From Alabama to Colombia: Naked City

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From Alabama to Colombia: Naked City

I didn’t get the memo. At least 6,132 citizens of Bogotá did. A throng that size, summoned in some way unknown to this writer, began to assemble at 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 5, in La Plaza de Bolivar, the most historic public space in this 478-year-0ld city. The early arrivals sipped hot coffee and hugged themselves to stay warm in the 50-degree Fahrenheit pre-dawn chill of the high Andes.

At 5:30 a.m., cold or not, every man and women—all 6,000-plus—took off every stitch of clothing.

They stood “absolutamente desnudos” (“absolutely naked”), as instructed through an interpreter by United States artist Spencer Tunick. (Tunick’s quote and other facts here appeared in a June 6 article by culture and entertainment writer Maria Alejandra Toro Vesga in El Tiempo, the newspaper of record in Colombia.)

Pigeons left their roosts and flapped noisily over the plaza, no doubt startled by what they witnessed below.

A huge multicolored flesh amoeba of a crowd waited for Tunick’s camera.

The New York-born Tunick has made his name taking photos of naked people in public places. In 2007, he snapped 18,000 nudies gathered in Mexico City’s main public square, the Zócalo. He shot 1,200 naked Irish folks at Blarney Castle in 2008. He’s photographed hundreds of naked Dutch tiptoeing through the tulips and hundreds of naked Swiss saying cheese on a melting glacier.

The photographer arranged the cream of Bogota’s uninhibited into a gigantic triangle in the vast cobbled Bolivar plaza. In every imaginable flesh tone, chill bumps and all, this 12,000-legged nude public art installation posed stock still surrounded by the city’s great cathedral and government buildings. The artist allowed no hats or other coverings … nothing except glasses, for those who desired to see the astonishments around them. Tunick also asked his Colombian models to wear only tranquil expressions, no smiles.

His camera went click, click, click. A drone flew over, recording the event from on high. The images soon go on full frontal display in the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá.

I’ll be watching for that memo.

Back in the 1970s, I attended the University of Alabama for seven years. Somehow, in 14 semesters on and around campus, I amassed enough academic credits to qualify, magnificently as a sophomore. (I’m not making this up.) This surely stands as some kind of record for stiff-arming adulthood and responsibility. It took hard work to be so shiftless.

In fact, if you crack open a dictionary to find the meaning of the word sophomoric, you’ll very possible find an illustration of sophomore McNair alongside that term. Note the princely poetic nose in the air—that McNair fellow knew for drop-dead certain that, in this life, sensation mattered more than perspiration. The open mouth? He’s not a mouth-breather! He’s a quipster! He’s a wit! He’s the new Oscar Wilde!

At the height, or depth, of that sophomoric stupidity (and buzzed on testosterone and other stuff), I did in 1975 what they did in Bogota June 5.

I took off every stitch of clothing.

I streaked.

It terrified me, honestly. I sprinted after dark through the U of A campus even faster than I ran from a big red bull that chased me out of Mr. Massey’s field back in Dothan at age 8. I could have made the Olympic track team the night I left Mallet Hall, the men’s honors dorm, and tore like The Flash past the president’s mansion, cornered at the Delta Delta Delta house (Hi girls! Whee!), then streaked—yes, that’s the word—back to the shaky safety of my dorm room.

Shaky?

Consider the memory Mallet Hall gave me for my 20th birthday. I was dorm president at the time. I had a bombshell girlfriend who shared my first-floor room. Life was what passed for good in sophomoric times.

I woke on my birthday morning, in my birthday suit, with hands all over me. They were not the hands of my sweetie. They were rough hands. Guy hands.

A squad of six extracted me from my bed, then my room, then my dorm. They toted me outside into a frosty January morn, squirming, wild, my bare butt scraping the ground. They dropped me, yelling and buck naked, not far from Denny Chimes, a 115-foot tall bell tower at the center of the Alabama campus. (A famous bit of graffiti defaced a plaque on the giant brick shaft: “Erected in 1929,” quoth the plaque. “And not since,” quoth the graffito.)

Set free at last, I trotted, barefoot, bare everything, several hundred yards back to my dorm. I silently bounced past surprised girls headed to classes out of New Hall, next to Mallet. I legged it by (mon dieu!) my matronly freshman-year French teacher, who stared straight ahead. (I spoke French with an Alabama accent. She took it badly.)

A loose campus dog bolted in terror at the sight of me.

I later discovered both my butt cheeks were strawberry red from being dragged and scraped during my birthday kidnapping.

Loping naked across campus, I must have looked something like a badly diseased baboon.

What motivates 6,192 people (and college streakers) to take off clothes in public? The crowd in Bogota offered various explanations. Art for art’s sake. To normalize nudity. To celebrate the body’s sacredness. To (paradoxically) make a public statement for privacy. To show off endowments. Or just for the hell of it.

That last answer rings especially true, in my opinion.

In much of our world, but especially in the U.S., and maybe most especially in the U.S. South, no matter how respectable things seem, a restless rebel spirit lies just beneath the skin.

Many people hold a firm DNA-deep belief that independence matters more than anything else under God’s heaven. That rebel spirit against rules and regulations bursts out of confinement in unfortunate ways sometimes. Look no further than Adam and Eve … coming to terms with nakedness was part and parcel of the first human crisis.

And consider the U.S.’s silent culture of rebellion. Who says an American can’t, by God, smoke weed or ignore the speed limit or fudge on IRS reporting? And see how we so fervently admire James Dean, Muhammad Ali, Madonna, Hunter S. Thompson, and other famous bad-asses who played by their own rules.

It’s basic. Many people, maybe most people (and likely every streaker), own the rebel gene. People take off their clothes in public as a personal act of defiance, a way of giving the finger (or something anatomical) to The Man, to The Rules. For 6,132 bogotanos, the world would be better were it free of barriers … and clothing represents the first and most obvious barrier between natural man and regulated man.

Clothes do come in handy, though.

The naked truth about one of the world’s largest-ever nude photo shoots? Fifty-degree temperatures for four hours, plus gusts off 10,000-foot peaks east of Bogota, made 6,132 nude models true believers in clothing after all.

Happiness, it turns out, is a warm coat.

Photo: Bill Hunt, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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