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Sea of Hull: Spencer Tunick in Hull

24 Jul 2016

Ferens Art Gallery is pleased to announce a site specific commission by Spencer Tunick. The internationally renowned New York based artist will gather hundreds of naked people to take part in a series of photographic installations in the city centre on 9 July 2016. In response to Hull’s maritime history Tunick’s participants will wear body paint to reference the colours of the sea found in the Ferens Art Gallery’s paintings. Sea of Hull will be presented at the gallery in 2017, during the UK City of Culture year.

The call out came on 30 March 2016: Spencer Tunick would be returning to British shores. Ferens Art Gallery had declared an intention to gather “hundreds of naked people“, yet come the eve of their event they had no fewer than 6,000 registrants to contend with. Adding to their logistical challenge, every participant was to be body painted from the tips of their hairs to the soles of their feet in one of four blue-green colours. It would be a unique occasion – not to be missed.


Friday 8 July 2016 – to Hull…

Ferens may have said “hundreds” but I knew instinctively there would be interest from thousands; I wasted no time in signing-up. By 7:36am on the day of the call-out, both my partner Esther and I were registered. Later that day I reserved a hotel room for the July weekend. This would be Esther’s first Tunick photo shoot and my third, following Everyday People, Salford (2010), and Scope Out, Folkestone (2014). Our train for Hull departed London Kings Cross on the afternoon before the big day.

Hit the North – it begins here.

No sooner had we left Hull station than we spied familiar faces: our friend Cy and his wife Barbara. This would be a major gathering of naked-art tribes from around the UK. Enthusiasm was high but perhaps not shared by our hotel receptionist: “Are you here for that photo thing? If you get paint on the towels there’ll be a charge.” Back in town, Esther and I made for Queen’s Gardens – designated rendezvous for the shoot – in search of ‘blue people’.

Esther and Paula in sunshine at The Minerva pub.

We saw a few possible candidates in the gardens but no-one we knew, so we headed towards the waterfront in search of somewhere to eat and drink. At The Minerva pub we instantly spotted our friend Paula NudeNomad, resplendent in vivid blue wig and EU “IN” T-shirt. Despite Hull being a majority ‘Brexit‘ city, she’d enchanted the locals and said everyone had been friendly. We sat with her at one of the outside tables and tucked into plates of fish and chips, washed down with a nice Sauvignon blanc.

Esther at Ferens Art Gallery – a new masterpiece indeed.

More blue people joined us: Alain, who’d driven all the way from Belgium; John and Tony. who I’d last seen in Berlin for an Angelo Musco photo shoot; and Yorkshire natives, Denise and Lynn. It was a good crowd, but with tomorrow’s fun set to start early, we didn’t stay too late. We returned via Ferens Art Gallery – closed for major refurbishment – to our hotel, 20 minutes’ walk north of the centre and finally settled down to sleep at half-ten… with our alarm due at 1:15am.

Saturday 9 July 2016 – day of the shoot

Arrival times: 2:30am
End time: 8:30am approximately
What time you should be there: no later than 3:15am, rain or shine!

We arrived back at Queen’s Gardens ten minutes early, having passed by groups of late-night clubbers who were only just reeling home along the darkened streets. Our moth-like gravitation was towards floodlights and generators at the centre of the park where almost immediately we found friends and Tunick veterans: Yvonne and Martin Rowe, Karen and Howard, another Martin, Helmut and Cy. Kudos to Martin Rowe for running the essential Facebook group for participants during the build-up.

© Hull CC News – participants gather.

Our first act at 2:30am was to take our model registration forms to a desk on Queen’s Dock Avenue, immediately to the north of the park. In exchange we were each given a clear plastic bag with a round white sticker saying B1, B2, B3 or B4. Esther and I got B1; the others got B4. These stickers were the keys to different shades of blue. Back in the park there was a large flag for each B number, to mark where we could collect a single small white tub of paint.

