SBS reporter Bryony Jones was among more than 5,000 people who bared all to take part in Spencer Tunick's naked artwork Mardi Gras: The Base. Here she explains why.
Bryony Jones

1 Mar 2010 - 11:23 AM  UPDATED 23 Aug 2013 - 2:09 PM

A couple of weeks ago, I had what - when politicians and celebrities have them, prompting affairs with co-stars, or ill-advised outbursts on TV - is known as a 'moment of madness'.

I signed up to be part of a Spencer Tunick installation.

For anyone who hasn't heard of him, Spencer Tunick is an artist who specialises in large-scale photographs of hundreds, even thousands, of people in well-known locations. His subjects also happen to be completely naked.

I, on the other hand, am someone who in all the years I've been living in Sydney, has never swum at Bondi for fear of having to expose my pasty white, cellulite-dimpled flesh to the eyes of unsuspecting - and potentially unforgiving - bystanders.

So what possessed me? Why would I volunteer to stand, sit, lie, or hop on one leg according to the whims of some arty type with a predilection for snapping hordes of people in the nude - while baring all to a gang of complete strangers?

To be completely honest, I'm at something of a loss to explain. Just like those pollies and celebs, I don't quite know what came over me.

Newfound exhibitionist streak

The fact I have more than a passing interest in photography may be part of the reason.

When a famous photographer comes calling - even if you're as camera-shy as I usually am - you don't say no. If David Bailey or Martin Parr asked to take my picture, I'd jump at the chance, even though I'm usually horrified with the results of any foray in front of the lens.

Shivering on the steps of the Opera House at four in the morning, only to appear as an unrecognisably tiny head - or worse – an all-too-recognisably huge bottom, alongside hundreds of other bemused people with newfound exhibitionist streaks is hardly a pampered portrait session with Annie Liebovitz, but the opportunity isn't going to come along every week, so why not grab it?

Besides, how many people actually get to be in real life works of art?

That was the theory. The practice was altogether more weird, worrying and, yes, I guess slightly wonderful.

After far too little sleep, I found myself shivering in the darkness of the Botanic Gardens, exchanging embarrassed glances with hundreds of others.

All ages, races, sexual persuasions

Some were clad in office gear, others in their dressing gowns.

We were of all ages, from babes in arms to elderly folk, all races, and – given that the event was organised by Mardi Gras - all sexual persuasions.

As the sun began to rise, organisers explained the ground rules. "This is a naked photo shoot. That means no clothes," Tunick announced over a loudspeaker, to much hilarity, before explaining that it also meant no shoes, no jewellery, no wigs, and no glasses.

"Basically, if you didn't come out of your mother with it, don't wear it," said another of the marshalls – before excluding hair, tattoos and impossible-to-remove piercings from the prohibited list.

By now it was light enough to see the faces of those around me clearly: A moment I had been dreading, because possibly the only thing worse than standing, naked, in front of a group of strangers must be doing the same thing in front of a group of friends.

No offence to any of them, but of all the acquaintances I've ever made, I'm pretty sure I could count on the fingers of one hand those who I'd be happy to see without their clothes on - and frankly I'm convinced the number of those friends who'd welcome the chance to see me in the altogether would number even fewer.

Sheepish grins, bare bodies

Still, there was no going back now. The call had gone out – it was time to get naked.

After the briefest of pauses, the occasional sheepish grin and resigned shrug, we began to strip.

Some raced to rip their clothes off, like tearing a bandage off a cut, others took their time, clearly keen to preserve their modesty a moment longer.

Then we were all filing through the gates towards the Opera House, trying not to look at each other, and making small talk about how warm it was once we were all so close together.

As I and my near neighbours filled the forecourt, others clambered up the steps, and the scale of what we were doing became apparent.

There we were, thousands of us, naked as the day we were born, taking over one of Australia's best known and most loved landmarks.

Back in the real world, the one with uniforms and designer labels, cliques and tribes, many of us would hesitate even to make eye contact, let alone talk to each other, but here different rules applied. Here we were happy chattering, waving at each ferry that passed, and shivering in unison at each gust of wind that blew across the harbour.

News helicopters circling

The organisers shuffled us here and there, filling gaps, hiding handrails, and contending with the impossibility of herding huge numbers of people into exactly the space you want them when you can't say 'You in the red t-shirt, go this way'.

'You with the bald head', or 'You with the extremely pale skin' just don't work quite as well – particularly when there are plenty of both in attendance.

But as Tunick issued odder and odder requests – 'Turn your back to me', 'Put your hands above your head', 'Stare up at the sky', 'Lie down' – and the news helicopters circled overhead, we began to grumble.

And when the artist told one poor soul in the front row 'Hey you, your tan lines are absolutely killing me, I'm going to have to ask you to move', we were incensed on the sunbaker's behalf.

You see, that's what the experience had taught us: We may be fatter, thinner, older, younger, prettier, uglier, hairier or more freckled than the next person, but when you bring this many of us together, we are one. Mess with one of us, and we all react.

It's a shame that sentiment only lasted until we got our clothes back on: By the time we returned to the car park, en route for the real world, it was every man for himself again.