The Neo Naturists staged provocative nude performances with body paint as a reaction to the preciousness of the Blitz Kids, New Romantics and feminist constraints of the time
Looking back, the early 80s was a culturally kaleidoscopic time. Punk rock had split into a dogmatically rigid scene, and on the other arty post-punk. Disco was mutating into house music in Chicago. Techno was rising from Detroit’s post-industrial ashes. And other elements of the electronic bell rung by Kraftwerk, David Bowie, and Brian Eno were evolving into New Wave and, within it, the New Romantics scene.
Out of this cultural ferment emerged something rather 60s in spirit but with punk’s undeniable energy – the Neo Naturists, a band of body-painting performance artists who also seemed a bit like a throwback to the hippie counterculture. Their anarchic spirit stood in opposition to the posturings of the Blitz Kids, a scene of young musicians and fashion designers, which included the likes of Spandau Ballet, John Galliano, and many others.
The Neo Naturists are currently getting a retrospective at Studio Voltaire, the first of its kind for the group. The show, A Night With The Neo Naturists, is comprised of archival material from the British Film Institute, The Michael Clark Company and the Neo Naturist Archive, and also features original works by the Neo Naturists. The show has taken each of its three founders, Wilma Johnson and Christine and Jen Binnie, back to the group’s halcyons to excavate the atmosphere of the times and what their performances may or may not have meant.
Johnson, for her part, says that they were all very much part of the early New Romantic scene. Many of them had been into punk, so they preserved its anarchic ethos and tradition of dressing outrageously. They also identified with the New Romantics at first, mostly because it was a reaction to punk having become, in Johnson’s words, “puritanical and negative”.
“I was at St Martins in Soho, and Charles Fox theatrical costumes were selling off their stock really cheap round the corner in Covent Garden,” Johnson tells Dazed. “We would go down at lunchtime and buy these ripped period costumes to go out in that night, and put on makeup inspired by Fellini films….. Before the Neo Naturists, I dressed as Marie Antoinette for a year (Cerith Wyn Evans made a film of me called Let them Eat Cake).”
After the initial burst of anarchic energy, Johnson got turned off by the New Romantics, who had taken to posing and being precious. For Johnson and the others, the next most outrageous way to dress was to not do so at all.
“People were terrified of the bodypaint cause they were in these elaborate homemade white costumes and we’d be on stage chucking pickled beetroot and seafood into the audience,” Johnson says. “I think we were given a life long ban from Spandau Ballet concerts, which I’m quite proud of.”
For Christine, the starting point was her own body image. At the time she didn’t like her body, and found it impossible to look at herself in the mirror when nude. Finding this attitude ridiculous, Christine resolved to do something about it. So she got a booking as a life model at Ravensbourne Art College, and then just turned up. While it felt weird for Christine at first, it was also extraordinarily easy at the same time. And having to sit there motionless and quiet gave her a lot of time to contemplate nudity, clothes, art and other things.
After these life modeling gigs Christine met Wilma, and the two learned they were very much kindred spirits. For Christine, it was refreshing to find someone who wanted to play around with all the ideas she’d been thinking about. For Jen, the first body paint was an extension of dressing up, much of it inspired by the transvestite fashion of Grayson Perry and the Warr Street Squat scene, which included gender-benders like George and Marilyn, Cerith Wyn Evans, John Maybury, Princess Julia and David Holah from Bodymap.
“We never did anything that we thought should be shocking, or used violence during performances, and part of the fun was to see how upset and outraged people could get by watching three women cook a scotch pancake or do a bit of yoga” – Wilma Johnson
While the budding Neo Naturists couldn’t quite compete with the squatter’s fashion, Christine says that it freed them to dress as they liked – or to opt to wear nothing at all. And besides, the nudity, the bodypainting, was all in the service of art.
“The whole Neo Naturist thing started in an art environment and it was always about art,” says Christine. “We knew we were doing art all the time and we knew it was performance art.”