Cy, Martin, Karen, Martin and Yvonne – veterans all.

Our group reconvened by a bench under the floodlight where we’d first met. We were joined by more friends: Natansky, Paula, Darren and Phil. The paint pots were rather tough to open but Darren somehow found the strength or knack. Some made smears on their faces; B4 was darkest green, B1 was a pale blue. People in groups of four or more were also given packs of baby wipes – Esther and I were merely a group of two but, showing great foresight, Esther had brought a pack for us anyway.

© Hull CC News – a preview of the paints.

© Natansky – selfie
© Martin – selfie

Participants had been emailed ten days before and given registration times at quarter-hourly intervals up to 3:15am, which meant everyone should have been registered by 3:30am. Latecomers – such as another friend, Roland, who arrived after 4am – were nonetheless able to get paint and join in. It wasn’t a particularly cold night, but I was wearing only sandals, jeans, T-shirt and a flimsy dressing gown so, after a couple of hours outside, a little chill had started to permeate.

© Civic 1 Hull CCTV – Sea of Hull surveillance.

At the organisers’ request, we’d split into our colour groups – friends found in the B1 crowd included Chas and Mike – but when Spencer emerged and climbed a ladder to address us by PA system, we drifted back towards the centre. He thanked us for our time and patience, and asked us please not to paint ourselves yet – too late for some. Most of the practical organising fell to Spencer’s assistant, Steve, whose name soon became an echoing mass cry of “Steeeeeeeeeeve!” at his every appearance.

Spencer Tunick – the man and his people.

Spencer Tunick – the man and Steeeeeeeeeeve.

Esther and I wandered over to Ronson’s Rock Café at the north side of the park and joined its long queue for cups of tea. No sooner did we reach the front than we heard the official call for everyone to undress. We hastily dunked and removed our teabags, then stepped outside to be faced with the spectacle of an entire park full of naked or semi-naked bodies in the process of undressing or applying handfuls of paint to their skin – an incredible sight. We set down our things and started to do likewise.

Let the nakedness commence.

Our location outside the café was deep within B4 territory – this meant we were highly conspicuous as the only pale blues in a ferment of dark green. We helped each other to apply the paint, covering every surface, crevice and extremity. Just a few moments later we gulped down our tea, left our possessions where we’d stripped, and became as one with what was later confirmed to be 3,200 nude painted participants, filing out towards the scene of our first shoot.

Sea of Hull #1 – Queen’s Gardens Rosebowl

At the west end of Queen’s Gardens is the ‘Rosebowl’ fountain, standing in a circle of lawns with bordered flowerbeds, each separated by a network of pathways that create the shape of a ship’s wheel. For Spencer’s first shoot we would be arranged four-deep around these paths. Spencer and his entourage would be getting their shots from atop an open double-decker bus parked on the north side, whilst a drone hovered overhead to capture us from even greater altitude.

© Spencer Tunick – calm, focus, tight.

© Ferens Art Gallery – 3,200 naked people make art.

The first spits of rain elicited a mass low groan and filled us with foreboding, but these didn’t last long and no more were destined to fall. Meanwhile, through his megaphone Spencer yelled at assistants on the ground, directing them to refine the positioning of individuals, to perfect our overall shape, and remove anyone who shouldn’t be in shot. This is the most tedious and sometimes frustrating part of these shoots for everyone concerned on both sides of the lens.

© Jon Super Photography – the circle and Steeeeeeeeeeve.

Spencer always expresses true gratitude towards those who participate in his work, and acknowledges that it would not be possible without us, yet in the intensity of the moment when creating art he becomes focused, direct, abrupt and unceremonious in his demands. Esther and I absorbed the cabaret with amused detachment, watching from the outer wheel of participants, immediately adjacent to a flower bed just below the pathway at the 9 o’clock position.

© Jon Super Photography – looking outwards.

© Jon Super Photography – looking inwards.

