Stuart Ringholt: Kraft (Melbourne and Brisbane: Monash University Museum of Art and Institute of Modern Art, 2014).
In 2011, I whipped up a show on art and therapy for the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. I chose the theme because it was derided and disreputable, a bit of a joke, or so I thought. I took my title, Let the Healing Begin, from the dialogue from the 1997 Gus Van Sant film Good Will Hunting, where Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) dismisses therapy, even though, in time, he comes to value it—as would I, grudgingly. The show included art stars like Marina Abramovic, Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler, Grayson Perry, Otto Muehl, Matt Mullican, and Gillian Wearing, but my starting point was the recent work of Melbourne artist Stuart Ringholt. His Anger Workshops at the 2008 Sydney Biennale had made art-and-therapy a talking point in the Australian art scene.
I asked Ringholt to be in my show. I wanted books, photos, videos, and mirrors. He agreed to everything, but proposed an additional work. He wanted to present a guided tour of the show, prior to the opening. There was a catch: he would be naked and so would the audience. When he suggested this, I flinched. At first, all I could see was worst-case scenarios, with me ending up in the Courier-Mail explaining myself to the ratepayers. Ringholt admitted that he had already suggested the idea to other galleries, all of whom had passed on it. But, I had to concede, given the theme of my show, it was perfect. I could hardly say no.
There was a lot to think through. Conditions had to be safe for participants and organisers alike. I didn’t expect children to come, but what if they did? I made it adults only. I had a lawyer write a comprehensive waiver, which participants had to sign. Non-combatants could not enter while the tour was on, and windows would have to be blocked and surveillance cameras turned off, preventing peeking. Participants had to feel comfortable: there would need to be a changing room and lockers, and we would provide thongs (New Zealanders call them ‘jandals’), so there was no risk of participants cutting or soiling their feet (at least, no responsibility if they did). Health and Safety, always!
With the publicity, I went low key. I wanted to keep it out of the papers. I put a small listing on our standard invitation, where I would normally mention the artist talks that precede our openings. It read: ‘The opening will be preceded by a tour of the show by artist Stuart Ringholt. The artist will be naked. Those who wish to join the tour must also be naked. Changing facilities provided. Adults only.’ Despite the modest promotion, the upcoming tour became the talk of the town. For a week or so, dozens of people personally apologised to me because they couldn’t make it. Usually, parishioners feel no compunction to justify their absence, but, on this occasion it seemed, everyone was compelled to. ‘I’d really like to, but I have something on.’ ‘I’m out of town. Could you stage it again, perhaps.’ ‘I’m not a prude. I have to pick up my sister from the airport.’ It was then that I realised that the project was bigger than just those who came on the day. It also involved those who chose not to participate, who opted out. It forced them to make a choice. But, as they did so, they too grappled with the proposition. Or, did the proposition grapple with them?
Myself, I didn’t want to participate (more vanity than shyness). I was also nervous about my staff joining in, either working (as my employees) or on their own time (as members of the public). I didn’t want employment issues cropping up later. Instead, I employed two freelancers, a man and a woman I knew would feel comfortable naked. Actually, I chose them because they were ripped, because I felt comfortable with them being naked. At first, I argued (to myself) that we needed hotties to make participants feel comfortable—no one wants an ugly host. Later, I realised it was all about organisational ego. This perfect couple were my (and the IMA’s) proxies, my body doubles, my ego ideals. My approach was definitely mistaken. The point of the piece was surely to cast aside such vain considerations. (Later, Ringholt would express his concern that our naked female host wore high heels, setting the wrong tone. Where did she think she was?)
On the day, I wasn’t really required, but I was there anyway, waiting to see who would turn up. About twenty-five enthusiasts came. The demographic was odd. There were a lot of flabby older men (who perhaps didn’t care how they looked) and as many svelte younger women (who seemed rather happy with how they looked), or so it seemed to me. I wondered if younger guys were put off by the fear of having an erection in public. There were a few familiar faces (art lovers), but half the participants I’d never seen before and never would again. Clearly, some stripped off to participate, others participated in order to strip off.
One man arrived late, covered in body paint. We had a long debate over whether to let him in (body paint wasn’t anticipated in ‘the rules’). The man explained that he was a naturist and had just been on a naturist cycling event. He said he was surprised that we hadn’t advised the naturist community of the tour. If we had, they would have been there in droves, he said. They are always looking for something ‘different’. Then, I wondered why we hadn’t thought to. I assumed that the event was intended for participants who were challenged by the prospect of being naked in public, rather than for those who were affirmed by it. But was this Ringholt’s presumption or mine? What would it mean for naturists and non-naturists to share the stage? Did Ringholt want to generate a comfortable/ uncomfortable dynamic between naturists and non-naturists? What would that achieve?
