It started in Oslo, on a muggy summer Sunday with a hint of rain in the air. After two weeks on board an expedition ship I was relishing the chance to be walking around outside, with an entire day at my disposal to explore a city I didn’t yet know.
Oslo has a fantastic amount of attractions, but my aim that day was the city’s Frogner Park. The place is famous for its bizarre set of sculptures; two hundred and twelve of them in fact, all carved by the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland.
Welcome to the Vigeland installation
This surreal park is the life’s work of a man fascinated by the human condition. Everywhere you look, there are stunning bronze and granite nude sculptures of men, women and children which show the most everyday emotions and interactions that a human can have: fear and anger, love and happiness, annoyance and excitement.
There are statues dotted all around the 80 acre park but the majority sit along both sides of a bridge; surround a large ornamental fountain; and climb their way up a dizzyingly tall tower which was carved entirely from one granite block over a period of thirteen years.
Created between 1924 and 1947, the Vigeland Park is now a lasting legacy to the sculptor’s vision – and because the vast expanse of green space is open day and night for any visitors who wish to see it, it’s also an extremely popular spot to wander around and people-watch.
Both real people, and sculpted ones.
When normal people become utterly fascinating
Vigeland’s skill lay in his ability to create beauty out of the mundane moments of daily life. His stone carved, larger-than-life bodies are both naked and unconcerned about their observers; they simply sit or stand while living, breathing tourists mill around them and pose for photos.
Yet the beauty of this park really occurs when visitors start to relax. As the initial fascination for the sculptures passes, they soon become climbing frames for young gleeful children; their pedestals becoming leaning posts for relaxed couples who watch teenagers practicing parkour on the stone balcony just below.
There’s something so calming about being around bodies, and these ones are more special than most.
I stood amongst old men cradling their ageing wives; children riding their mother like she was a horse; a tender moment of two foreheads pressed together; single figures sitting in contemplation.
I watched as real-life bodies mimicked the lean muscles of figures carved from granite. Couples sat quietly, not realising how similar they looked to the statues beside them.
I couldn’t help imagining that these statues were expressing the secret, inner lives of the tourists around me. After all, we all look the same underneath, right?
Food for thought in The Vigeland Museum
On the outskirts of the park is the Vigeland Museum, which used to be the sculptor’s studio (and is also where his ashes are now interred). Vigeland’s original plaster casts of many of the outside sculptures I’d just seen are displayed here, and without meaning to I spent hours lost amongst the figures.
I don’t normally have such a visceral reaction to art, but in this silent space I saw the sculptures differently.
Away from the crowds their message became something else completely: their stillness, happiness, and sadness had another level of impact. As the sunlight streamed across intricately carved faces and limbs, I saw strength displayed in situations I didn’t yet understand.
A crying family caught mid-run made me think of war and turmoil and struggle. A perfectly tiny baby lying on the floor made tears spring into my eyes. And a couple holding each other by the waist gave me such feelings of simultaneous young love and heartbreak that I couldn’t look away.
It was incredible to be surrounded by so much static human beauty, and I felt like Vigeland had understood something vital about the essence of who we are, simply by stripping humanity down to its nakedness.
So with all these stunning sculptures in mind, it’s perfect timing to explain what I’m doing this weekend: heading to Hull on the English coast to be part of modern art myself.
Something a bit surprising, involving Spencer Tunick…
The ‘Sea of Hull’ is a huge event set up by Spencer Tunick, an American photographer who specialises in human art installations which require all participants to be completely naked. He’s done them in Bogota, Sydney, Mexico City and Barcelona; on the bridges of Amsterdam, next to an Austrian glacier and in the chilly waters of the Irish coast.
For his latest installation, Tunick is bringing a thousand willing volunteers together in the streets of Hull, next year’s City of Culture, where he plans to paint us all in different shades of blue to emulate the colours of the ocean.
Hull has a maritime past which stretches back centuries: Tunick’s been quoted as saying, “It intrigues me that in some places where there are major streets or parks today, previously there was water.” His plan is that a mass of body painted people should “create the idea of a sea of humanity flooding the urban landscape.”
Basically, we get to channel our inner water-loving Smurf while pretending the paint makes us look slightly less naked.
But why exactly do I want to get naked in public?
As soon as I knew this event was happening, there was no doubt in my mind about getting involved.
Nudity has always been something I want to embrace more of. The few times I’ve swum naked has resulted in a beautifully liberated feeling; and my bare breasted experience in a Moroccan hammam prompted all kinds of female empowerment and gratitude.
Plus I did actually do a naked photoshoot at university, as part of a naked charity calendar to raise money. Along with a courageous group of my fellow bar staff we covered the windows and stripped in the campus pub where we worked, then stood around with pint glasses strategically placed and tried our best to fake nonchalance.
There may also have been a fair few shots of Dutch courage (tequila) beforehand.
Of course it’s a bit nerve-racking to bare every bit of your body in front of a thousand strangers – but they’ll all be naked too, which helps.
For me, the major factor driving my enthusiasm is doing more things which scare me. I read a quote recently which said, “everything you’re brave enough to undertake will change you, just a little,” and it really made me stop and think. It’s so easy to back away from challenging situations, but taking part in this artistic act of public nakedness is undoubtedly going to challenge my views about privacy and nudity.
Not to mention allowing me to be a part of something much bigger than myself.
While walking the Camino last year, I discovered that one of my Spanish Camino crew took part in Tunick’s shoot in Mexico City in 2007. As we walked through Spanish fields layered with fog in the early morning dawn light, Ruben told me excitedly about his experiences with the American photographer who stepped lightly between bodies with a megaphone, delivering careful instructions on how they should pose and what he envisioned.
I was fascinated, and so impressed by this hiking grandfather who had such a wonderfully confident story to share – yet I never thought that I’d be taking part in the exact same situation a year later.
Clearly there are changes in the air. See you in the Sea of Hull!