Interview with multimedia artist, James Grigg (Part Two)
In part two of our in-depth discussion with multimedia artist and photographer, James Grigg, we’re discussing the reasons why nudity does not have to be seen in an inherently sexual light, the ways in which clothes-free events such as the World Naked Bike Ride can help people come to terms with their bodies, whether or not James feels the body positivity movement is as relevant for men as it is for women, and lots, lots more!
Britain Uncovered: How important is it to desexualise the human body and to challenge censorship of the body, and how do you set about achieving this through your work?
James: Those are two factors that play into my philosophical approach to nudity. I feel liberated of body shame because I’ve learned that nudity can be completely decoupled from sexuality and shame. I truly believe the world would be a lot more happy and comfortable if nudity were an everyday occurrence. A more naked world would let people see that bodies are far more diverse than the media might have us believe, and so we would quickly learn to leave aside many of the body insecurities that so many people harbour.
Clothing itself is also aggressively sexual. Many items of clothing emphasise (or distort, even) the shapes of body parts, draw attention to body parts, or in the process of concealing certain socially unacceptable sexualised body parts, invite the viewer to imagine what they cannot see. A person in sexy underwear, for example, is far more sexual an image than a naked person in a non-sexual context. Yet the former is widely socially acceptable, while nudity in any form is shamed and censored. It feels like a paradox maybe, but I think we would have a better relationship with both bodies in a non-sexual context, and sexuality, if nudity were commonplace. Instead sexuality, something we all have, is siloed as a dirty forbidden subject; and at the same time nudity, which is most of the time not sexual at all, is thrown into that same pot of shame.
My art shows specifically non-sexual nudity because I want to show that is how nudity can be. I tend to have poses that are quite matter of fact, sculptural maybe, and certainly not sensual. Or in some shoots, like Living, just casual, relaxed, and everyday. Not sensationalist, just real and free.
We’re used to seeing nudity in a sexual context, but the idea of it as something more everyday is still unusual to many. I want to help play my part in freeing people from that shame and fear of their own bodies, and being able to live more comfortably with themselves.
BU: Do you feel as though body positivity is as accessible to men as it is to women, or is there a gender divide and still some catching up to do in this regard? Many of the body positivity influencers and accounts on social media are targeted primarily to women, but men also suffer from body image issues (and the resulting mental health issues) and are perhaps too afraid to speak out about their insecurities due to a culture of toxic masculinity. Is this a theory you subscribe to? Furthermore, what could or should be done to help make the body positivity movement accessible for all?
James: It certainly should be the case that the body confidence needs of all are met. I’m not sure that they are though, and maybe actually there is good reason that there is a stronger movement for female body positivity. That’s because we live in a patriarchy, and that puts more pressure on women to conform to beauty standards, and to live up to sexualised ideas of what is a good body.
Quite frankly, men can sail through society without much having to worry about how they look, but women for a large part cannot: there is a much higher expectation on women to look ‘good’, and to look young forever. Think about how a great many women feel they cannot leave the home without wearing a bra (lest there be visible nipples or natural breast shapes visible), or without makeup, or without shaving their legs or armpits. I don’t think men face the same sort of everyday pressure to conform to narrow beauty standards, or face the still real consequences for their careers or social standing if they don’t do so.
That said, the same patriarchal world that creates those conditions absolutely does put pressure on men to conform to a limited range of acceptable body types too. The beauty ideal for men is what, Thor basically? It’s unrealistic and unachievable, and comes from a rather limited view of men, that they must be warrior-type patriarchs. As you say, that comes from a toxic view of what masculinity is, which means men feel they need to have that kind of body, and act in a fairly aggressive and closed off manner. That’s bad for the men who harbour those insecurities, and bad for anyone else who has to live alongside men whose only means of emotional expression seems to be aggressiveness.
In some ways, the social expectations of male presentation are also much more limiting, and I think even more constrained by hetro-normative and gender-normative expectations. Male fashion is so dull and limited compared to the huge variety (and far more colour and pattern) offered in women’s clothes. Men have to be quite active in resisting social conformity just to have a little self-expression! I would prefer to live in a society that doesn’t have such a gender divide all the time; there’s plenty of masculine women and feminine men (cis or trans), and they should be happy and comfortable to be so, loved and accepted for being whoever they are, and able to express themselves in any way they want.
