Four Shades of Blue: Adrift On the Sea of Hull

(Probably NSFW )

I don’t recall exactly when I first became aware of Spencer Tunick’s art but I did ponder taking part in the Salford Lowry piece in 2010 but was too late, disorganised, hesitant.  When I heard about his new Hull project I was quicker and signed up online a few months ago.

And that was it.  Two weeks ago an email arrived with details.  We would be assembling in Hull by 3am.  And we would be wearing blue body paint.  Oh. OK.

I hadn’t told anyone at work, or actually anyone at all, until Friday.  Then a colleague on the phone asked what my weekend plans were.

“Taking part in an art installation by Spencer Tunick”

“Not heard of him but sounds cool.”

Then a few minutes later, Google time later, up pops the email: “Really????”


For a moment, driving home from work, I pondered not going. Hull is a long trek across country, but I might never get this chance again.  More than that, nothing gets me down more than feeling I’ve wasted free time by abandoning plans through lethargy.  So I had a nap, gathered suitable old clothes, loaded up some driving tunes and set off about 1030.

Now I don’t know what a typical Hull Friday night looks like these days, but walking from the car towards Queens Gardens I quickly got an idea that some of those around might be going my way.  Casual clothes, gym bags, at 230?

The streets near the Gardens were closed off to non-participants much to the confused consternation of one chap on his way home. “I need to go that way, I just came down there” I was waved through so I don’t know if he understood the detour.

At the Gardens we were pointed to various registration tables, where we handed in model release forms in exchange for a clear plastic bag with a number. I was B4 so I joined the huge queue to assemble at  B4.  There we got the important things: a tub of paint and a packet of wipes.

Just before dawn, in the cold light…

And then… We milled around, waited and tried to keep warm. Somebody had been at the police briefing so told us the planned schedule.  Apparently 6000 had signed up but typically up to half don’t show up.   People chatted. Alan from Newcastle asked if we were naturists too.  In fact he seemed to assume we were regardless of our denials.  Teacher Mandy from nearby said she’d never done anything like this before, nor had I, but the Geordie naturist continued talking about his favourite spas and beaches as though we knew them.

It was nearly 4 by the time Spencer Tunick himself took to the microphone to greet and instruct us.  At first he seemed awkward, nervous, starting sentences and not finishing.  He apologised several times for not liking speaking by PA but perhaps he’d have been wiser handing some of this to an assistant.  There was an Irish woman with a clear voice who helped corral us and would have speeded this part up.  But eventually we were told to head back to our areas ready to get the word to start.  Despite repeated instructions otherwise a few had already started to paint up and undress.  Others headed for the line of portaloos. Already the banter had started. The toilet line to my right moved much faster than mine as the 5 minute call went out.  But I made it back to Mandy and the Geordie naturist in time.

“OK can you start undressing and applying paint please.”  It was almost 430 a.m.

I’d already noticed how some people had come prepared to undress and presumably dress quickly.  Around me people took different approaches.  Some stripped almost in two movements. Shirt over the head, pants down, done.  Others kept underwear on while painting the rest.  Nearby four young women faced inwards, and one counted to three and they braved the air together.

We’d been told to cover everywhere, hair, ears, eyelids, even those hidden places like the soles of our feet.  At first it was easy. Odd but easy smearing gloopy blue paint on arms, face, torso.  Glancing not at others’ naked bits but at how they applied colour.  People helped each other, strangers unfazed by it all.  I bent to do my calves, and Mandy reached across to smear over a missed spot on my neck.  She asked me to check her back, tooI pointed out a white patch on her bum, so she began to try to cover it.

“Oh what the hell, you do it” she said.  Setting a tone of comfort and acceptance that was to grow as we continued.  Strangers stood chatting, laughing and helping.  I know I wasn’t alone in having had a quick glance at the bodies becoming exposed around me, but that was it. Just a glance and then get on with it.  It was clear at once that we’re all different and all the same.  I saw big bearded hipsters, pensioners and young people, at least two wheelchair participants, the out of shape (me) and the athletic, (Mandy was to run a 10k on Sunday morning) and one woman well into third trimester by appearances. I wondered how a woman with spectacular ginger hair would turn it blue, and watched others covering tattoos.  The park was becoming a sea of blues, four shades of blue from a pale, white blue to virtually green.  To the east between the buildings, a pink sunrise glowed briefly in contrast.  It was a mild morning, it didn’t feel cold as we prepared ourselves.

Soon it was time to move, two processions down the sides of the Gardens to the Rose Garden.  Without my glasses, in the twilight, the palest blue looked beautifully spectral from a distance.  Closer they took on a statuesque quality.  Even as we assembled the beauty of this project was becoming clear.  And the humour was coming through.

The Rose Garden is laid out as a spoked circle, a ship’s wheel in Spencer’s vision.  I found myself on a spoke at due South from the camera view. The photographer was on a balcony some 6 or 7 floors up, directing models and crew.  One of the crew, his assistant Steve, got a lot of his instructions and sometimes ire, but became our folk hero. Every mention was greeted with a terrace chant of “Steeeeeeeeeeve!!!”

Spencer wanted people evenly spread out, prompting a glorious Carry On moment as he announced in apparent innocence: “If you see a hole, fill it!” And 3200 people responded “Wahey!” Incredibly, impressively, with 3200 naked bodies in close proximity, that was as sexual as it got.  Comic humour.  Like the urge to leave a dark blue handprint on a nearby pale blue bottom, and later on a parked red van. Neither urge was followed through however.

