A colour photograph hangs at eye level, of a middle aged woman seated on a child's ceramic potty. Her body is stooped and twisted in shame, face lost in shadow, girlish white knickers bunched around bare ankles. Behind her, scuffed floorboards, a bannister worn with age, the bumps and bruises of family life. This is the excavation of human trauma in the name of healing and of art.
2012 is the twentieth anniversary of the death of Jo Spence. By way of homage SPACE, London and Studio Voltaire have collaborated to create a two part exhibition that chronologically spans the artist's career. As a key component of Spence's modus operandi was collaboration, this synergy feels right.
Part II takes place off Clapham High Street and covers the period 1982 to 1992. The subject matter is Spence's cancer diagnosis, her subsequent journey into the world of holistic health care and the pioneering photo therapy that makes up the greater part of her best known work.
For Spence, photo therapy meant using the camera to heal herself within the broader context of psychoanalysis. It was a process she undertook with photographer Rosy Martin and through which they both discovered that 'there is no single self, but many fragmented selves, each vying for conscious expression, many never acknowledged.'
Coming into dialogue with the fragmented selves became a means of self-empowerment and of moving towards health; a way of rejecting existing mythologies and the systems of hegemony and dominance that spawned them, yet without creating new ones in which to get lost once more. It was a way of acknowledging her own constantly shifting totality.
One set of photo-theraputic works is devoted to the re-enactment by Spence of various moments in the life of her mother. Putting herself into her mother's position, she reported, made her feel guilty for the way she had behaved towards her mother when she was alive. This material is so raw and so emotionally fraught it may begin to explain why work of such evident potency has been almost totally overlooked by the existing art establishment. The exhibitions at SPACE and Studio Voltaire are her first retrospective in London. The Victoria & Albert is the only public collection in England to include her work and that by donation. As Spence herself once observed: “breaking out is not painless for anybody.”
The work on show at Studio Voltaire evidences her rejection of the cult of the artist. She employs a democratising technique of willed amateurishess, even abandoning the title 'artist', envisioning herself instead as 'cultural sniper', capable of appearing anywhere and in any guise. Her work is more commonly laminated than framed, giving the exhibition an awkward, community centre feel. Yet Spence's output is steeped in theory, amalgamating the academic with lived experience.
In 1991, having contracted leukaemia, she began The Final Project: A Photo fantasy and Photo therapeutic Exploration of Life and Death. She spoke of a crisis of representation. “I have not the faintest idea how to represent leukaemia except for how I feel.”
In one self-portrait from this series, traces of dark hair creep out from behind the toothy grimace of a rubber death mask, whilst over one black-clad shoulder a large wicker shopping bag nonchalantly hangs. The power of Spence's work is in its directness. She projects the strength of an army with the sensitivity of a butterfly. This confrontation drags death into life rather than the other way around. And not just into her life, into ours as well.
It may seem that Spence's political engagement, her socialist and feminist sympathies and the documentation of her difficulties with the NHS during what she parenthetically referred to as 'the cuts', could lodge her intensely auto-biographical work into a time specific niche outside of which it lacks resonance. This show at Studio Voltaire dispels that myth. Spence uses the deeply personal nature of experience as a means of accessing the universal. She presents us with the inescapable facts of all our lives – childhood, ageing, illness, death - and she does so without cliché. It is the brutal honesty with which she casts the objective gaze upon her own life that makes this exhibition so important and so long overdue.
WORK (Part II)
13 June to 11 August 2012