The terrible risk of nakedness is that the public gaze will reflect me back to myself as loathsome – as loathsome as, on my worst days, I believe myself to be.
You look at me naked and at first all you can see is that I am naked. Your mind flicks between what you expect of nudity – porn images, the naked bodies you know, the naked bodies you imagine – and what you are seeing. That makes you uncomfortable, and it makes me uncomfortable because my body is necessarily different from the images in your mind.
But quite soon you stop seeing me naked and you begin to see me. My nakedness has been incorporated into your conception of ‘normal’ and you don’t look at it anymore. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not an object anymore, I’m a person. And then my body can speak.
We talk about being ‘comfortable in our own skin’. We are not comfortable in our skins, we are supremely uncomfortable about living in our fleshy bodies, which are mortal, which are imperfect, which are surrounded by and rubbing up against so many other mortal and imperfect bodies.
Bodies are leaking, bleeding, sweating, shitting, pissing bags of bones and guts. Even the most beautiful bodies are so. We loathe them. The flesh is weak. At one level we experience our bodies as the source and cause of impending death and putrefaction. Yet our bodies are also the source and cause of everything that is most delightful. A soft breeze on a hot day, swimming in a clear ocean, food, sex, wine, laughter…
The body speaks with directness, without disguise, without artifice. It speaks of vulnerability and of power, of pleasure and suffering, of innocence and knowingness. It tells the truth. It cannot do otherwise.
The 1970s in Australia – and a little earlier elsewhere – was a time of radical protest, calling for equal rights for women, the end of racial discrimination, acknowledgement of indigenous populations as the land’s first peoples, the emergence of the environmental movement and the end of the Vietnam war (for which conscription was compulsory in Australia). Ending conscription was achieved by a change of government. The remainder are still works in progress. The passage of time has seen artists working with nudity as a powerful political tool by which the body has its own agency. The naked body has proven to have a powerful resonance when addressing these issues of concern.
As a feminist artist, some of my early work did not sit easily with some feminists who were concerned that the naked female body was pandering to the male gaze. Nudity for me at that time, 1978, was ultimately an aesthetic concern, albeit layered with political nuance. Logically, had all women artists taken the stance to shelter from the gaze, there would have been a continued absence of the naked female body speaking to the issues of concern to them. Who can speak for whom?
From the late 1980s and 1990s, the time of visibility politics had gathered momentum. For example, nudity became part of queer culture, where the visibility of the HIV epidemic was both a memorial of those lost through AIDS and an affirmation of gay pride. This simultaneously became an education in safe sexual practices that is now embraced across an increasing number of cultures.
In 2014, the socio-political and cultural environment is much more complex. Identities are fluid and felt across global media platforms. Identities are not necessarily in competition with each other, but they share simultaneous existence within the one overarching cultural sphere – that could be seen as global economics. Within this sphere is the neo liberalist presence whose censorship, fear, repression and commerce-at-all-costs is countered by activisms of all kinds.
Where is nudity now? I think that it is part of a move to strip back layers of cultural baggage, in the knowledge that we are life infused bodies first and foremost, but we are always beings in relation to technology, politics, gender, race and religion. The bare truth, what ever that may mean, can be glimpsed in the performance of the naked body. It has its own powerful communication which goes straight to the bone, or – should I say? – the heart of the matter!
Bodies are leaking,
bags of bones and
guts. Even the most
beautiful bodies are
so. We loathe them.
— Maude Davey
Obvious as it may seem, it never ceases to amaze me how distinctly unique each and every individual body is in this world. I think it is funny when we choose clothes as the means to express our individuality, even though Nike does let us pick and design the colour of our very own special kicks. Whether it is dressing with discretion or distinction, clothing is what potentially homogenises us the most.
The naked body has been a common condition of dance performances for decades. Even though nakedness has now become another kind of costume in its every iteration, there is a guaranteed glimmer of inimitability. I have chosen to perform naked in the past because my body is how I exist in the world. When it works for the piece I perform naked to produce the possibility for the reality of my existence, with all the subtleties in the physicality of my dancing body, to occupy a space that is outside of a culture which renounces the truth of the female body in favour of male fantasy.
