Exhibitionists: A naked art tour of James Turrell: a Retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Christo Crocker
It's after hours at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and I find myself locked in a room with 50 other strangers. In just a few moments we'll embark on the NGA's first-ever, adults-only naked tour. To clarify: this isn't a tour of artworks featuring nudity. We'll be the ones naked.
First, though, some housekeeping. Stuart Ringholt – our tour guide – lays down ground rules.
1. Women and men will take off clothes simultaneously, in the same room.
Benjamin Law brings up the, ahem, rear. Photo: Christo Crocker
2. Everyone will leave phones behind.
3. The normal rules of law apply (in other words, don't touch each other).
4. While sitting, please use paper towels... for purposes of hygiene.
5. Finally, if any fire or security alarms are activated, please follow standard evacuation procedures and congregate outdoors. Please trust that the NGA will somehow get your clothes back to you.
Listening to Ringholt, I smile bravely but my heart pounds. Sure, I've been to nude beaches and Japanese onsen; I've even participated in clothes-free yoga for another story (surely I'm Fairfax's official nudist now), but tonight is different. At a beach, you can achieve privacy in the water or the bushes. At nude yoga, the lights are dimmed. By contrast, the NGA has searingly bright light – perfect for illuminating everything in crisp detail – and its rooms are kept at an art-preserving chill. When I feel a puff of cool air from a vent, I can't help thinking I've made a terrible mistake.
Does anyone else feel the same? The people gathered are surprisingly diverse. There are 20- and 30-somethings like me, seniors, hippies and public servants. There's also one middle-aged woman who's arrived in a bathrobe, clearly itching to remove it.
Then Ringholt tells us all to disrobe. In a dream-like sequence, people start taking off shoes and shirts – oh, there goes a bra – and suddenly we're exposing ourselves for real.
Tonight's tour is the brainchild of Melbourne artist Ringholt, who has staged similar clothes-free tours at Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art and Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. But Ringholt isn't merely a regular guide who just happens to be naked. The tour is his art, a conceptual work he's managed to sell to the galleries.
When Ringholt first started pitching the concept in 2011, he met stiff resistance. "They'd look at me like, 'You're f---ing crazy,' " he says.
Even now, scepticism remains. Former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope dismissively labelled tonight's tour as a "stunt", to which Ringholt shrugs. "Come on the tour. Make up your own mind."
Tonight, Ringholt will lead us through the NGA's retrospective of internationally renowned American artist James Turrell. Turrell specialises in making large-scale installations into which people can walk, sit down and observe the changing quality of light. What better way to greet the light than stark naked?
When I ask Ringholt to allay my fears by telling me exactly what happens, he smiles like a therapist. "What are your fears?" he asks.
There's a pause. Where do I start?
"Can I guess?" he says. "Shrinkage. Enlargement." (Tick. Tick.) "You might think you're not muscly enough; not tall enough; your penis isn't big enough; your penis is too big. You might not like your knees."
It's actually why some people, Ringholt says, sign up to the tour – to overcome this body shame. When he first started the tours, he didn't have a clear modus operandi or mission statement. To begin with, they were an extension of his performance-based works, which explore grief, embarrassment and humiliation, and which have also involved nudity. But he feels the role of nudity in his art has changed as a result.
"I don't think it encompasses sadness at all now," he says. "It comes from a place of providing an environment of happiness. When you experience the tour, I don't think you'll describe it as a sad mental space. It'll be quite joyous." He also reckons that shedding clothes also allows us to engage with the art better.
Seriously? If I had to think of how best to distract someone, I could think of few more effective strategies than stripping someone naked and plonking them in a room with other naked people.
Ringholt thinks. "You might have a point," he says. "But I'd like to think my talk is quite interesting!"
Most of us face away from each other as we strip. I undress behind a chair, emerging from behind it like a shy debutante. Others strip off in the middle of the room, devil may care. As soon as our clothes come off, everyone gets really chatty. Turns out, being unflinchingly nude en masse really forces everyone to make eye contact. I look around and feel an overwhelming affection for the human body.
Ringholt leads us through the gallery (the staff and security remain firmly clothed) and tells us about the history of public nudity as protest, before guiding us through Turrell's works, helpfully providing commentary and context.
A handful of us enter Turrell's Ganzfeld, a small room completely occupied with slowly breathing light, like we're in the lungs of a luminescent whale. Nudes recur throughout art history, and our softly illuminated bodies feel like they're part of Turrell's design. Ringholt is right. We aren't just observers on a tour; we've become the art.
For two hours, I feel like a kid. When I walk past the gift shop by myself, I almost skip – it's so ridiculous that I should be here stark naked. Later, I hear that one woman did giddy cartwheels through the gallery.
The next morning, photos of the tour make it into the morning news. I get text messages from my friends. "IS THIS YOU?" they ask, sending screen shots of my bum. Usually I'd be self-conscious, but I figure my butt doesn't look so bad. In fact, I'd even go so far as to call it a work of art.