It seems quite serendipitous that I was able to attend this informal study visit on Day One of the Fine Art section of Gesture & Meaning. OCA stalwart John Umney had rallied the Thames Valley group and conceded to let this random East London student join in. We had the Richard Saltoun gallery to ourselves which was wonderful. It provided a relaxed setting for us to take in the show.
I almost didn’t go as I have previously found some of Jo Spence’s work brutally challenging and very bleak. Strangely, I came away from the visit feeling rather uplifted (although this possibly had much to do with the excellent company).
This set of images was created at the end of Spence’s life when she was dealing with leukaemia, having already endured breast cancer in the early 80s. The work is autobiographical and documents her journey to understand what she was experiencing. Words on the wall of the gallery explain that she sank into a suicidal depression on diagnosis but then concluded that her illness was a sign. “This time around I’m spending my time trying to decide what story my illness is telling me… I don’t know what that work be.” She goes on to talk about taking snapshots to keep a visual diary “about the crisis of representation I’m passing through.”
As with Spence’s other projects there is a focus on how the female body is represented but we also see some documentation of the stages of her health and survival strategies as well as an exploration of how death is considered in other cultures.
According to the notes for the exhibition, written by Terry Dennett in 1994: “Two photographic sessions in a cemetery made her realize that her health was no longer good enough for her to engage directly in photography. Out of frustration and necessity, she decided instead to use the existing material from her archive to create the kind of pictures she would have taken. Experimenting in the periods she had between health treatments she began projecting images onto photographs and sandwiching slides together … ‘post reality’ superimpositions she called photofantasy…”.
There is a powerful sense throughout all of the images of an element of therapy in facing up to the reality of death, Spence’s “personal dialogue with mortality”. It is hard to tell if this had the desired effect. There is certainly humour with the ‘novelty’ skull in a plastic wrapper and the rubber skeletons. The metaphors are quite heavy-handed in places: gravestones over her face and breasts; a tree stump with the age circles clearly visible, masks to denote the different roles women play etc. Elsewhere the imagery is much more complex. We spent a long time discussing the meaning of layered work based around Spence floating in a water. This has been super-imposed on a barren field, ocean rocks, a cactus, a shipwreck. John felt this was to denote time and transition. The preserving jars contained two of the most confrontational self-portraits from previous projects. The exhibition blurb talks about her presenting her own body as ‘returning to nature’.
Visually, a few of the images quite appealed to me as I love the Mexican Day of the Dead aesthetic but more importantly it was – conceptually – a very inspiring exhibition. I was fascinated by the almost anthropological approach, her taking stock and fetishising her belongings coupled with a melding with nature and expressing a form of rebirth.
This work was influenced by Spence’s artistic hero John Heartfield. From the project notes: “She grasped the profound potentials of montage, which informed nearly all her work, and brought together incompatible ideas: the familial, sexual and medical gazes upon women’s bodies; personal memory and political consciousness; sincerity and the absurd; pragmatism and idealism; reality and myth.”
For further consideration and research:
- What is the visual language of death? How intrinsic is religious iconography?
- David Campany’s curation. How does one decide to approach posthumous exhibitions? What are the different considerations? In what order did he plan for the images to be viewed?
- How different would this work have looked if it was digital rather than film?
- Rosy Martin & photo-therapy
- Terry Dennett
- The Hackney Flashers
- Spence’s influence on contemporary photographers
- Family Ties Network
- Other photographers who have documented their own demise?