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Nude and painted white, 200 volunteer models pose at endangered Dead Sea

American photographer Spencer Tunick’s third installation at the salty lake poses models as white pillars of salt, seeking to raise awareness for the need to ‘save this pearl’

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • The 200 nude participants who modeled for American photographer Spencer Tunick at the Dead Sea on October 17, 2021. (courtesy, Irit Eshet Mor)
    The 200 nude participants who modeled for American photographer Spencer Tunick at the Dead Sea on October 17, 2021. (courtesy, Irit Eshet Mor)
  • The 200 nude participants who modeled for American photographer Spencer Tunick at the Dead Sea on October 17, 2021 (Courtesy Irit Eshet Mor)
    The 200 nude participants who modeled for American photographer Spencer Tunick at the Dead Sea on October 17, 2021 (Courtesy Irit Eshet Mor)
  • The 200 nude participants who modeled for American photographer Spencer Tunick at the Dead Sea on October 17, 2021 (Courtesy Irit Eshet Mor)
    The 200 nude participants who modeled for American photographer Spencer Tunick at the Dead Sea on October 17, 2021 (Courtesy Irit Eshet Mor)

ARAD — They lined up in rows of 10. Two hundred men and women in the nude, painted white and waiting for instructions from American photographer Spencer Tunick, perched on a ladder with a megaphone and his camera for this third installation about the Dead Sea.

The photographic installation was created to support the establishment of the planned Dead Sea Museum in Arad.

“The Dead Sea is disappearing,” said Tunick. “We need to find a way to sustain the level or to bring freshwater into the Dead Sea, but at the same time, keep all countries surrounding with water. Water is life.”

Tunick said this current installation was smaller and more conceptual than his last one in 2011. This time, the models were painted white to represent the pillars of salt from the biblical story of Lot’s wife, the Genesis character who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back at Sodom, the ancient city that was in the Dead Sea region.

“I don’t fear anyone turning to stone, that’s quite a punishment,” said Tunick. “No hummus for maybe a year, but no death.”

Rather, said Tunick, the photographs of white-painted models would channel the natural springs from the Dead Sea that create pillars of salt under the water.

It took about 10 minutes for the models to paint themselves white, and will take some three days to wash off, said one of Tunick’s aides.

The body paint is an effect used frequently in Tunick’s work over the last decade.

“Spencer always says that clothes are a person’s art,” said Keren Bar Gil, Tunick’s representative in Israel. “He has them take their clothes off and the paint is neutral,” creating a common look for the group.

Tunick’s 2011 shots of the Dead Sea included shots of the models covered with Dead Sea mud.

The deep azure of the Dead Sea was visible in the distance from this windy, rocky plateau. Much of the attention during the hour-long photo session was on the participants, ranging in age from 19 to 70, who stood barefoot for much of the time on the sharp, rock-strewn hilltop.

They looked like a nude exercise class as they bent and straightened, taking off the brown slip-on sandals they wore for the brief walk to the top of the hill. Tunick’s crew slipped in and out of the rows to fill in spaces and gaps and straighten the rows of nude models.

“Glasses off, hands down, close your mouth, eyes open,” yelled Tunick into the loudspeaker. “Don’t smile!”

The naked models complied, first facing north, then west and east, and then south, turning their bodies according to Tunick’s instructions.

Some of the older models shook with the strain of standing for so long; one man leaned on his two walking sticks between shots.

American artist Spencer Tunick at the Dead Sea on October 17, 2021, when he photographed his third installation of nude models. (Jessica Steinberg/ Times of Israel)

“I love all the participants who came and risked everything, their bodies, their reputations,” said Tunick with a laugh, speaking to reporters following the first set of photos. “They’re true art warriors and adventurers.”

Bar Gil said she was amazed how many “bourgeois people,” including some from her own suburban town, registered for the event, including art collectors that she knows personally.

During the last installation, when she was present as a volunteer, and not as a model, Bar Gil said her children’s dentist was one of the participants, something she only realized when he emerged, naked, from the water.

“You never know who’s going to be here,” she said.

This was the second time that participant Eliaz Dandeker was participating in a Tunick Dead Sea installation, as a nudist who likes to take part in art installations as a way of reconnecting to himself, shedding the masks of day-to-day life.

“Nude art feels like a connection to the ancient world,” said Dandeker, speaking earlier in the day at the Arad community center where the participants first gathered. “It’s going back to my origins.”

Later in the day, Tunick said that the installation was going well, although he was concerned about some of the older participants, some of whom were opting out of the third photo setup, which required a walk down a rocky hill.

“I did want people on their backs, but I didn’t want anyone laying on hard stones,” he said.

The project was in cooperation with the Tourism Ministry, the Arad Municipality and the Dead Sea Revival Project, following Tunick’s two earlier installations that helped raise awareness of Israel as a tourism destination.

Tunick added that he was in the region to bring attention to the virtual Dead Sea Museum that will “hopefully be a real museum in Arad one day,” he said. “The Dead Sea is a vital eighth wonder of the world.”

When the city of Arad analyzes its long-term risks, said Arad mayor Nisan Ben Hamo, it focuses on the Dead Sea.

“If it disappears, if we won’t engage now with a plan, how to save this pearl, we will have a problem,” said Ben Hamo, who worked closely with the Tunick team over the last two months of preparation. “We all understand that we need a long term plan.

“The fact that Spencer is here, for me, is a gift,” said Ben Hamo.

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