My Word: Photo finish

As quick as a flash, Spencer Tunick’s reported interest in staging a mass nude photo shoot in Israel created a predictable uproar.

American photographer Spencer Tunick, famous for amassing thousands of nude models for his, let’s call them cheeky, art extravaganzas, hit a very Israeli moment last week. A report in Yediot Aharonot on March 8 that Tunick was considering either Tel Aviv or the Dead Sea for a future project led to a typically mixed response.
Enthusiasts, including the spokesmen of the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Tourism Ministry, raved that Tunick’s choice of Israel as a venue could show the world another side of the country – an artsy, trendy side rarely seen in the rest of the world.
Opponents ranted that it was not fitting to expose all in the Holy Land, and some haredi MKs even fumed that mass photos of naked Jews would be too reminiscent of Holocaust imagery – a claim I discovered was shared by at least one secular friend.
Tunick has definitely built a name for himself on other people’s bodies. He has organized more than 70 locations for his nude photographs, with huge numbers of volunteers willing to drop all in the name of art.
The artist has succeeded in bringing together models in Swiss mountain snow – apparently bearing (or baring) a message about global warming; on the platform of a New York subway station; in Barcelona’s Plaza de la Constitución; and many other sites where volunteers were willing to risk the elements and ridicule. His most recent series featured 5,200 nude Australians at the Sydney Opera House. His largest was a 2007 installation in Mexico City which featured more than 18,000 models with at least skin-deep beauty in the eye of certain beholders.
All locations are secured by police to make sure no dressed tourist accidentally enters the picture, and ensuring that the models are not in a position to shock unwitting passersby.
Had Tunick mooted the Western Wall, or any other site in Jerusalem, as the location for his particular form of art, I could understand – and even participate in – the uproar.
In considering Tel Aviv or the Dead Sea, however, I thought Tunick was playing it safe, the main danger being the risk of models suffering from either heat stroke or sunburn in particularly sensitive places.
Yesh li simpatia le’omanut konseptualit betel aviv,” goes the song: “I feel something for conceptual art in Tel Aviv.”
IT SOMEHOW seems natural that while Jerusalem roads were being closed for the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden trying to get the diplomatic process off the ground (again), in Tel Aviv they were discussing closing roads to go au naturel on camera for art’s sake.
I’m not sure that thousands of Tel Avivis – however connected they are by Facebook and Twitter – would turn out for such an event, but there would definitely be volunteers willing to show what they are made of.
In 2002, at the height of the intifada, I interviewed (by phone) frequenters of a nudist beach on the northern “strip” of the Dead Sea. The in joke was that they felt particularly safe. “There isn’t any way a suicide bomber can hide anything,” quipped Anat Inbar, chairperson of the Israel Naturist Society. She stressed that there was nothing sexual in the encounters, and local naturists (they prefer the term to nudists, I quickly discovered) are just a group of friends who get on well and accept each other – warts and all.
And only last month, I interviewed two of the 12 women from Bayit Bekfar senior citizens’ residences who, inspired by the true-story-turned-movie Calendar Girls, bared a lot more than their conscience for a calendar whose proceeds are dedicated to the Schneider Children’s Hospital in Petah Tikva.
HOW ISRAEL reacted to the Yediot exposure is itself revealing.
Tunick, who reportedly describes himself as an enthusiastic Zionist, has visited Israel several times, presumably taking more conventional photos. But news of his professional interest in the country managed to grab headlines on a typical Israeli day: Yediot’s other front-page stories on March 8 were Biden saying “America is also under threat”; the tragedy in which University of Georgia researcher Efrat Gamliel-Atinsky, 39, her mother Esther Gamliel, her daughter Noam, five, and her nine-month-old son Ya’ari were all killed in a road accident apparently caused by a negligent IDF driver in the Negev; and the coalition crisis over the conversion bill.
The Tunick coverage (if that term isn’t out of place) included a short opinion piece by Yediot’s Ra’anan Shaked, who noted that despite the predictable brouhaha, considering the way the average trendy Tel Avivi woman dresses in the summer,  an artist could just wander around the streets with his camera and half his work would be done for him.
He has a point. A Tunick installation is hugely expensive. Those looking for cheaper thrills can just watch the average plumber at work. For a free kick, if that’s your sort of thing, go to any Israeli beach or travel on a non-mehadrin (gender separated) bus during a heat wave.
Israel is, indeed, both the same as most other Mediterranean countries and utterly unique.
As a Tunick shoot shows, people come in all shapes and sizes. Israelis are at once the same as everyone else and a peculiar people.
While Shas leader Interior Minister Eli Yishai was reportedly looking into the possibility of  preventing the photographer from entering the country (anyone remember the days when the Beatles were banned?), Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Orbach called the photographs vulgar.
“I recommend that the tourism minister drop the idea so the Jewish state will not be caught with its pants down,” Orbach told the Post’s political correspondent Gil Hoffman. “Avigdor Lieberman always says we live in the Garden of Eden, but nowadays cultured people wear clothes.”
Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev, meanwhile, sent a letter to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar asking him to “prevent this attempt to destroy the values and morality of our youth and turn us into Sodom and Gomorrah. Such a downfall in our ethics would erode the Zionist ideas the Jewish state was based on and change us into an uncultured country of beastly sinners. It would also harm the holiness of the Land of Israel and its Jewish character.”
Well, you get the picture.
It now seems likely that, following the bum rap and controversy, Tunick himself will shoot down the idea.
Why anyone would want his posterior on display for posterity is beyondme. But if consenting adults want to show off in a private,non-pornographic photo shoot, who am I to stop them?
The bottom line is I find it less disturbing that Tunick might amassvoluntary nude models in Tel Aviv or at the Dead Sea than the thoughtthat the interior minister would consider using his legislative powersto stop him.
But, then, perhaps that too is part of the broader picture.