There are lots of body insecurities that are completely universal; things like scars and birthmarks. I feel like projects based on these are naturally quite gender inclusive. But other things, even when dealing with similar issues – such as being very skinny, or being larger – remain quite gendered. The point at which a body type becomes socially unacceptable is quite different between men and women, but the feelings when you reach that point are surely quite similar, and there should be space to make everyone feel comfortable in themselves.
So yeah, an ideal body positive movement would be inclusive of all people, no matter their gender or anything else. I’ve shot with women and men. Ultimately, we’re all human, and for the purposes of my work I want to celebrate all of humanity.
Do men feel excluded from body positivity? Well we shouldn’t, and there’s nothing stopping us opening up male focused spaces within the movement. But I don’t think we should expect a currently female-led movement to create that space for us, especially when women’s body issues are so driven by the pressures of a male dominated world.
BU: In addition to the many projects you’ve created, you’re also an event photographer – and among the events you have photographed are the World Naked Bike Ride events, which seek to highlight the environmental and social issues which cycling and body freedom can address. What was your experience like taking part in these events, and do you feel as though they can be beneficial with regards to helping people feel body confident and spreading a body positive message? They seem like a good entry level event for individuals who might be interested in trying out social nudity experiences for the first time.
James: I think I’d say I’m more a photographer who has been to some events, rather than really being an event photographer! I’ve mostly shared pictures I captured at protests, including several World Naked Bike Rides.
The Naked Bike Ride really resonates with me, as it appeals to multiple concerns: it is truly a protest to recognise the vulnerability of cyclists and the planet, by making the vulnerability of the participants more evident through our nakedness. As a cyclist, environmentalist and nudist, it might as well have been designed for me! It has a side effect of making nudity a temporarily more publicly acceptable thing, and allows participants to experience that vivid freedom. Although I do hope any participants do try to keep in mind it’s actually an environmental protest, not just a big naked party on wheels!
Whether it’s a good entry level thing for would-be-nudists; that would depend a lot on the person. For some, I think it would be a bit overwhelming, as it can get crowded at places and you are naked in very public places. If you’re willing to face that though, then yes it’s a truly beautiful and surreal experience, both being naked among hundreds of others, and being naked in really familiar public places. I have been with a few different friends over the years, with varying levels of previous nudity experience, and everyone I’ve been with seemed to find it a very enjoyable experience.
Generally, the public that witness the ride seem to be very upbeat and supportive too; most seem genuinely delighted at such a novelty. I think that shows that we could, as a society, be quite at ease with more nudity among us.
BU: Do you feel the WNBRs, and other social nudity experiences, are an effective way of promoting bodies of all shapes and sizes whilst also helping to destigmatise nudity? Can these types of experiences encourage people to embrace themselves in their own skin exactly as they are? What other benefits can be gained from these types of experiences (whether it be visiting nude beaches, taking part in charity skinny-dips, attending life drawing classes or beyond), and do you also dabble in these types of events outside of your work endeavours?
James: Oh absolutely! I’m always encouraging my friends to do naked things, because I think it’s hugely beneficial for people to let themselves be free, to let themselves see what real bodies are like, and to be at ease about nudity in general.
I’ve been to several nude swims, which is a lovely sensation (and a surprisingly different feeling to swimming even in a limited swimming costume). I’ve modelled at and hosted life drawing sessions and other arty things. I don’t really like beaches, but my first ever public nude experience was to visit a nude one. And it’s just nice to hang out with nude-comfortable friends. Being among naked people is a subtly different social experience; I think by removing our clothes we also just become more open and happy. It’s lovely to share time and space with people who are comfortable being themselves, or to help people find that comfort.
BU: As you mentioned, not too long ago you actually hosted your own life drawing groups, and offered people the chance to both draw and model, should they wish to. What is it you most enjoy about life drawing, and what prompted you to start your own life drawing classes? And what did participants particularly seem to enjoy about these sessions?
James: This is actually my very favourite naked activity. I’ve been to lots of life drawing groups, and really enjoy drawing the body. It’s a different way to explore the body than photography, and a different way to make art – my drawing style is very expressive, scratchy, scribbly. Especially since I realised I could draw in colour, which I found really liberating, and made me a more confident artist.
