He sent out an online invitation for women in the Cleveland area to sign up to pose for his “art action” while holding circular mirrors in view of the Quicken Loans Arena, the venue for the RNC (the final outcome of the shoot, a set of prints, will be available in November). More than 1,800 women answered the invitation, though ultimately only 100 could be included due to space limitations and safety concerns.
Tunick said the work was a collaboration between seven women and four men (himself included), many of whom I spent time with after the shoot, while the women-dominated crew worked diligently. With all these women buzzing around us, I couldn’t help but wonder why the work was attributed solely to Tunick. To his credit, he has repeatedly shared with the media the names and contact information of women participants who were willing to speak about their experiences in the work, and also included the women’s statements as a part of the website for the piece. Though the piece did “rely upon the strength, intuition, and wisdom of progressive and enlightened women” — as stated in the project’s synopsis — Tunick’s attempt to “get the women’s voices out there” felt limited because he scarcely gave them credit for their work by name.
There also seemed to be a disconnect between Tunick’s intention for the piece and the clear political agendas and intentions of the participants. In the statements on the “Everything She Says” website, women give a variety of motivations for participating, including demanding better access to healthcare; the freedom to choose what is best for one’s own feminine body; “standing up against Trump and other Republicans whose hateful speech towards women, immigrants, LGBT people, and all ‘others’ is poisoning the nation”; and simply “to use my body as a political statement.” These very pointed motivations are in sharp contrast with what Tunick told me in a post-shoot interview, that “the naked body is political enough … to have a political message overriding the fact that I’m coming in to do the work — you don’t really need it.” He skirted around politics by presenting a synopsis (co-written by, yet unattributed to, his wife, Kristin Bowler) full of weak symbolic connections between naked women holding mirrors and the concepts of Mother Nature and the sacred feminine.
With “Everything She Says,” participants had a controlled environment on private land where they may have felt safe to expose their bodies in view of downtown — perhaps explaining why over 1,800 women were ready to volunteer. For six to two dozen participants of “Longest Walk,” their bodies were in direct engagement with and resistance to the experience of a woman’s body in public space. In fact several participants decided not to enact Young’s “performance score,” including one who “had a harder time than she thought with people watching her,” the artist told me, and “a few who said their husbands did not feel comfortable with them ‘downtown.’” The environment of the final performance in Public Square on Thursday, the last night of the RNC, was significantly more antagonistic than previous enactments, with Trump supporters rallying nearby. But the participants’ actions were powerful because their silent walking allowed them “to speak in body,” as Young put it. The piece felt deeply personal and used the body to speak intimately of women’s experiences.
Female bodies are potent triggers for a US society whose understanding of the feminine experience is characterized by trauma, repression, oppression, perversion, liberation, and hyper-sexualization. Tunick’s work has incited feelings of empowerment and outrage — two days after the shoot, he said his Facebook and Twitter pages were overloaded with hate messages. “The age old critique,” as Bowler put it, of the male photographer objectifying women for his benefit may be valid in this instance, but she insisted that this work was different and “very collaborative, very empowering.” Tunick told me he thinks the women who participated in his piece are braver than him; I think he’s right.
I don’t doubt that the experience for a majority of the women involved in “Everything She Says” was empowering and liberating. But Tunick’s choice — in one of the three poses photographed during the shoot — to ask participants to hold up mirrors that effectively rendered them faceless evoked for me a similar experience to viewing René Magritte’s “Le Viol” (or “The Rape,” 1945). Public body art installations are impactful because they affirm “the power of the body in action, reclaiming that contested space, being present together,” as Young wrote on Facebook. Though each instance of “Longest Walk” lasted just 20 minutes, its impact for will last much longer for the participants, the viewers, and the little girl who stood up and started walking despite her embarrassment. As these two artists’ works demonstrate, we still have a long walk ahead before we create a society that supports the feminine body.
Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that the women featured in Spencer Tunick’s photo shoot always had their faces hidden behind mirrors, when in fact this was only the case in one of the three group poses photographed by Tunick. This has been fixed and we apologize for the error.
Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, Spencer Tunick has extensively revised the website for “Everything She Says Means Everything,” crediting his 10 collaborators and using more pointedly political language in his project synopsis.