Before the tour began, Ringholt briefed the participants: don’t stare at other people, don’t touch other people, don’t be sexual, and, men, if you find yourselves becoming aroused, please, quietly withdraw. I found this all quite paradoxical. Naturist philosophy is all about throwing off the shackles of social repression (aka clothes), and yet, it seemed to me, repression simply kicks in at a higher level. What is the point of being naked with others if you can’t check them out (and if they can’t check you out)? And, why not enjoy an erection, if no one is supposed to be looking anyway? To me, ‘freedom from clothes’ means less freedom, more rules, more repression. But when I asked Ringholt about this, he shrugged it off as a question of no consequence, like I didn’t get it. My problem. Maybe it was.
At once public and private, the one-hour tour offered a carnivalesque interruption in the gallery’s normal programming. I waited outside as the tour took place, imagining what was going down. Even though the tour was a work in my show, in my gallery, I was excluded, unless I chose to meet the artist’s requirements. Out of earshot, I worried about what crackpot Rajneesh interpretations the always authoritative Ringholt was offering of my show. And what were other people saying about it? I couldn’t correct them. Why had I let Ringholt hijack my project?
Of course, it wouldn’t end with the tour. The fact that subsequent visitors knew the naturist tour had taken place would frame their perceptions of the show. Although fully dressed, they could not help imagining themselves contemplating the show in their birthday suits.
A few participants escaped early, finding our air-conditioned galleries a little chilly—something we hadn’t thought of. But most came out together, at the end, fully dressed, merrily chatting amongst themselves. Convivial. As they did, other people had already begun to arrive for the opening proper. Indeed, it seemed to me that many came a little too early, as if curious to see who had attended the tour. Rubberneckers, perhaps.
A couple of days later, Ringholt’s dealer Josh Milani naughtily emailed me a photo that had been taken during the tour (with the permission of the participants, of course). It had a coy quality, with figures deftly arranged to conceal any sexual characteristics, primary or secondary.1 Everyone in the shot seemed to be sharing in the joke. (Two young women artists from Brisbane’s Inbetweenspaces also took the tour as an opportunity to photograph one another naked in the citadel, humping the architecture. They called their work Wall Fucking. I never saw the images, which were quickly reported and taken down by Facebook.)
After the quiet success of the IMA tour, other galleries invited Ringholt to present naturist tours of their shows. He has now conducted them in group shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Sydney; Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne; and Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart. He has also just done one at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, of his solo show Kraft.
Early on, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev wrote of Ringholt: ‘Nothing he does seems legitimate as art, let alone arguable as important art, and yet he claims it is, and positions it with tremendous assurance.’2 Christov-Bakargiev raises the old question: but is it art? Of course, this is a question not only for Ringholt but for all works that use participation to break down or upset the prevailing distinction between audience and art, viewer and viewed, subject and object. The tours are, at once, art works and guided tours of art works. They are art works that reframe other art works, and, in the process, reframe spectatorship itself. But what does it mean to do a naturist tour of an art show? And then, how is doing a naturist tour of an art show as art different again? What does the ‘as art’ add and change? Ringholt leaves the question hanging.
Ringholt is known for his collages, and the naturist tours have a collage logic. It is as though naked people taken from another context or genre have been collaged into the art gallery, generating a surreal effect. When you look at photos documenting the tours, you can see that something latent in the artworks is unlocked—is released—when people stand before them naked, as God intended. It is as if there is some secret history of art, some art truth, only available to naturists. For instance, at the MCA, those fleshpots basking before Robert Owen’s colourful, enveloping wall painting seemed to have co-opted it for chromotherapeutic ends, bathing in its reflective glory. Alternatively, assembled around Wim Delvoye’s pooing machine Cloaca at MONA, they seemed to take its scatological excess personally, as though ready to join in (or compete).
Thinking back to my show, Let the Healing Begin, I wondered how being naked before particular works might have transformed them. For instance, how would naked people read Ronnie van Hout’s small sculpture in which the artist is transformed into a fruity phallus, a giant banana with arms and legs? Interestingly, the show also featured numerous works that assumed that we need to don masks and disguises in order to reveal our truths (Pierre Molinier’s cross dressing, Polly Borland’s plushies, and Gillian Wearing’s masked confessions). But, while such works directly contradict Ringholt’s naturist rhetoric, this contradiction is only sharpened by his tourists confronting those works naked. It is as if they are pressing or testing the question: who is more naked, the nudist or the cosplayer?
Collages are all about displacement. Ringholt’s collages often find him taking a circular excerpt from one image and laying it over another image, creating an uncanny near match. In many of his collages, the circles are images of heads, which are overlaid on bodies. The effect recalls those fairground amusements where people poke their heads through holes in pictures so others can imagine them with an absurdly wrong body, although, in Ringholt’s collages, the effect is often quite subtle. Ringholt plays on the way we think of our minds and bodies as operating on different planes—the old mind/body split. Indeed, this split is a function of clothes themselves. Clothes take our bodies out of the social equation, so we can deal with one another as disembodied talking heads. If our heads are disconnected from our clothed bodies, they are doubly disconnected from our naked bodies.