So at some point I had the idea of hosting my own clothing optional life drawing group among friends, as a thing to encourage my friends to try being naked more, and have some creative fun. The idea is whoever comes, each takes turns to model, and each can be as dressed or undressed as they are comfortable. The vast majority of people who have come end up getting naked or mostly naked, because they find it a comfortable environment to do so. And even those who don’t personally undress all the way start to grasp some of the ideas about how nudity can be a non-sexual and casually comfortable thing. Which really was exactly what I hoped. It’s a place of mutual trust, respect, and creativity, and that’s a great place for people to find comfort in themselves and others.
For those who come, whether they’re a really talented artist, or drawing wacky wobbly stickmen, the actual art created is very much secondary to the experience of just enjoying fun, naked creativity. I’d highly recommend people try it among their friend groups. I certainly look forward to resuming it when Covid has gone away a bit more!
BU: Shifting gears back to your photography, are there any photographers you are inspired by, and if so, who has had a particularly big impact on you over the years? Is there anyone who has helped shape or influence your style?
James: Actually, my biggest influence by far – and probably my favourite artist – is the sculptor Antony Gormley. If you look at the poses in many of my projects, and the way I use figures in the landscape, I can feel the energy of his creations flowing into my own work! I just love the way he uses figures to relate to spaces, and his consistent use of the body and how intrinsically his work seems to be able to connect with an audience.
I also have a lot of love for the land artist, Andy Goldsworthy. I don’t think his influence is quite so directly obvious in my own work, but I have always been interested in the natural world, and through my photography how we as people can connect to it. Especially in my more recent work, I’ve been seeking to connect figures much more directly into natural settings. So I think that probably resonates somewhat with my interest in that kind of art.
And specifically a photographer, there’s the amazing Spencer Tunick. His giant group nude shoots are awe-inspiring and stunningly beautiful. I was very glad to take part in one of his shoots a few years ago, the Sea of Hull, where loads of people were painted blue. It was a really amazing experience.
BU: If you had to choose, what would you consider to be your favourite (or best) photoshoot to date, and why? And are there any specific photoshoots you would like to undertake one day?
James: At the moment, it’s my series Parallel Arboreal. That’s another one I shot with Chi Jan Farn. We went out to one of my favourite little local spots, a small woods full of beautiful birch trees, and I had Jan Farn attempting to parallel the forms of the trees. She got exactly what I wanted to achieve, and the light was lovely that day, the location beautiful; it just came together perfectly. I’ve shot in natural places many times, but that was the first time I really tried to connect my subject with the place and particularly with another lifeform, and I was so satisfied with the outcome. It’s what’s led me to explore more along similar lines in my most recent work.
As for future endeavours, I’d really like to try something at larger scale with more models. I’ve only ever shot up to two people at once so far, so I’d love to try some group shoots, especially in my continuing exploration of figures in natural settings.
BU: What does the future hold, and what are your next steps as far as your photography goes? Will you be continuing with your Neutral Nudes series, or might you have a few other ideas you wish to pursue? Will nudes always be at the heart of your work, and if so, how might your work evolve in the future? Are there any other themes and emotions you might be seeking to present via your photography, perhaps?
James: I think nudes will always be the core of my work, as it’s more than art to me – it’s part of my lifestyle and personal philosophy. Nudity to me is freedom, and sadly we are still at a point in our society where we have to work to have that freedom as much as possible, where bodies are shamed or sometimes even feared. So my work seeks to counteract that, and reclaim the body as something good, natural and wonderful.
As for specific works: I will definitely be continuing the Neutral Nudes series (looking for new subjects all the time if anyone reading is in Lincolnshire, nearby, or visiting!), and hope to grow that to be a really big and diverse series with lots of different subjects of all types of bodies, backgrounds, and identities. As I mentioned, a lot of my current work is really trying to find connections between people and natural places, and I will surely be continuing to explore that for a while. And I also have bubbling away in my mind a desire to do more in the vein of the Living series, capturing people in their own environments.
James Grigg is a multimedia artist, primarily focused on photography. His work spans many areas, but his major area of exploration is the body; exploring the physical in different body types, the physicality of the body, and human identity as expressed by individuality of each person's body.
Additionally, his work spans several other areas of interest, including architecture, landscapes, still life, and conceptual series inspired by environmentalism, science, mathematics, politics, and popular culture. His work also includes other mediums, including animation, model making, drawing, and poetry.
To find out more, and to see even more work from the artist’s fantastic portfolio, check out his official website over at www.jamesgrigg.com. You can also follow the artist on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Medium.