Getting Bare In the Square For Art's Sake

An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 people lined up naked in Mexico City's Zocalo square in response to a call from U.S. photographer Spencer Tunick.
An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 people lined up naked in Mexico City's Zocalo square in response to a call from U.S. photographer Spencer Tunick. (By Claudio Cruz -- Associated Press)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 7, 2007

MEXICO CITY, May 6 -- Carmen González stood prim and proper Sunday in the pre-dawn darkness of this city's grand central square.

Her dark brown dress was neatly pressed, and she held her daughter's hand tightly as the crowd pressed against them. This isn't González's "thing," hanging around at a crazy hour, preparing to get a little wild. But at the age of 50, she figured, "Why not?"

Why not get naked?

"I'm nervous," González told her 20-year-old daughter, María Oliva González, as a voice crackled over the loudspeaker.

But when Spencer Tunick, provocative photographer of the bare-bunned masses, gave the word, Carmen González did not hesitate. She shimmied out of that brown dress while her daughter was still fiddling with buttons.

And there it was. After a lifetime of acting demure, Carmen González was naked for all to see. And she was smiling.

Everyone else, it seemed, was smiling, too -- an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 volunteer nude models hopping about in the morning chill, blowing away Tunick's previous record of 7,000, set in 2003 in Barcelona. As the sun began to rise above Mexico's National Palace, they calmly wriggled out of bluejeans, slipped off tank tops, kicked away shoes. A trio of college buddies sloughed off bathrobes and flip-flops. But the crowd was mostly silent, except for the giggles.

Tunick, a New Yorker who was arrested multiple times when he began staging large-scale nude photo shoots in the early 1990s, has since become one of the world's best-known photographers. He has posed nudes in front of a statue of Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela, filled the streets of Montreal and Sao Paulo, Brazil, with them and marched them through a London department store. He describes his work as "a symbol for freedom" and writes on his Web site that his nude photo event is "a mysterious morning ritual."

His Mexico City shoot was anticipated with all the hand-wringing that might be expected in this socially conservative country. Pundits and radio-show callers fretted about teenagers and 20-somethings frolicking in a public raunch fest. But though the youngsters did show up in great numbers, the day seemed to belong to the Carmen Gonzálezes of this city, middle-age Mexicans who lived through their country's authoritarian past and are reveling in a new sense of freedom.

"With this, I see us advancing. We're moving toward more freedom of expression, more liberty," said Héctor Huerta, 40, a taxi driver, as he clasped the waist of his wife, Rosa Aguilar, also 40. "I could never imagine this happening in Mexico."

Tunick's Mexico City debut wasn't without bumps. His arrival was preceded by weighty philosophical battles about public nudity. The prominent Mexican art critic Raquel Tibol declared that Tunick's photos would be "an antidote to Mexican prudishness," while the Spanish critic Román Gubern sniffed that the photographer's work is "redundant" and "doesn't appear artistic."

Tunick had hoped to stage his photos at Teotihuacan, the ancient ruins outside Mexico City where tourists flock to climb the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. But the Mexican government turned him down. His fallback was the city's central square, known as the Zocalo, scene of revolutionary triumphs and more recently of the tent city maintained for months by supporters of the failed populist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

But the square's signature giant Mexican flag was not flying when the nudes arrived. And Tunick promised not to include the baroque National Cathedral, which sits on the square, in his shots.

In the crowd around Carmen González, many of the nude models chuckled about being so close to the cathedral. The building, with its sinking floors, symbolizes a Catholic hierarchy in Mexico that has frowned on the activities of social progressives and recently attempted to stop city laws permitting gay civil unions and expanding access to abortion.

"I bet Norberto's up there with his telescope looking down on us," said Carmen Rodriguez, 50, referring to Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the leader of Mexico's Catholics.

The semicircle of friends around Rodriguez broke out in laughter. But they didn't have much time to joke, for Tunick was back at the microphone hustling the crowd to the center of the square in hopes of finishing the shoot before morning Mass at the cathedral.

The crowd compliantly lined up in dozens of rows and stood at attention for the first shot. Minutes later, the amateur models were holding their right hands, palms down, against their chests -- the salute Mexicans use when singing their national anthem.

Next, Tunick had his subjects lying on their backs on the paving stones of the Zocalo, which had been scrubbed the night before. From there, they took to their knees, facing the cathedral with their foreheads touching the ground in a pose reminiscent of Muslims at prayer facing Mecca.

In less than an hour it was over, and thousands of shivering, naked individuals came bouncing back to the bags of clothes they'd left at the edge of the square. They were dark-skinned indigenous people, pale men and women who trace their heritage to the Spanish conquistadors, light brown mestizos. They were fat and skinny, tall and short. But stripped of their clothes and viewed from afar, they looked a lot alike. They looked like Mexico.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company