Pointedly, after the tours, Ringholt made a new series of collages, his Nudes 2013. He made some fifty-four of them, before he got it out of his system. They are an extension to the tours and a foil to them. Instead of placing heads onto clothed bodies, here he collaged artworks onto naked bodies. He took cheesy, fetishistically attired female and male pin-ups and covered their rude bits (sometimes only partially) with images of art works, appropriating other artists’ creations as fig leaves. This time modesty wasn’t the point. Ringholt chose artworks that physically and metaphorically echoed—and amplified—genitals (those of the model’s sex or the other sex). Although he coyly concealed the rude bits, this only made his soft-core images more suggestive and obscene. There was also a bit of genderbending. In one collage, a minimalist sculpture placed across a naked man suggested a gaping vagina. Such visual innuendos are worthy heirs of Austin Powers and Benny Hill. He thrusts his ribbed ‘endless column’ into her shiny ‘untitled void’! Boom boom.
In the Nudes, there is a play between the print-world scenarios of pornography (tacky) and art books (classy). Interestingly, artworks, such as those in the collages, would not be out of place in pornography’s mise en scène; however, we would not expect to see naked people standing (or prone) before artworks in art books—a point on which the naturist tours turn. In Ringholt’s Nudes, it is like my hottie tour guides have returned, in their inappropriate high heels (literal and metaphorical). When they debuted in Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria, the Nudes seemed to be tucked away, as if behind the video-store curtain.
While the Nudes developed out of the tours, they are totally different. They admit sexuality and the gaze in ways the tours couldn’t. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger famously distinguished the naked from the nude, saying that being naked is just being yourself with no clothes on, while being nude is wearing no clothes for the purpose of being looked at—an object of the gaze.3 Nudity is thrilling (artistic), nakedness more banal. If the naturist tours lean towards the naked, the Nudes are more, well, nude.
I once heard Ringholt, perhaps disingenuously, describe his Nudes as occult metaphysical allegories, confusing listeners who now wondered if they had totally missed the point in engaging with the obvious—you can’t always tell a book by its cover. Pointedly, one of the Nudes does not use an artwork as its fig leaf but a book cover. In it, Dita Von Teese’s nakedness is coyly concealed, or redacted, by a giant copy of Professor Imre Lakatos’s seminal mathematics treatise Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery. The image is ambiguous. The book could be hovering phantasm-like between us and the woman, or perhaps we have interrupted her while she was doing her homework (in her hosiery). While it is an exception, I fancy this image is also a key to the series. I am reminded of Slavoj Zizek, who compared himself with the drooling pervert who, in public, conceals his pornography within a worthy textbook. The same but the opposite, Zizek said he instead hid his abstruse philosophy behind pornography (Hegel being the greater and preferred obscenity).
Professor Zizek’s comment made me wonder where our pleasure and perversity in this bookish Nude might lie: in the nude (the girl), her fig leaf (the maths book), or both. If it lies in the girl, perhaps the work is analogous to Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass 1915–23, which cloaked its moist prurience in the arid language of technical drawing. If it lies in the book, perhaps it is instead analogous to the renaissance painter Uccello, who neglected his hankering wife’s nocturnal requests to pursue his solitary candlelit perspective studies, meanwhile taunting her with his inevitable riposte: ‘Oh, what a lovely thing this perspective is!’4 Then again, if it lies in both, conflating girl and book, it could be analogous to that genre of pornography which offers up naked women body-painted in the ‘strip’ of popular soccer teams, so horny fans can enjoy their mutually exclusive love interests momentarily aligned, maximising their pleasure in an erotic double- or triple-word score.
But surely I digress. Whatever way you want to have them, the Nudes promote a vulgar, proud, ecstatic romp through the art-museum masturbatorium, one unconstrained by standing orders and shame. Necessarily banished and repressed in the tours, here libido returns with a vengeance. Everyone in Ringholt’s pictures is having ‘an art experience’, if you know what I mean. Worthy artworks (even the worthy maths text) double as sex toys. But what of the viewer, clothed, looking on? Should they follow suit? Is this an invitation to revolt?
Ringholt’s work always obeys a collage logic, even when it isn’t a collage. For instance, when a clock from a parallel universe is beamed into our own, or a bunch of streakers (exiled from Eden or escaped from Auchwitz) overrun the art museum. Ringholt’s works ask us to imagine that our everyday reality is itself somehow a collage, and the seams are showing. But as much as his works might upset the apple cart, the oppressive unity and commonsense of the everyday, Ringholt ultimately holds out for the possibility of some future reconnection, restitution, and reintegration. Ultimately, he would return us to a holistic, organic, utopian, orgasmic, pre-collage (or post-collage) state. Cutting through the world is a first step in repairing it, in (re)making it whole—the first step in healing. But the question remains: Should we leave our stilettos at the door? Will there be high heels in heaven?
- Documentation of subsequent tours would not be so coy.
- Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ‘First Take: Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev on Stuart Ringholt’, Artforum, January 2007: 199.
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Harmmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).
- According to Vasari.