There is no nudity in dance, theatre or cinema, there are nudities. Similarly, in media or advertising there are nudities. This can be highly justified and relevant or quite the contrary, completely gratuitous or mercantile. Use of nudity is always intimately linked to a certain given time or culture.
Let us remember that when Isadora Duncan emerged on stage with no pointes, no bra and clothed in a translucent robe, the shock was then as strong as fully disclosed and displayed nudity today.
At the end of his life, Michelangelo was offered to paint the wall behind the Sistine Chapel altar. Twenty years after he had finalised the ceiling (colossal work) he decided to paint The Last Judgement and he imagined that when man would appear in front of God, he would be naked. This incredible fresco depicted some hundred naked characters. However, the then Pope and some of his cardinals, encountering unbearable difficulty concentrating on their prayers while facing this fresco (which was more fit, according to them, for the public baths or a brothel rather than one of the holiest places of Christianity) ordered that the bodies be (slightly) clothed. After Michelangelo’s death (they didn’t dare to offend him while he was alive) one of his close collaborators accepted the job to throw some clothes on this orgy of naked bodies, hoping to curtail the troubles. It is this ‘pristine’ version that is still in place today.
As an artist, I use nudity in a very similar way to Michelangelo. Nudity on stage, when used with no hidden messages or sexual nuances, glorifies the body, makes it superhuman in a way, takes it closer to God and by doing this, renders it more fragile. My first responsibility as a choreographer is to draw space with the body. Clothing a body is sexualising it. It is being in a seductive mode. Apart from the fact that they protect us from cold, clothes bring the best of ourselves since we choose them in order to conceal imperfections. Clothes embellish reality, and it is in that sense that they seduce. Nudity is truth and this can be confronting. “What you see is what you get”. One of the main goals in using nudity is the search of truth, beauty (in its original meaning, the human body is part of nature) and also the unravelling of the incredible complexity and extreme frailty of the human body. Nudity amplifies the feeling of freedom, the array of possibilities and therefore its use is profoundly political and undoubtedly a vehicle for social impact.
I was often asked if it would be appropriate to bring young children to my shows containing nudity and my answer has always been the same: I see no problem with this since, I do not investigate any sexual connotations or references in my shows. At the very worst, what can happen once they have seen the show and are back home is they strip naked, and start to jump, run or dance all over the place. One can imagine worse.
O beautiful was choreographed in 2002. That winter, I commissioned Laura Canon, a young costumer from Austin TX, to design an outfit inspired by the film Blade Runner. I was distraught by the state of affairs in the world.
In January 2003, I had my first public performances of o beautiful at Zodiak Center for New Dance in Helsinki, Finland, and at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. Following these performances, I decided against the post apocalyptic attire because of how it influenced my movement and colored my behaviour onstage. I found a simple pair of pale blue linen pants and a matching tailored shirt to wear instead.
My solo adaptation practice of o beautiful continued through early summer in Austin, where temperatures rose into the 90s. I made a point of not turning on the air conditioner in the studio, because I was not paying rent. My arrangement with the proprietor was an exchange of practice space for acknowledging his support in my dance programs and newsletters. The studio was a large room among a suite of smaller massage cubicles above a downtown bicycle shop. One morning, I stripped off my clothing and danced. My body felt animal and my movement naked. It was as if I were in the most pristine environment imaginable. Nudity seemed the only conceivable option for o beautiful. I changed the title to Beauty.
The London program, in July 2003, began with my solo Music. After intermission, clothed in blue linen, I approached the audience and invited a volunteer to the stage. Speaking quietly, I asked if she would follow and undress me upstage and then return to her seat. She proceeded like a mother removing and folding the garments of a much loved child. Beauty was performed only once, at the Greenwich Dance Agency in London, England. It was such a quintessentially satisfying experience, for me, that I knew I would not perform again. Never before or since has such a clear single-minded decision followed any performance of my work.
Excerpts from A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty, 2004 Choreography, performance and text by Deborah H