A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.
“So we’re all going to go downstairs into the cinema where we’ll disrobe and then we’ll congregate out at the bar.”
This is about how the night started, Stuart Ringholt giving us our instructions along with disclaimers about photography waivers and the like. And as he directed we descended the spiral staircase two floors into the underground building that looked cut from rock walls, lit with colored spotlights and lined with a mix of modern style and intentionally antique looking furniture. We congregated as explained, with guide, photographer, three museum staff members and fifty patrons all standing nude. The only exception was the bartender for a combination of personal and food safety reasons.
We were going to spend about ninety minutes walking around the Museum of Old and New Art, a privately built museum to house a privately owned hundred million dollar collection acquired to ease the transport of gambling winnings across borders. You can’t say that gambling never did any public good.
As everyone stood around people talked with those they knew. New friendships weren’t being made. Most people held their hands clasped in front of their groins, or crossed their arms across their chest, blocking others out (guys included). People weren’t hostile but were clearly protecting themselves against the cold and the gaze of others, which stayed consciously at eye level, no one noticeably checking out anyone else.
Stuart explained up front the reasons for the tour being in the nude. His fascination was with people and their reactions to things like rage, embarrassment, and self-consciousness. Bringing everyone down to the flesh instantly got towards two of those. And from there we wandered off into a museum that couldn’t have been much more perfectly designed to add layers to our lack of adornment.
We started past the heartbeat light bulbs which glowed faster for those on the tour and into the room of Sex and Death. Confronted initially by thick satin curtains as if we were walking into a bordello, we headed to a collection of screens displaying images and videos of bodily functions and blood. We headed beyond to a collection of mannequins who had been painfully castrated. When clothed and looking at a bloody stump, it is disturbing but detached from yourself (and the mannequin apparently). But when naked and unprotected, that bloody stump can cause phantom pains and fears. This prompted discussions on the meaning of the work – feminism, fetishism, and religious symbolism.
From there we found Wim Delvoye’s exhibition – all Christian symbolism subversion, technically staggering carving and metal sculpting, and a stained glass window filled with panels of X-rays of people in various acts of passion (mostly man and woman, but some man and chicken (yes, really)).
The next room contained Cloacas. Walking into a room of machines designed to digest food and produce poop is an odd thing. The smell is as authentic as the products of the machines. The floors were white, the walls mirrored, and the lighting bright. The whole place seemed scientific, just as the machines looked like anything from uranium enrichers to chemical analytical equipment. Again, the nudity added a level to appreciating the work. We were without clothes in a room of machines simulating the human energy creation process that were without clothes, skin, bones, or musculature. What does it all mean? Is this a commentary on how as a society we usually make things that produce worthless products? Is it profound that something so hard and cold produced in the end, something squishy? Why are the artists who deal with poop always male?
The other interesting exhibit of the night was the tattoo room. An artist had tattooed pigs with various designs, images, and works of art. Upon their deaths, the pigs had been skinned and their flesh persevered and mounted on the wall. There is something recursive to seeing a nude person with a full back tattoo staring at a full back tattoo mounted on a wall.
We eventually wandered back to the bar for a round of free drinks. As people stood around, their postures and attitudes were different. Few people crossed themselves or blocked anything. Mostly the statures were natural as people talked with strangers and mingled. I asked a woman about her tattoo. A guy and I spent five minutes discussing Throbbing Gristle, GG Allin, and other shock artists. A couple people talked with hands on hips, legs turned slightly out as if they owned the place.
A few people started to make motions towards clothes and outside for cigarettes. After a little friendly banter I agreed to join them but that we were going to make the attempt to go up and outside still in the buff. As we walked away from the group, many looked on curious. Outside we found a spot on the balcony overlooking the river. As we sat around and smoked we discussed the exhibit, tobacco mythology, our lives, travel, and the storm starting to roll in over the mountains. The weather was perfect, late enough to avoid the sun, warm enough to avoid clothes. And we talked as friends, nude and blissfully apathetic to that fact.
The photographer made his way outside along with many of the others, all clothed now. He asked and we permitted another round of photographs. We moved over to the tennis court for some staged shots. And though he had our pre-approval and a waiver on his side, now that people had their cameras and we were outside the safety of the museum, the pact of no photos was off. For the most part people were respectful but a few iPhones now contain pictures of my butt.
We went back in, put on our clothes, and started the process of goodbyes. The interactions, though still comfortable and friendly, had to get over a new hurdle, how to go from nude to clothed. With all the adornments stripped away, you really were in the moment. No thinking about trying to get someone out of their clothes. But now that we had gone backwards in the natural progression we needed to get to know each other again before we could continue.