The Challenge of the Unruly Body: Jo Spence by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

Jo Spence was a British photographer who worked continuously from the 1970s until her eventual death in June 1992. Spence was born of working class parents inLondon, 1934. She began her photographic career doing portraits in a studio. She then went on to become a founding member of the Photography Workshop in 1974 which aimed to provide an educational, non-commercial system that promoted interest in the critical use of photography as a communicational tool. She was also a member of the Hackney Flashers (1974) a group of feminist and socialist women who produced politically challenging exhibitions that raised critical issues about the role of women in relation to work, social class and identity.

Her work is grounded in a variety of cultural and political debates. Spence challenges the boundaries between private and public, inner and outer, political and personal. She used ‘personal’ materials such as family photographs, memories and her own body to disrupt and threaten the standardized distinctions in Western culture that form the way we reflect about ourselves and our lives. Spence’s work focuses on the personal memories and fantasies of particular social classes, whose existence may have previously been dismissed or ignored, and questions how their day-to-day lives can be of great political importance. Her work is concerned notably with the rise and decline during the 1970s and 1980s of community art projects inBritainand the breaking down of the British welfare state.

Her exhibition ‘Beyond the Family Album’ in 1979 opened in the Hayward Gallery, London and included images on display of her childhood and family. These images, in content and nature, seemed incredibly ordinary and commonplace. However, they worked to investigate her own family and class background and the social implications of being a woman: “The cross fertilization between class and sexuality has informed all my work since this period.”Spence is not afraid to explore differences between social classes and differences between women.

Many works were also about her own fight with breast cancer, offering a patient’s perspective for those in the medical profession. Spence became the active subject of her own experience, expressing the powerlessness she felt by being managed and controlled by a state institution. She was particularly interested in the power dynamics involved in the relationship between doctor and patient. She was specifically concerned with the breast as an object of desire and subsequently as a possession placed in the hands of the medical institution. Her phototherapy work was also used in order to tackle many of the emotional issues her struggle with disease and illness presented. This work included her dressed up as many different roles- for example, a child or her mother, using a personal, emotional moment within a therapy session that could speak directly to the viewer, raising uncomfortable questions about class and gender.

Spence draws parallels between the fragmentation and compartmentalisation of the body and individual, both in the orthodox medical insitution and the mass media, where the essence of the ‘whole’ person can be lost, or ignored. She questions what is acceptable in representations of the human body where the female body is viewed as an passive object of fascination and pleasure by the active male gaze. Spence confronts the conditions that may stigmatize her and defiantly reveals them through the device of the camera lens, repossessing and claiming back her own body for herself.

Narratives of Dis-ease, Excised, Exiled, Expected, Expunged, Included

undated, Jo Spence/Dr Tim Sheard 

Instead of portraying self-pity, Spence took photographs of herself during her illness that embodied and encapsulated her emotions- fear, anxiety, anger and defiance. These images stem from a joint session on aggression with Spence and a cancer doctor. Spence wanted to show how it felt to deal with the illness, like a tearful child clutching on to her teddy bear for comfort (‘Included’) or grotesque, ugly or monstrous in the eyes of other people (‘Exiled’) in order to break the taboo, the unspoken truth of people who are terrified of cancer. These are visible displays of power and shame that deal with the ways in which the medical institution controls women’s bodies versus the reality of the bodies we inhabit as women. ‘Expected’ shows Spence naked except for a pair of red high heels (a cultural symbol of ‘femininity’ as glamorous) leaning over as if stumbling and disorientated. This portrays the powerlessness she felt as a patient, her infantilization whilst being managed and controlled in the profession- as an object, not a subject. Spence is representing the honest emotions felt living in an unruly body that cannot conform to the pressures of female perfection expected and idealised in Western society.

The Picture of Health, 1985, Jo Spence 

Women attending hospital with breast cancer often have to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the medical photographers as well as the consultant, medical students and visiting doctors. Once I had opted out of orthodox medicine I decided to keep a record of the changing outward condition of my body. This stopped me disavowing that I have cancer, and helped me to come to terms with something I initially found shocking and abhorrent.”

This piece of work by Jo Spence explores the way disease and health is represented in photography. Given that women are expected to be the object of the male gaze and are equally expected to conform to an idealised form of beauty, they are still fighting for the basic ownership of their own bodies. Spence disrupts the male gaze by cutting off the head of the figure, meaning there are no eyes to stare into, no facial features to contemplate- the body works completely on its own as the centralised focus of the piece. This also creates a sense of isolation and detachment as well as a lack of identity, expressing the complete loneliness she felt in the struggle for health. Spence is questioning if is it acceptable to display a sick, ageing female body. Here we have a body that is initially shocking, the breasts are big (the shape culturally perceived as desirable) but they are scarred due to disease, therefore the breast works as a metaphor for struggle and conflict. This is the stark reality of living in a body that is fighting against illness, it is the battlefield of the artist’s own subjective experience, it may not be beautiful, or perfect or idealised but it is real and it belongs to her.

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5 thoughts on “The Challenge of the Unruly Body: Jo Spence by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

  1. terry dennertt says:

    good to see a younger generation still finding jos work inspiring- this year 2012 we have two new jo spence shows in london one at space gallery hackney and a larger one at studio voltaire hope you can all get along
    best terry dennett curator jo spence archive

  2. […] I can look at : Amy Mills, Jo Spence, Jen Davis, Jenny Saville, Esther Sabetpour, Alice Odilon [and any others I can find]. Share […]

  3. Emma says:

    Who wrote this piece about Jo Spence?? I need to reference it. Thanks

    • Behind The Curtain says:

      Hi Emma, one of our (anonymous) contributors wrote it for the blog. As for referencing, maybe just put the blog name and when you accessed it? Thanks for visiting BTC!

  4. Mand says:

    Hi, I need to reference this quote, do you know where it came from? I’d like to read more.

    Kind regards

    “Women attending hospital with breast cancer often have to subject themselves to the scrutiny of the medical photographers as well as the consultant, medical students and visiting doctors. Once I had opted out of orthodox medicine I decided to keep a record of the changing outward condition of my body. This stopped me disavowing that I have cancer, and helped me to come to terms with something I initially found shocking and abhorrent.”

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