Letting it all hang out : my life as a naked artist
Grayson Perry in the Times June 20th 2007
The Neo-Naturists, who since 1980 have been performing rigorously amateur rituals in – as their name suggests – the nude, are the subject of a long overdue exhibition at England & Co. in Notting Hill.
I’ve known the NNs since their inception, but have never really known where the original inspiration came from, so I asked a founder member, Christine Binnie. She went to Berlin in 1979 and met some German punks. What impressed her was that they were not mired in repressed angst like English punks – ‘all white faced girls in black bedrooms’. They had tans and walked about in the nude and swam in the lake, yet were still punks. It was this mix of anarchy and health and efficiency that characterises the NNs.
Another influence was the drag queens she saw at the Black Cap pub in Camden. ‘ They seemed to be just having a laugh on stage, so I thought why can’t I, a real woman, do the same,’ Binnie says.
She saw Neo Naturism with its core philosophy of having fun, as a reaction against the dangerous sado-masochistic body art of people such as the Viennese Activists. She also cites her mother, who was the sort of woman who ‘always had a craft project on the go, a bag of raw wool needing to be spun, elderflower wine bubbling away.’ Her mother was also a Girl Guide leader, and the influence of camp fire singing, the Church of England and cooking with Calor Gas runs through the entire NN oeuvre.
The performances can involve up to 25 wobbly, painted bodies, but the core of the group are three women, Christine, her sister Jennifer and Wilma Johnson. Christine met Wilma when she was modelling at St. Martin’s art school and Wilma wanted literally to paint the model. She painted a large face on Christine’s torso, breasts doubling as eyes, covered her in a floor-length fun-fur coat and went off to the Brisitsh Museum, where she took photos of Christine flashing next to ancient statuary when no-one was looking.
I was going out with Jennifer who shared much of her sister’s creative energy. Christine seemed to turn over the culture she encountered like an antique dealer picking up a cracked jug at a car-boot sale. She was the first person I’d met who listened to pop music with playful irony, embracing Abba with a teasing enthusiasm even before they had split up.
The Binnies’ ability to take the mundane materials of their own experience ‘ Girl Guides, holidays in Scotland, folk festivals, Rolf Harris, the vanities of the Blitz Kids’ and weave them into their style with seemingly innocent delight left its mark on me.
Living in squats around Fitrovia, Christine was both muse and pupil to a collection of queens, trendies and arty farties, including Boy George, the film-maker John Maybury, the artist Cerith Wyn Evans, fashion designers Bodymap and the milliner Stephen jones. Her original voice stood out among the drones of cool London like Kathleen Ferriter duetting with Duran Duran. I, along with many others, was happily roped in to perform.
By 1982 the Neo Naturists were appearing regularly in clubs.
Performances were planned, but never rehearsed, more ritual than cabaret. We would convene the afternoon before the event and decide on a theme that was often a seasonal festival such as May Day, Hallowe’en or Christmas. Then the flat, a skip or the local supermarket would be searched for the necessary supplies. Bodies were painted accordingly as artworks : lederhosen, cheerleaders or Mao suits, fruit or mythic creatures. Common elements would be cookery, poetry, choral singing, Sellotape, lame gymnastics and a wilful disregard for entertainment.
The resulting tableaux brought the obscurity and longueurs of performance art to nightclub audiences, who responded with a mixture of delighted shock and cries of ‘get them on !’ the girls were fearless but I was always nervously aware that the dangling presence of a male member painted blue with a bell tied to it lent the performance an extra edge to which some of the crowd could take exception.
Memorable highlights included trying to fill a paddling pool with urine from a balcony, into which we then ‘launched’ a book for Derek Jarman ; appearing in an early ballet with Michael Clark ; and the fulfillment of a long-planned ambition to cavort in the fountains at the base of Centrepoint painted as fishermen and mermaids.
For me the quintessential Neo Naturist event was a week’s residency at B2 gallery in Wapping in 1982. Like a chaotic hippie tribal version of Big Brother ; people could just come and stare and hang out with 15 nude people. Each day had a theme : fashion day, art day, Macbeth day or punk day. From midday we would be naked and paint oursleves accordingly. We would stage an appropriate event such as a black-day picnic on the muddy Thames beach, consisting of Guinness, black pudding and black bread.
I particularly remember the pain of trying to wash off body paint that was welded to my body hair- it had been mixed with Scotts porridge oats for my role as Birnam Wood in a cursory staging of the Scottish play that fielded seven witches and Mrs. M cooking pancakes.
There was no career strategy, no money and just a few free drinks. I salute you Neo-Naturists, true Bohemians.