Sea of Hull #2 – Alfred Gelder Street

We cheered and applauded when told the first shoot was complete and Spencer had “got the shot“. For the second, we were directed to walk a short distance south and east along Alfred Gelder Street – location of the city’s magnificent Guildhall facade. We watched with some incredulity as it appeared a very small number of people were dropping out and returning to their clothes. Perhaps it was the chill or a fear of rain, or difficulty taking direction that had put them off. Such a shame, though.

© Jon Super Photography – there’s me, pale blue, isolated on the junction.

© Jon Super Photography – Steeeeeeeeeeve in King Canute mode.

© Jon Super Photography – the sea stands still, with me top-left.

In this location, Spencer would photograph us from the top of a scissor lift platform at the west end of the street. First we were adjusted forwards and backwards, sufficiently spaced out to fill the entire thoroughfare. Our colours mingled as we were asked to lay down sideways upon the cold hard road surface. Once more it seemed to take an age to tweak the shot. Esther and I were on Spencer’s left side, a short way back from the first set of traffic lights.

© Jon Super Photography – getting lower…

© Jon Super Photography – …and lower…

© Jon Super Photography – …and down.

Sea of Hull #2a – Manor Street

When we were on our feet again, four assistants spanned the road, each raising aloft a square placard. We were asked to shuffle into line behind the one that showed our particular B number and colour. More familiar faces drifted in and out of view amid the B1 set: first Rob, later Richard. Next, the B2 bodies were led away down Parliament Street. For the first time I could fully appreciate the scale of this installation as it took several minutes for them all to march by.

© Jon Super Photography – the B1 brigade.

© Amy Nicholson – bye bye B2.

The B1 blues were next to be led away. We funnelled into Manor Street and were left unattended for a while. A few of us sought natural relief in between cars on Bowlalley Lane. Eventually Spencer appeared at the top end of Manor Street and from the high vantage of his stepladder, photographed us standing and lying down. Presumably he was doing likewise with each of the four colour groups. In due course, word came for us to walk the length of Alfred Gelder Street and rejoin the other Bs at its far end.

Sea of Hull #3 – Lowgate

We regrouped and stood as one great mass along Lowgate, stretching north from the statue of Charles Henry Wilson in front of the Guildhall, all the way along Wilberforce Drive. Esther and I were among the B1 bodies closest to Spencer, who was back on his stepladder. Once again much bellowing through a megaphone was needed before we were all positioned to his satisfaction. Mostly he was preoccupied with getting us evenly spaced. His immortal words to 3,200 naked people: “If you see a hole, fill it!

© Elinor Camille-Wood – doing as we’re told.

For this shoot we were to face left and bend forward so the camera would be directed down towards our backs. People near the front were hoicked out individually if they’d failed to achieve full body coverage with their paint. Having got his shot, Spencer told us for the first time about his plans for an additional shoot with a much smaller group of (unpainted) people on Sunday morning. A possible shoot in North Lincolnshire had been mentioned as part of the call-out but hitherto remained shrouded in mystery.

© Hull CC News – further adjustment needed.

We were told that those definitely committed to participating should take a form from one of the assistants. Ideally placed, Esther and I stepped forward with the first set of volunteers yet only four slips had been given out and a fifth was about to be put in my hand when Spencer shouted, “Don’t give them out yet! Get those slips back!” – from being tantalisingly close, we would have to wait a while longer and hope to be among the mere 300 people he needed.

© Helen Thackery – “If you see a hole, fill it”.

Sea of Hull #4 – Scale Lane footbridge

The scene of our final shoot was Scale Lane footbridge, just a 5-minute walk from the Guildhall. There would be room for only 800 of us on the bridge, but Esther and I remained comfortably to the fore and were pretty much guaranteed a position. As we crossed from Scale Lane onto its eponymous curving bridge over the River Hull, our first sensation was the jagged discomfort that accompanied every painful step of our bare feet on granulated asphalt.

© Laurie Rawlings – “This morning at around half 6…”.

