The artist Stuart Ringholt was explaining the genesis of how he’d come to invite 50 of us to stand without clothes on an April evening in the cold white light of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
About a decade ago, at a football game in Perth, Ringholt found himself being ridiculed as he walked the perimeter of the oval. By the time he realised he had toilet paper trailing from his pants, he’d been seen by hundreds. He shrivelled into a hole of humiliation, only to launch himself later into an artistic exploration of what he’d felt and why.
“I was working as an artist and I knew the history of performance so I thought, I need to get to the bottom of it to understand it … So I decided to intensely embarrass myself in public.” He wore toilet paper at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, a gob of snot to the dole office in Armadale, Perth, and a prosthetic nose for a day in Basel, Switzerland.
He says it made him a stronger, better person. “I tried to understand how fear manifests in the body and how it debilitates you.”
Ringholt first came to consider himself an artist back in the mid ’90s in India, roughly at the same time as he had a hash-induced psychotic episode. He believed he was Jesus and that his father was the rocker Rod Stewart. Hospitalised in India, then repatriated to a Perth psychiatric hospital, he spent months getting his sanity back.
On Australia Day in 1995, he went back to his old primary school, to the spot where, as a six year old in 1977, he was consoled by the friends of his eight-year-old sister, who had just died from leukaemia. He took off all his clothes, put on a mask of the Star Wars character C-3PO and filmed C3PO at North Innaloo Primary. In 1977, the newly released movie had been the biggest thing in his life.
“I’m not sure why I did it,” he says. “Trying to reconcile this loss I suppose.” Ringholt went on to create a career in art, with many solo exhibitions involving sculpture, video and collage, but he kept coming back to the performance themes of loss, embarrassment and self-improvement.
About eight years ago he had the idea of getting people to embarrass themselves intentionally in a gallery setting. No one came to the first Funny Fear Workshop, but he rustled up 17 for the second, only to have just one of them return for the workshop’s second day. Art lovers didn’t appear as keen as him on public humiliation. They did, however, come to his Anger Workshops, where they got to hurl invective at what cheesed them off and lose themselves in the beat of a heavy techno soundtrack.
Having done about 50 of those – plus another 60 he is doing in Germany at the Documenta 13 art exhibition, which runs until September – Ringholt wanted to go all out and do them nude. Strangely, no gallery has yet invited him to do it.
In the meantime he thought of the nude gallery tour. He had to wait for a willing curator. Last year, Robert Leonard from the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane came to the party. Since then, Ringholt has also hosted nude art tours at MONA in Hobart and the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art in Melbourne.
Tonight it’s the MCA’s turn. Fifty naked people – two thirds men, one third women – are led into a room where two walls are painted in large squares and rectangles of bold colour. Ringholt says this geometric abstraction is designed for the naturist’s body. “No one else thinks that, but I do. Please don’t touch it,” he says as we spread through the space. “I’ve worked in minimalism and monochrome painting when I was younger but it bores me to death now. I’m not sure why. No disrespect for the work but I just find it tired. But you can experience the colour and let it wash over your body.”
A group realises they are standing in front of large glass windows, visible from the pub strip of The Rocks below.
“Is that the street, is it?” Ringholt asks. There is laughter, clapping. He’d reconnoitred the building to check for such exposures, but the place looks different at night. “Oh gosh,” he says, losing his train of thought. We’re probably breaking public nudity laws, but no one’s in a hurry to remove their backsides from the full-length window.
The focus swings back to the art, Robert Owen’s Sunrise #3, and Ringholt is right – the painting is much improved by the imperfect human bodies in front of it, an installation of white skin broken up only by a short, round, multicoloured man, Geoff Ostling. He is tattooed from neck to foot with native plants and flowers, and has bequeathed his skin to the National Gallery of Australia.
About an hour in, it’s getting cold and Ringholt guides us into a room with heating and carpet. Some sit around the walls, while the more brazen lie flat on their backs and look up at the art above: Rivane Neuenschwander’s Continent Cloud, a lot of beans being pushed around by fans above an illuminated translucent ceiling.
“Does anybody want to have a drink or do you want to have a look at some of the other works?” asks Ringholt. “I’m going to have a drink. The bar’s this way and the art’s that way.”
The performance, it seems, is only just beginning – after all, he’d given it the rather looping if informative title, Preceded by a tour of the show by artist Stuart Ringholt 6–8 pm (the artist will be naked. Those who wish to join the tour must also be naked. Adults only).
The drinks float around on trays, there are views of the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, there’s the art, and all for $20. “Hellooooooo, Sydney,” declares performance artist Kelly Doley, champagne in hand, as she walks onto the outdoor terrace bar. Some of us are slower to loosen up. Sara Shields, 28, originally from San Francisco, says she’s here for “self-esteem, learning, and to be happy with myself”. She’s come with two girlfriends. Two years ago, she took part in Spencer Tunick’s choreographed photo shoot of nude hordes at the Opera House. “It’s a lot more confronting to be naked in front of 50 people than 5000,” she says.
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