Christmas is upon us. The John Lewis advert is here and artist Mr Bingo has created his second advent calendar. Far removed from the images of candles, wreaths, shepherds and stables, his calendar is a scratch off celebration of bodies, dancing and music. Available now from his online shop, the process saw the artist crowdsource his models online and spend an intense period photographing, and then drawing, each participant.
The outcome is a chaotic, raunchy and funny celebration of the human body with a festive twist. We caught up with Mr Bingo to find out what his motivations were, how he created the calendar in ten days, who he met along the way and what he learned whilst doing so.
Why did you choose to revisit the advent calendar? Why did you decide to change your approach this year?
It was really popular last year so I thought I may as well have another bash at it, but I didn’t want to do exactly the same thing again so I decided that crowd sourcing the people would be a really novel idea. I also like to make things as difficult as possible for myself and challenging so having real people in the calendar was the obvious solution.
The seed of the idea was actually planted in my head a year ago, when a 64 year-old man called Marco bought two of the 2016 calendars and then complained to me that he wasn’t one of the people in it. Naturally it was only fair that he ended up making an appearance in this year’s calendar (December 9). We’re now friends and after I took 300 photos of him moving around in the nude to Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing, we sat down and had a nice bowl of soup together.
How many people applied to take part?
About 260 people altogether. I simply posted a thing on social media saying “NUDES WANTED, would you like to feature in my 2017 advent calendar?" and asked people to send me a direct message if they were interested. I didn’t ask for anything specifically, just for people to get in touch at this point.
Were there any notable responses? How did you begin to chose who to feature?
YES. There were some great responses.
I was looking for a broad range of people, a nice diverse mix of gender, race, age and body shape. It’s kind of a celebration of humans and all the different shapes and sizes they come in, so I wanted as much variety as possible. Sorting through the applicants was a big job, I spent about 4 days stalking the 260 people online, looking for images of them and made a big spreadsheet of every single person, where they were in the world and a brief description of what they looked like. Then I somehow whittled it down to 25 people, trying to get as many different types of people represented.
Some people I chose just because I liked them. Neil from Bournemouth sent me a photo of himself naked, standing next to a Christmas tree with the Christmas lights trailing off the tree and wrapped around his private parts, accompanied by a professional message expressing his interest in the project. As soon as I got the picture I thought “I love this guy, he’s IN!” Emily from Kansas insisted that her cat Lillibelle was demanding to be in it with her so I was immediately interested in them being involved as a pair.
I chose a few of the people because they had something interesting about their body and I wanted to celebrate the diversity of bodies and show this stuff off.
Faye, an architect from London was keen to be involved because she’d recently had a mastectomy and wanted the drawing to be a recording of her new body. She was the first person I said yes to being involved. Another lady was nine months pregnant and was put forward by her husband. She ended up in it of course (December 19), and actually moved around a lot more than I expected for someone who was days away from giving birth.
Some people simply sent nude pictures (which I didn’t ask for), so I had to deal with those ones in a professional way, replying to them with the sort of “Many thanks, I’ll be in touch" language that someone would use if someone had come for a job interview.
Asking people to strip naked and dance is a pretty intimate thing to ask. What motivated each of your subjects?
It is, yes, that’s why I was surprised at how many people applied to be involved!
There were many different reasons for peoples’ motivation and some of them became more apparent as the project progressed. Some were obvious exhibitionists who couldn’t wait to get their kit off, some were models or life drawing models and were very at home with nudity and some (I think the majority) were people who wanted to challenge themselves and overcome the fear of the idea of dancing naked in front of a camera. A few were fans who just liked the idea of having the opportunity of being drawn by me.
One really interesting thing that came out as I started photographing people, was how they felt about their bodies and also how open they were about sharing personal stuff with me. People began to volunteer a lot of information, without any probing from me.
One of the people was 4,667 miles away and after sending me her photos she confessed that I was the first person to have seen her naked in three years. I thanked her and said I was honoured and then it turned into a conversation (via Twitter DM) about how she’d been sexually abused. I think for her it was an act of self expression, a positive step forward from what had been a traumatic past. It’s kind of weird how you can go from ‘it would be funny to scratch peoples clothes off and see them naked’ to discussing rape with a stranger in Texas, but that’s life, people are fascinating and I’m really interested in them.
Another admitted during the shoot to having body dysmorphia, so it was a brave step to strip off and be photographed hundreds of times from all sorts of different angles. Faye, as I mentioned earlier was celebrating her new body with one breast. She’s hilarious and often referred to herself as a “one tit wonder” and also texted me the other day to say she was “freezing her tit off” which caused a major LOL for me.
How did you organise the photoshoots? How long did the whole process from snap to drawing take?