© Ferens Art Gallery – there’s me, pale blue, out on the right.

On reaching where the tip of the bridge met its opposing bank, we escaped our agony by standing on wooden benches, and then waited patiently for the rest of our blue and green comrades to occupy the remaining spaces. It had felt a little cold when rain was spitting on us at the fountain, and even colder when we were lying flat on Alfred Gelder Street but, loitering here – exposed to fresh wind blowing from the Humber – we were coldest of all.

© Amy Nicholson – Spencer completes his crossing.

Esther and I hugged for warmth. Familiar faces emerged around us: John and Tony to our right, and Rachel – whom I had not met since Spencer’s Folkestone shoot – next to me on the left. Chas was nearby too, and I later found that Alain was close behind. Meanwhile, Spencer had evidently passed among us and was now leaning from a top floor window of the Premier Inn hotel directly facing us. Massed ranks of journalists filled a storey of the car park beneath it, and the drone was back overhead.

© Ferens Art Gallery – patiently we wait.

© Jon Super Photography – Esther and I are the two figures hugging.

Spencer boomed intermittently through his megaphone, adjusting our positions and encouraging his assistants to get out of shot. Whilst it may have been difficult for us to hear every word, it appeared that hotel guests had no such trouble and were soon peering and snapping from their own windows. Cold winds continued to drive through us, drawing more collective groans. We looked, perhaps with envy, as painted figures who hadn’t made the 800 walked home in their warm clothes.

© Matt Stephenson – at last the bridge swings.

After the longest time spent on any of the set-ups, the bridge at last started to swing slowly across to our right in the direction of the Humber. It paused two or three times before reaching its farthest extent. So slow – so cold! A pause, then return, stopping at intervals as it went. And when it arrived back at its starting position, we were done. Whoops, cheers and applause!! We were elated! All the previous discomfort could be disregarded as we basked in the satisfaction of a job well done.

© Amy Nicholson – open wide…

© Danny Lawson – zoom in…

© Daily Mirror – …and there we are.

It took quite a while to get off the bridge. Once on land, Esther and I both managed to bag free flip-flops from the organisers, but all the complimentary paper suits had gone. More distressingly, all the forms for the Sunday shoot had gone too. Did this mean we would miss out? On the way back to Queen’s Gardens we asked Steeeeeeeeeeve; he said the location was a field on the south-east side of the Humber Bridge – as long as we were there on time, we could take part. We decided to give it a try.

The tide goes out

We found our possessions exactly where we had left them, albeit pots of leftover paint had been spirited away. Soon we were reunited with Paula, and then Camila – a friend from many projects. Obligatory group photos and selfies followed as everyone enjoyed their final shared moments of naked freedom. Our paint was so dry it could almost be flaked off, so we used baby wipes to clean our hands but otherwise simply put on old clothes and began our long walk back to the hotel.

Selfie time

Esther Bunting, performance artist, in her blue period

A happy Martin…
…and even happier Rachel.

Esther, Paula and a pal.

Thirsty Chas…
…and tartan Paula.
Esther, me and Camila.
Away we go, 8:30pm.

As we headed north we got waves, toots and photos taken from passing cars. Fellow pedestrians bestowed their blessings on us too. We called in at Coopland’s bakery on Prospect Street and bought two hot cheese and bacon pastry wraps – it’s hard to imagine any food could have been more gorgeously warming and flavoursome at that moment. The bakery assistant was the epitome of professional politeness and batted not an eyelid at serving two blue-skinned customers with the munchies.

Leave only footprints.

Back at our hotel, Esther and I made straight for the shower bath, taking care not to leave a blue mark on any surfaces or fabric. We washed each other very slowly and methodically, regularly rinsing the bath and cleaning any stray splashes as we went. Water alone shifted the bulk of the colour, then soap and shampoo took care of any residual staining. We dried ourselves with our own blue towels and crashed out on a sheet I’d brought with us to protect the bed.

