A U.S. artist named Spencer Tunick is planning a large-scale art project featuring 100 naked women holding mirrors. “Everything She Says Means Everything,” will take place on July 17, 2016, the week of the Republican National Convention and the day before Donald Trump is set to become the official Republican nominee (thereby competing against the likely first female presidential candidate in U.S. history, Hillary Rodham Clinton). Tunick has been planning this project since 2013, long before Trump was considered a serious contender, but very much within the context of the Republican war on women.
Tunick’s website explains that “the philosophy of the artwork relates to the idea of the sacred feminine.”
“By holding mirrors, we hope to suggest that women are a reflection and embodiment of nature, the sun, the sky and the land. We want to express the belief that we will rely upon the strength, intuition and wisdom of progressive and enlightened women to find our place in nature and to regain the balance within it. The mirrors communicate that we are a reflection of ourselves, each other, and of the world that surrounds us. The woman becomes the future and the future becomes the woman.”
Naturally, Tunick says this idea came to him while he was at Burning Man, photographing a friend holding a spherical mirror. In an interview with Vince Grzegorek for Scene he said, “I started thinking if I came back to the desert with 300 or 400 women holding spheres, I could make a really powerful work when the sun rises.”
The artist apparently cannot see the connection between Trump’s misogyny and his art project. When Grzegorek asks Tunick about the role the Republican nominee plays in his art project, Tunick responds by pointing out that he has two daughters (“the work is for my daughters”) and that his wife helped him craft the language on the project’s website. After establishing the “this isn’t sexist because I know a woman or two” defense, he goes on to describe his project as “a ray of light” that could help “tone down the rhetoric of hate against women preceding the convention.”
The project seems tone deaf, at best, and even Tunick himself seems unclear about its nature. He tells Harper’s Bazaar:
“I could never have imagined there would be such a heightened attention to the male-versus-female dynamic of this Cleveland juggernaut of a convention… But I feel like doing this will sort of calms the senses. It brings it back to the body and to purity.”
While Tunick believes his project will highlight progressive women’s connection to nature and “the sacred feminine” he adds, “Republicans, Democrats and all other political parties are welcome to take part.” I guess this particular form of sexism is bipartisan?
To be clear, I don’t believe nude art is inherently sexist or reprehensible. I personally find some of Tunick’s non-gendered art refreshing and interesting (though most of what I’ve seen seems overly-focused on white female bodies). As a younger woman, even I took naked pictures of myself while on a glacier, feeling in touch with nature and the Earth. The point is not always to objectify. But beside the fact that so many of these stunts are usually the oh-so-clever brainchild of men, the problem, as Meghan Murphy writes, is that, “Within our pornified culture, women seem to only be able to find power in their sexualized bodies. Have we seen viral media coverage of nude male protestors over the past few years? Not that I can recall.”
So, what is the point of this art installation? Who is calling the shots? Why are women’s bodies — bodies that will be under threat at this Republican convention in Cleveland — the means for men to state anything at all?
It is troubling that a fully-clothed white man is asking women to get naked for his camera at an event for a political party that has been warring against women and girls (particularly women of colour, immigrant women, working class women, and working mothers) for decades. This is a political party that plans to crown a man who not only objectifies and demeans women (even as babies), but seeks to punish women for claiming ownership of their bodies, as the official presidential candidate. The current political climate in the United States — wherein the bodies of women and girls are in perilous danger — is the worst possible time for a man to try to capitalize on “women’s connection to the Earth,” as it downplays the very tenuous ground upon which women’s rights stand during this political election.
This project reads more as retro sexism than it does a protest against misogyny, as it naturalizes feminine stereotypes that serve to disempower women in this culture.
When a similar project by Tunick was met with protests in Chile, the artist responded by saying, “The people used my work as a catalyst to send a message to the government that they’re free and the government doesn’t own their bodies.”
But the Republican Party does want to own and control women’s bodies. Objectifying women won’t assuage that… On the contrary, it may further reinforce the idea that women’s bodies are commodities.
“Women’s naked bodies” is a pretty old trick in the male-centered activist book. We see this in activism related to veganism, religion, fashion, and feminism. Why do we need to paint “Rape is rape, no excuses” on our naked bodies to get the point across?
In Vice, Bertie Brandes wrote, “It’s time to move forward from the idea that basic nudity is really shocking and controversial (when actually it just sells papers) and actually muster up the courage to do something hideous and frightening with our bodies.”
I’d exchange the words “hideous” and “frightening” for “powerful” and “revolutionary.”
How about staging a mass art project where hundreds of fully clothed women show up with two days worth of our menstrual blood to protest the tampon tax, which is still in place in most U.S. states? Why not stage a “die-in” in order to highlight the number of women and girls who die each year from domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence (without so much as a blurb in the newspaper)? We could block the entrance of the Republican convention center in Cleveland, highlighting human trafficking rates of children and women. We could stage a creative mass protest, featuring a mock clandestine abortion to comment on the very real possibility of back alley abortions returning to the United States if the Republican nominee is elected. There are many options.
Tunick publicized his mass art installment in a since deleted tweet by linking his project’s website to the words, “For our daughters. I just couldn’t sit back and do nothing.” He still has time.