The Geordie naturist reappeared to tell us that naturists would probably have at least shorts on at this temperature.  Around 14°C at start, by the way.  It was OK we’d been told we’d only be naked for a short time.  But as Spencer directed people around each shot took a while.  A clothed person was in the frame, he complained. “Streaker!” Cried the naked people.

Then we moved on, across the road “Wait for the green man to flash!”, past a construction site “a hard helmet area”, and down the street.  It was curious how different road surfaces were such different temperatures, even individual paving slabs were suddenly warm.

I think it was around this point, as I walked with school dinner lady Sharon and a Londoner whose name I didn’t get, that I really felt the rising camaraderie. Broken pavements, rough patches of road, were pointed out. Jokes shared.  The open top press bus was mildly jeered and taunted.  Steve (“Steeeeve!!!”) was cheered, we all deliberately feigned not understanding an American assistant telling us to not use the “sidewalk” and there were choruses of Eiffel 65’s Blue to keep us going.
Down the street we were halted and we waited. Spencer had to change his film, disproving the theory he was using an iPhone4.  Meanwhile we discussed doing this again, how about outside Betty’s in genteel Harrogate?  Then he was ready. And we lay down as directed on the hard street.  Then the same pose facing the other direction. Oddly it felt colder that way.  Those trembling sensations though, were raging giggles at the jokes, not shivering at the cold.

Up til now the shades of blue had intermingled though with little cross contamination that I saw.  Now we lined up in our separate colours.  And we waited.  Somebody started the Hokey Cokey, a Mexican Wave was called for but those at the front didn’t get it going so it came from the back.

More paint came around for those who needed “touching up” and again strangers turned friends helped without coyness.  It all felt so incredibly natural, normal, comfortable.  Nobody seemed to judge, all just bonded.

My hairy chest was thickly matted and sticky, elsewhere parts were tightening as the paint dried.  Somebody mentioned sticky thighs.  Nobody went there.

Further through town, to the Guildhall, where it was colder. The wind had got up, but nobody was saying where it had got up.  We all knew.  Our short time naked passed two hours.

Spencer rose above us on a gantry to check and take his shots, always calling on Steve (“Steeeeeve!!!!”) to move people. A drone flew over too, but was that official?  This photo involved us bent over at the waist, the one shot you really had to be careful where you looked.  I can still touch my toes though!

There was one last set-up but only room for 800, so some headed off to warmth, clothes and the long clean up. The group I’d been around dissipated but I’d come this far so why not.

This meant the longest walk so far, down cobbled streets at times, in looser formation.  By now residents were waking, and one or two got a surprise when they leaned out their windows.  Gradually people gave up and headed against the tide but still there were a few too many for the swing bridge and we missed out.  Ah well, that led to a different memorable moment or two.

Sharon and I walked back to the Gardens in a pair, more exposed but no more uncomfortable by now, than as a crowd.  The City was waking, so we saw traffic, and a few amused and bemused delivery drivers and workers. They looked, we waved and grinned.  Actually I think I’m still grinning.

We had spent over three hours naked on the streets of Hull now. Just a “short time”? Now to clean up.  But first some personal photos. Selfies and shared photos of new friends.

I’d decided to just clean my hands for the drive, so as not to mess my car up.  That took 20 minutes scrubbing with wipes anyway. Meanwhile all around people talked about how good it felt. The vocabulary was consistent: Liberating, Comfortable, Normal, Equal, Beautiful, Awesome, Fantastic. The mood was blissful and shared ecstasy.  People spoke of the paint being a mask, but maybe implied that adding paint removed our daily masks.

Folk from the bridge shot appeared, having been provided white paper suits for the walk back.  The walk others did naked.  Oddly blue heads and arms poking out of clothes looked far weirder than bare bodies.  Near us a blue woman pulled on a bold peach bra that emphasised her large bust in its contrast far more than her being topless had.

Even the walk back to the car alone, sometimes a reflective or downbeat moment after events, was joyous. Other blue faces waved in kinship, non-blues smiled or looked puzzled.  One goth woman in bold blue lipstick made eye contact, unsure perhaps if she’d been upstaged or found a fellow traveller.  An elderly couple were parking near my car.  She wanted to know if the blue was everywhere. It was, and I showed a little belly.  Her husband said he’d seen us on the news, and told me the significance of the shades.  It seems Tunick had identified the four shades as dominant and prevalent in commissioners The Ferens Gallery collection of Hull related sea paintings.  His aim to highlight Hull’s relationship to the sea was thus tied to its artistic history too.  From the ground, in the middle at times, on the fringes at others, there was a curious feeling of how would this look? But also as we packed down the street, a sense of some kind of transformation.  The old stone buildings and the flow of blues made sense together where they may not have done with clothes or unpainted bodies.

It was a long drive home, punctuated by several stops.  I know I raised eyebrows at services, but some recognised where I’d been, or were intrigued when I explained.  That seems to be the main reaction.  Well done, I bet it was amazing, I wish I’d the courage.  And how long did it take to get clean? About an hour in shower and bath, but it was totally worth it.  One of the most incredible experiences of my life so far.  I’m still grinning!  Can’t wait to see the finished prints and the exhibition next Spring as part of Hull City of Culture 2017.

Oh and if you were there too, thank you so much for sharing.  And Mr Tunick, thank you for the opportunity, the inspiration and the beauty.


About Kev McVeigh

Review of literary matters, mostly but not all SFF , and digressions into music and other arts. Engagement welcomed.
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