Scrubbed and well fed outside Wing’s International Cuisine.

Come mid-afternoon we had breakfast at Coopland’s Secret Garden. Facebook was already awash with the Sea of Hull photos. Most alarmingly my friend Beverley-Jayne had posted: “Just seen Steve Ritter on the BBC. Well done to everyone in the naked Spencer Tunick today.” The BBC?!? Sure enough, there I was in the first frames of a video on the BBC news website. That evening we joined 30 participants for a meal at Wing’s, and ended it sharing a quiet drink with Alain at the Minerva. What. A. Day.

Sunday 10 July 2016 – Humber shoot

At 6:30 next morning, my phone’s alarm woke me from a very deep sleep. Esther and I washed, packed, checked out of our hotel and dragged ourselves and our bags down to Hull Truck Theatre; meeting point for Spencer Tunick’s Sunday photo shoot. The previous night Alain said he would be driving to the shoot location, and offered us a lift. He would have to go out of his way to bring us back, however, so we decided to try for seats on one of the official buses.

Queuing for a bus.

Even though we lacked the required forms, we joined one of two long queues for two coaches and two double-decker buses. An assistant walked along, writing numbers on everyone’s green slips. When she reached Esther and me, I explained how we’d unluckily missed out, and she kindly wrote 218 and 219 on our hands – we were in! We met Alain and told him the news. Also in the queues, we found: Martin (without Yvonne for this one), Karen, Howard, Helmut, Camila, John and Tony.

Halfway across the Humber.

Rain started to fall as we waited to board the coaches. It might have been a sign of harsher times ahead, but for now it was merely a passing shower. Steeeeeeeeeeve appeared and explained Spencer’s plans for the morning. He then started selecting people for the first coach – seemingly all the tall people. On reaching Esther and me he asked, “Are you a couple? OK, you both go.” Our coach departed at twenty past eight and arrived in the car park of our shoot location at quarter to nine.

Spencer and assistants on location.

300 soon-to-be-nude photo models.

Here, at last, we were each given one of the elusive green slips and could complete its form. Upon handing it back we received a plastic bag for our clothes. Spencer stepped forward and onto his stepladder to address us through his megaphone. With a smaller, more manageable group, and the main day’s shoot already secure, he appeared more relaxed. He explained the shots he wanted and then at half-nine, gave us the signal to undress. The sun came out and we greatly appreciated its warmth.

Spencer shows the way.

Humber Bridge #1 – lying

For the first set-up we stood on a grassy bank with the bridge behind us, then turned to the left and lay upon the ground; it was warm and comfortable. Plastic sheets were given to those at the very top who would otherwise be lying in mud. Spencer took his time positioning individuals to create the perfect shot, with no stray patches of green showing – almost the reverse of yesterday’s colour requirement. We posed lying flat with our faces in different directions; with each arm up; with both arms up.

© Ferens Art Gallery – stripped and ready for action.

© Slice of Alex – taking instructions.

© Nova Studios – almost in position.

© Matt Stephenson – Steeeeeeeeeeve makes adjustments.

© Christopher Manson – perfect?

© Slice of Alex – Spencer eyes the shot.

© Future Ferens – hands down…

© Claire Longrigg – …and hands up.

Humber Bridge #2 – lines

All the tall people – me included – who’d been put on the first coach were called out and asked to form a line. Next, the 18 to 35 year-olds were invited to form a second line. Esther was slightly outside the age range but youthful enough in appearance to be included. Those over 35 or not sufficiently tall, or with dyed blue hair or tattoos or mobility difficulties had to sit this one out. Steeeeeeeeeeve explained what Spencer required of the chosen few, and then directed us towards the water.

© Becky Gee – positioning in the reeds.

Frogs hopped out the way as we walked in our two lines, down into the reeds by the estuary shore. Those tallest were farthest out, whilst the youngsters stayed nearest land. Spencer took a huge amount of time adjusting and honing this shot. Individuals were moved in or out of the line-ups, with some moved to different positions; making sure we were perfectly aligned when our arms were at full stretch and we held hands. With our backs to Spencer, we were a homage to the bridge.

