Skin as Art and Anthropology

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
November 13, 2002
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How you look at skin is all a matter of perspective.

Some people think of it as the body's major organ—which it is. Others look at skin as a biological map of the history of early human migration patterns—which it could be.

Many people see it as a canvas to be decorated with tattoos and other markings—to convey group membership, convey beauty, or mark rites of passage.

Contemporary artist Spencer Tunick of Brooklyn, New York, has an unusual take on skin. He sees it as a sea of colors, and thinks of bodies as an organic art form.

Lots of bodies.

Traveling around the world, Tunick has persuaded thousands of people to shed their clothes and pose, often in large groups, for photographs taken in a variety of places, including Times Square in New York; Victoria Bridge in Melbourne, Australia; the desert of Nevada, the floors of museums, on beaches and railroad tracks (view image in photo gallery).

"You get all shades of colors—browns, yellow, tans, many, many pinks—all molded together, forming a sea of color, a kind of visual poetry," said Tunick. "The work is a celebration of public space, and to me, people and bodies are the most beautiful thing that you can put in a landscape, as opposed to objects."

His work, along with numerous other perspectives on skin, is explored in a National Geographic television special, "Skin," that airs tonight at 8 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

"Dignity" of Human Body

Many of Tunick's pictures convey a sense of stillness: people arranged in a pattern, densely packed yet not touching, hundreds of individuals forming a whole. Others portray a writhing mass of humanity: bodies strewn across a landscape, limbs akimbo.

Some are haunting, as though everyone had dropped to the ground at the same moment. They evoke, for example, eerie images of victims of a gas attack felled in the act of living.

But in this case, all of them are naked.

Tunick is an artist more than a photographer. He regards his pictures of masses of naked people as much a performance event as a photo shoot.

"I use photographs and video to document temporary site-related installations and performances," he said. "The people who come to the events are actively participating in the creation of art, which is a performative aspect of the work. The process and the documentation are equally important."

The bodies in his photos are of all shapes and sizes: fat and fit, old and young.

The people who participate in Tunick's art events have a wide range of motivations. Some speak of it as an act of liberation, a way to break free of the pressures of society's adoration of beautiful bodies. Others do it as an act of rebellion, as the ultimate dare, or for the thrill of being anonymous and naked.

"The idea of the new experiences people are having pushes me to continue the work," said Tunick. "It's not about the body beautiful, and it's not a happy-go-lucky free-for-all. It's allowing people to be part of creating art while at the same time celebrating the dignity of the human body."

Touch, Sweat, Evolution

Human skin is a barrier that offers important protection from viruses, bacteria, and ultraviolet radiation. It's also an individual climate-control system, with about 650 sweat glands per square inch.

If all the skin on a human body could be removed and hung in a closet at night, it would consist of a sheet of material—almost paper thin in some areas—measuring about 21 square feet (two square meters).

Like Tunick, Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences, also views skin as a sea of color. Her interest, however, is in what skin can tell us about human evolution. How and why did we evolve from hairy and fur-covered primates into the essentially naked animals we are today?

Acquiring an ability to sweat—and thereby cool the body—enabled humans to leave the protection of the sweltering forests of Africa and populate the world, she said.

To protect itself from the sun, human skin produces melanin, a skin-darkening agent. People living in regions of high ultraviolet radiation produce more melanin than those who live farther north.

There is no black race, no white race, said Jablonski. Variations in skin color are an evolutionary adaptation correlated to UV radiation levels.

Human skin and the sense of touch give people a way to physically and emotionally connect with one another. Scientists are just beginning to recognize the power of touch to promote healing, increase socialization, and boost immunity.

Studies have shown a correlation between high rates of affection in childhood and low rates of adult aggression. Babies who aren't handled enough can fail to thrive.

In experiments at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida, Tiffany Fields, director of the Touch Research Institutes at the University of Miami School of Medicine, has been studying the effects of pairing two segments of the population that are often deprived of regular touching: elderly people and prematurely born babies.

Many premature babies are placed in germ-free incubators to keep them warm and lessen the chance of infection. Fields has recruited older people to come in and massage the babies.

Both groups benefit, she said. According to study results, babies that are regularly massaged gain 49 percent more weight than babies who aren't and go home six days earlier. And the elderly adults who worked with the babies reported lower levels of depression.

National Geographic's newest PBS TV special, Skin, peels back the layers of emotion, science, and public perception of the ultimate body suit. Go>>

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