2018-05-07 18:02:02
Reporter’s Notebook: I Went Naked to a Museum, and It Was … Revealing

PARIS — The most uncomfortable thing about being naked in a museum, it turns out, is the temperature. A half-hour into the first nudist tour of the Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum in Paris, I had gotten used to the feeling of exposure, but I hadn’t acclimatized to the cold air circulating through the cavernous galleries.

Standing in a politically themed exhibition by the French-Algerian artist Neïl Beloufa, I began shaking my arms for warmth. Museums, I was discovering, are not temperature-controlled for people wearing only sneakers.

In drawing this conclusion, it seemed, I wasn’t alone. Jacqueline Bohain, a 65-year-old retiree who had taken an eight-hour bus trip from the Alsace region of eastern France to attend the event on Saturday, tried to warm herself in a sliver of sunlight. Other members of the group jiggled around to heat up. “Maybe we should walk around the corner, so we can stand in the sun,” Marion Buchloh-Kollerbohm, the tour guide, suggested, and maneuvered us to another area of the exhibition.

The Palais de Tokyo’s “Visite Naturiste” — the first of its kind in France — has garnered a remarkable amount of public interest since it was announced in March. Over 30,000 people indicated on Facebook that they were interested in the tour, and, according to Laurent Luft, 48, the president of the Paris Naturist Association, more than two million people visited the group’s Facebook page in recent weeks.

“I was imagining about 100 or 200 people might want to come, not 30,000,” he said in a telephone interview before the tour.

At 10 a.m., I joined the 161 people who had managed to get one of the limited tickets, and we undressed in an ad hoc changing room on the second floor of the museum. For the next two hours, we took part in one of six tours by (clothed) museum guides of “Discord, Daughter of the Night,” a series of exhibitions spread across the museum, which is the largest in France for the presentation of contemporary art. The shows consist of one large, suspended sculpture and five separately curated but thematically related exhibitions in different parts of the museum, dealing mostly with issues of political strife and resistance.

Mr. Beloufa’s contribution — “The Enemy of My Enemy” — consisted largely of artifacts related to war and to other horrific historical events, like the My Lai massacre and the bombing of Hiroshima, arranged on platforms that were constantly moved around the space by small robots, similar to those used by Amazon in its warehouses.

Ms. Buchloh-Kollerbohm, who is also the museum’s head of education, told me that she was mindful of the potential awkwardness of combining nudism with the exhibition’s serious subject matter.

“We didn’t want to make this into a conference on the post-colonial subject, because that would really kill the atmosphere,” she said. Nevertheless, she added, “I am hoping the experience of leaving their clothes at the door will help them leave some part of their identity with it, and experience it with more openness.”

Other museums have organized similar tours for temporary shows thematically connected to nakedness, including a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in Montreal and a show of male nudes at the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Mr. Luft said that it was “actually more pleasing to me to find something that had nothing to do with nudity.”

Mr. Luft and I walked into a small room in one corner of the exhibition where Mr. Beloufa was exhibiting an Iranian propaganda video from the Holy Defense Museum in Tehran that showed a simulation of a bomb attack on a marketplace. It felt insensitive to be watching a video of an atrocity (albeit a staged one) while standing in nothing but my running shoes, but Mr. Luft saw it differently. In his view, the exhibition confirmed his belief that nudity was a great social and political equalizer. “If world leaders had their meetings naked,” he said, “they’d stay a lot calmer.”

Mr. Luft said that he had proposed the tour to the Palais de Tokyo at a meeting in December. The idea, he said, was to expand the activities of the nudist association beyond sports — the group, he pointed out, held the world record for the largest number of people participating in a nude tenpin bowling. He expressed hope that cultural events like the one at the museum would lead to an influx of more diverse members.

In a one-time concession, the Palais de Tokyo closed its doors to non-nude visitors on Saturday morning. Ms. Buchloh-Kollerbohm said the museum saw the event as being part of its mandate of cultural and social outreach.

The results seemed promising: The attendees were slightly more male than female, but there was a broad mix of ages, and there were many newcomers to public nudity — like Junyu Deng, a 29-year-old Parisian — who seemed thrilled by the tour. She said that being nude had allowed her to have a more “intimate” interaction with the art.

Our group moved into a space created by the British artist George Henry Longly, where several suits of armor used by the daimyo, feudal lords who reigned over Japan from the 10th to the 19th centuries, were exhibited. It felt oddly poignant to stare at an exhibition of ornate battle armor while being so physically vulnerable. Ms. Buchloh-Kollerbohm explained that the suits of armor had been crafted to look like aggressive animals, such as wasps, and that they consisted of a kind of “exoskeleton.”

“Putting on clothing, or an armor, it’s a statement,” Vincent Simonet, a 42-year-old singing teacher who offers naked classes, told me as we left the room. “Today, nudism is seen as a statement, but really it’s the opposite, it should be seen as a pure state.”

The final section of the tour, by the French artists Kader Attia and Jean-Jacques Lebel, was described partly as an “archaeology of fear,” and included a room filled with newspaper and magazine coverage of grim historical events primarily connected with colonialism. Ms. Buchloh-Kollerbohm crowded the group into a small corner to show us some “sickness masks” from Nigeria, with distorted features that gave them the appearance of someone who has suffered from leprosy or a stroke.

“These are not about a concept of perfect and symmetrical beauty,” she said, to the hushed group, “but about accepting difference and its worth and power.” Ms. Bohain, the retiree from Alsace, said to another tour member that it was an emotional note to end on, especially for a group committed to accepting and celebrating their own bodies.

A few minutes later, we were ushered onto a patio with a view of the Eiffel Tower, where Ms. Bohain warmed herself in the sun. Mr. Luft said that he was extremely happy with the day’s event, adding that he was already in discussions with several other museums to conduct similar tours.

As for me, I was inclined to revisit the exhibition, especially its more political works, in a clothed context, when I wouldn’t have to worry about feeling insensitive.

Ms. Buchloh-Kollerbohm said she had enjoyed leading the group, but that the Palais de Tokyo was undecided about doing another nudist tour.

Standing on the patio, Ms. Bohain told me that although she had not enjoyed all the art, she had enjoyed the experience. “I’m standing in the sun, naked, staring at the Eiffel Tower,” she said. “Life is great.”