© Ferens Art Gallery – Humber bridges.

© Hull CC News – there’s me, second from left, farthest line.

Humber Bridge #3 – standing

Finally the lines were permitted to coalesce and those who had missed out could now pile into our midst. We spaced ourselves evenly with a clear turning circle if we raised our elbows. The first shot was taken with us looking towards the Humber; then, as we turned to face the camera, the heavens opened up. An assistant raised an umbrella to protect Spencer – or rather his equipment – while the rest of us suffered the bitter chill of rain upon our naked skin.

© Becky Gee – getting colder…

Even Spencer could see that we wouldn’t have the patience to endure his protracted tweaking and repositioning so within barely three minutes he announced he’d got the shot. We cheered, applauded and dashed back to the car park. Abandoning caution, Esther and I both managed to walk barefoot through a patch of nettles, whilst others slipped and fell as they hurried down the wet grassy bank. Despite our clothes being carefully wrapped in plastic bags, I found my coat was already partially drenched.

© Becky Gee – …and about to get much wetter.

We were dressed and back on our coach by around 11am. Sadly we missed saying goodbye to Alain before it pulled away and he began his own long solo drive back to Belgium. Back outside Hull Truck Theatre the rain had halted, allowing a group of us to stand for one final celebratory photo and say fond farewells before going separate ways. Esther and I returned to the Secret Garden café for a breakfast-lunch of jacket potatoes and, again, discovered our morning’s work already on social media.

R-L: Helmut, Howard, Karen, Martin, Camila, Esther, me, et al.

…and back

Come afternoon, the sun emerged with a vengeance as we retraced our steps around the primary locations of a remarkable weekend. On Alfred Gelder Street, I located the smiley blue face that I’d watched one woman finger-paint on a pelican crossing; it still grinned at us despite the earlier rain. On Scale Lane footbridge, we found blue marks left by sore feet on the rough walkways, and paused to savour the daytime heat we’d craved during our nude shoot. It was a pleasure now just to soak up the sunshine.

B1 smile
B1 hands

The Premier Inn hotel, from the Scale Lane footbridge.

Esther over the River Hull, with tidal defences beyond.

We were not alone in taking a nostalgia trip as in due course we were joined by none other than Chas. We shared reminiscences with our fellow B1, then began a leisurely saunter to Hull station for the 4:32pm train to London Kings Cross. The experience of the shoot had been exceptional; to share it with Esther and so many friends had been joyous. Hull surprised us too, leaving us with a positive impression and enthusiasm to return for the Sea of Hull exhibition next year. Thank you #SeaOfHull!

Farewell Hull, see you soon!

Media coverage – words and photos

Several images in this blog were taken by Jon Super Photography – read an account of the event by Jon Super: 3,200 naked blue people

Media coverage – television and video

KCOM Culture produced the ‘Sea of Hull’ 8 minute film, below, which was shown on loop at Ferens Art Gallery during the subsequent exhibition.

I get an unpainted close-up with a towel around my shoulders at 0:59, but keen eyes might also spot me at 5:52, 6:55 and from 6:59 to 7:08.

From → Art

  1. Primvs Aebvtivs permalink

    Thank you for sharing this, I was a B4, can almost make me out in the ‘getting lower’ and ‘Canute’ pictures, best view of me in any pictures so far!

  2. Reblogged this on Naturalian's Blog and commented:
    Absolutely brilliant account – wish I could have been one of the 3200!

  3. Ian Smith permalink

    Wow awesome blog. I attended both days. Shame you could not attend the afterparty with Spencer, Steveeeee and his crue on the sunday evening. They where great to meet and spent a lot of time with us all who took part.

  4. fabulous account, one amazing day, I’m proud to be a part of hull’s pictorial history.

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