Cloaked in secrecy, they wouldn’t know the location until they got into the bus. While politics in the Middle East seems to overshadow environmental issues, some passionate Israelis decided to be a part of history, and photographer Spencer Tunick’s dream of his latest “Naked Sea” installation, at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.
The nude models aged 18 to 77 met early Saturday morning, according to one participant, calling it both exhilarating and strangely natural to be part of one of the latest Tunick projects. Tunick who comes from a religious Jewish family in New York has done about 75 naked installations in cities around the world. This one was about environmental awareness and freedom in the Middle East. The Dead Sea is rapidly sinking due to water shortages from one end in the north as the Jordan River runs dry, and greedy chemical companies from Israel and Jordan on the south side.
Despite condemnation from Jewish religious authorities, the “strippers” fearlessly dropped their drawers earlier this morning. While some areas of Israel are extremely conservative – like Jewish, Muslim and religious Christians in Jerusalem, most of the country can be found on a spectrum between very religious or completely secular. There is a freedom of choice.
“In some places the work is a little bit more controversial, and then in other places the works are accepted as a litmus test for how free a country is, or how open a country is, and how full of rights a country is,” he said in a pre-shoot press briefing.
One participant writing to the Jerusalem Post reported:
“This is not just to make art, this is to celebrate that this is happening in Israel,” Tunick told the crowd before we undressed, explaining that he has made over 20 trips to Israel and has family in Netanya and Kibbutz Revivim. This installation, he added, could not happen nowhere else in the Middle East.
After an hour-late start, buses from cities throughout the country converged at a closely-guarded secret location at the northern end of the Dead Sea, around 5 a.m. Following a short introduction – “make sure not to smile when you’re in position” – the entire crowd rose as one and removed their clothes.
“I thought it would be harder to get undressed in front of so many people, but it was liberating,” said Zev, from Tel Aviv.
Some called the experience quiet and zen-like, at least until the aerial gliders started swooping in to take their own pictures, making it uncomfortable for some of the models. But Israel being a small country, it’s really hard to do anything, especially a massive naked installation in secrecy.
The gliders, which stayed for around half an hour, cast a pall over the installation and made it impossible to hear Tunick’s directions as he was racing against the sun to capture the photograph.
Every color of the Jewish and Israeli rainbow?
Aside from the issue with the planes, the event went off without incident, fairly impressive considering the harsh physical environment which could have easily caused serious injury to the participants. After an hour in the Dead Sea holding different positions – certainly the longest I have ever been in the salty water, and an experience I hope never to repeat – and an hour standing in the sun, I started to feel a bit like beef jerky, well salted and laid out to harden in the sun.
Anne Grant, the participant also pointed out that there was an all-male shoot, and for curious readers one with women covered in Dead Sea mud. Some oddballs, she adds, tried to prolong the experience by not getting dressed after the shoot was over. Since the permit to be naked on the beach lasted only until 8 am, one of the organizers started freaking out, especially by the naked guys – one was smoking a cigarette, another one was playing the flute.
“Today I’m just a catalyst for more than 1,000 Israeli artists,” Tunick told the Jerusalem Post after the shoot. “This is important, even for religious people. The safety of democracy is dependent on a society that accepts freedom of expression in art.”
Images via Yaron Brenner