The Neo Naturists was about reactions. Reactions to the Blitz Kids, Abstract Expressionism, feminist constraints and the seriousness of performance art. They were even reacting against themselves as New Romantics. And there was always a plan when the Neo Naturists staged a performance. Many of the acts were symbolic, and they loved nothing more than to provoke a “pregnant silence”.
“The ideas we came up with were to do with whatever we were thinking about at the time,” Christine says. “There was a book we read, The Descent of Woman, a feminist response to The Ascent of Man, that was the starting point for the Sexist Crabs series of performances.”
“Sometimes there would be an object that we just wanted to include in a performance, Wilma’s mum’s wooden pitchfork, for instance,” she adds. “Another time we found lovely old wigs and odd shoes and used them. Using found and folksy objects was important to us. We loved to bring an earthy, folksy, domestic feel into the middle of a posing, po-faced crowd, and they loved it, even if they loved to hate us sometimes.”
“Although we were naked, we had this beautiful paint on and we couldn’t believe people would be upset,” Johnson says. “So we decided to develop the spontaneous performance of walking down the street painted... We never did anything that we thought should be shocking, or used violence during performances, and part of the fun was to see how upset and outraged people could get by watching three women cook a scotch pancake or do a bit of yoga.”
“We loved to bring an earthy, folksy, domestic feel into the middle of a posing, po-faced crowd, and they loved it, even if they loved to hate us sometimes” – Christine Binnie
The fact that the Neo Naturists didn’t rehearse their performances doesn’t make Johnson wince in retrospect. For her and the others, the work was always more about ritual than refined theater.
“We took pride in singing and dancing pretty badly, although Christine’s famous scotch pancakes could have won Master Chef,” she says. “Perhaps ‘inspired’ is a better word. I think the cheerlead at the Royal Opera House and May Day at the Spanish Anarchy Centre are among my favourites.”
For her part, Christine is particularly fond of the Neo Naturist’s streaking performance at Centre Point Fountains – a response to streakers running onto football pitches and being chased by policemen. The group found it interesting that once the policemen had caught a streaker, and before the official arrest, they would place a helmet over the streaker’s genitals.
“When we did our performance at Centre Point Fountains we wanted to see how long it would be before the police turned up and what would happen if we didn’t run away,” recalls Christine. “It turned into a very civil occasion where, still in the nude, we had a long chat with a policeman about the laws around nudity. My only disappointment was that we didn’t get the opportunity to have a policeman's helmet instead of a fig leaf.”
Jen, on the other hand, believes that one of the best things the Neo Naturists did was a five-day “live-in” performance at B2 Gallery in Wapping, which their friend David Dawson was running back in the summer of 1982. Each day had a different different theme, and the group spent the whole day painting one another and getting ready to do some kind of performance in the evening. Some of the participants were full-time Neo Naturists, while others were just there to do the painting.
“I also enjoyed getting dressed with Christine and Wilma in sellotape dresses with proper makeup and high heels when I had my first exhibition at James Birch's gallery in the New Kings Road,” says Jen. “We all went to the private view dressed like that and it was really fun. That was in 1984. Really, we did the same thing for the opening of this exhibition on July 7th.”
“We kind of left it up to fate whether there was any record of it” – Wilma Johnson
Interestingly, Johnson isn’t sure that the Neo Naturists could have done if people had iPhones. Part of the point of the Neo Naturists’ performances was that they just happened. And when they were over, there was nothing left but some body paint marks in the dressing rooms and a lot hazy memories.
“We did photograph some, but even then we used out-of-date film (deliberately for the psychedelic effects) and cranky old standard 8mm film cameras, so what came out was very unpredictable,” Johnson says. “We kind of left it up to fate whether there was any record of it.”
“We often played in quite obscure or empty venues, but we once said that however few people saw a performance, if at some point in the future someone dreamed about us, it had been worth doing,” she adds.” They often did apparently.”
Johnson is probably right about how the Internet has changed things. The Neo Naturists had the freedom and the space to develop their ethos and actions. Everything now has to be immediate and very staged. But while the potential to fly under the artistic radar as improvisational and even partly ephemeral might have diminished, perhaps a new generation of female (and male) artists can learn something from the Neo Naturists’ bodily anarchy.