Organising the shoots was a big job. For the four people who couldn’t be in London, I had to send huge emails, pedantically art directing them exactly how someone should take photos of them dancing naked. With Emily, I send her a sketch of how I thought a naked woman should dance with a cat (see picture). In the end she totally outdid herself and came up with something much better.
For the London based shoots, I either went to people’s homes or they came to my studio which I turned into a mock nude dancing photography studio in the evenings and weekends when all my co-workers had gone home. For each person I asked them to come along with a piece of music that they’d like to dance to. They danced naked for about ten minutes and I took around 300-400 photos of each person nude and then a further 100 or so of them doing the same dance moves but fully clothed. You have to take that many photos in order to guarantee you’ve got one really good pose. Then I’d edit each person’s shoot down to my favourite five to eight poses, then look at them altogether and choose one pose for each person. There’s a lot of editing involved in this project, the 260 applicants get edited down to 25 people, then 5,067 photos get edited down to 25.
Once I’ve got my final selection I then cut them out and make a crude photo collage of the shapes until I’ve got something I’m happy with. Then the drawing starts. First the naked bodies, then I’ll print them out at 20% opacity and draw the clothes over the top. Drawing clothes over naked bodies is complicated because often clothes hold in or push up certain body parts, especially boobs and cocks. So there’s a little bit of artistic licence involved in getting those shapes exactly right, but I try to be as accurate as possible.
In answer to your question about time, I couldn’t tell you, but I know that for ten days I slept for six hours a night and I worked for the rest of the time. I’d also like to point out that I’m not proud of working long hours, it should never be celebrated.
How did you cultivate a relationship that allowed you to direct them?
I think because I’m so approachable online and will chat to anyone, a lot of strangers have quite a lot of trust in me. I’m very open and honest and live a lot of my life in public, so people seem more willing to meet up with me and dance around naked in front of a camera. I sent a fairly comprehensive email to everyone involved too, explaining exactly what to expect, how the shoot would work and that all of their photos would be safe and never used for anything except reference for drawing. It was important to get all that stuff across from the beginning to make people feel at ease. Then there was a lot of texting to organise each individual shoot. During all the shoots we just chatted the whole way through, so everyone felt at ease and the fact that they are naked was almost forgotten. I had a lot of nice feedback from people saying how relaxed the whole thing was and how liberating they actually felt afterwards which was great to hear!
What were you thinking as the whole project progressed? Did the project change direction as it went on?
I tend to run with these kind of projects very fast and intensively so to be honest I never really take time to stop and think about what’s happening. It’s usually a few weeks later I’ll reflect on it, I’ll be on a plane to Singapore in a few weeks and I’ll stare at a cloud and think “what the fuck did I just do? That’s crazy”, then take a big swig of booze and grin.
The main thing I really noticed as the project progressed was how human the whole thing became and that I got to know 24 strangers really well in a really short space of time. When you draw strangers off the internet (as I often do), you’re detached from them, they’re just a blob, a shape that you’re drawing. When you photograph and draw real life people, they all come with personality, stories, emotion and you can’t help get caught up in all of this personal stuff. I can look at each of the people in my calendar and even though I only met some of them for half an hour, I feel like I know then all pretty well.
Why did you decide to publish the playlists too?
Because they add a really nice extra dimension to the piece. You can look at the person dancing and then actually play the song and imagine them moving to it.
You drew people from all over the world, was there a differing cultural response from each mode?
Not really I don’t think. I guess the cliched answer would be something about how we’re all the same when we’re naked and cultural differences disappear, but I can’t say that, it’s too earnest and sincere for someone who calls themselves Mr Bingo and has made a career from drawing cocks on postcards.
There were a few complaints that last year’s calendar wasn’t very diverse and a bit ‘white’. I’m happy to say that this years includes brown, white, black, Filipino, Thai, Muslim, gay, pregnant and one-boobed people.
There is a wide variety of body shapes and a huge age range in the models. How, in doing this calendar, have your thoughts about body image changed?
Personally, I was thrilled to discover that pretty much all the blokes in it had small cocks. I’ve clearly spent too much time watching porn and my penis size barometer is clearly warped. It was also great to just see normal people naked, nobody is perfect and everyone has lumps and bumps and come in all different shapes and sizes. As I said earlier I want my advent calendar to reflect and celebrate normal people, unlike the unrealistic bollocks we’re constantly fed in advertising, beauty and fashion industries.
Why did you include yourself?
Firstly, I thought if I was asking 24 strangers to dance around naked in front of me, it made it more ‘fair’ if I was involved and secondly because I think it’s hilarious. I can’t wait to see my own family scratch my clothes off on Christmas day in horror.