SPACE & Studio Voltaire, London, UK
Eschewing the label ‘artist’, Jo Spence once described herself as a ‘Cultural Sniper, capable of appearing anywhere, in any guise’. As a description, this falls just shy of the mark. Yes, Spence’s photographs, from her work as part of the socialist/feminist ‘Hackney Flashers’ collective in the late 1970s to the stark documentation of her experience with breast cancer in the 1980s, have a particular incisiveness. Taking aim at certain personal and political myths – the family snapshot, the domestic goddess, the cancer victim – her work asks unflinching questions about the power structures of visibility, of who can be seen under whose terms and in what light. But the comparison only stretches so far. Because, of all the ways to attack, the sniper’s is the most cautious, the most evasive. This two-part presentation, ‘Work Parts I & II’, split between SPACE and Studio Voltaire, showed Spence’s preferred mode of combat to be altogether more hand-to-hand. From the re-staged, re-imagined portraits of ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979) to the scrapbook pages of the ‘Hospice Diaries’, which she kept right up to her death from leukaemia in 1992, Spence could not be more present, more in the picture. That final project, which captures something of the awful, humdrum banality of death, is her last stand, refusing to be rubbed out even as her emaciated frame disappears before our eyes.
In a photograph from the series ‘The Picture of Health’ (1982–6), Spence stands side-on to the camera, naked from the waist up. With her arms raised over her head in a classic glamour-girl pose, she shows us the soft, slightly drooping flesh of her breast, squashed and puckered by her recent lumpectomy, the dark straight furrow of the scalpel still visible. She wears a crash helmet through which she looks squarely at the camera. Holding our gaze, she dares us to look back – to really look back – and to fully take in the contours and the textures of a lived reality whose usual expression is the muted language of metaphor and allusion. Like Hannah Wilke’s later and better-known ‘Intra-Venus’ series (1992–3), ‘The Picture of Health’ was Spence’s attempt to wrest herself away from the detached, dehumanizing ‘observations’ of the medical profession. For both, the emancipatory potential of visibility was a cause worth fighting for.
‘Work Parts I & II’ was split chronologically between Spence’s earlier, more overtly political and community-based projects (at SPACE) and her later, more autobiographical and therapy-orientated output (at Studio Voltaire). The work unfolded in each venue, like a pamphlet within a pamphlet, over a concertina arrangement of display panels around a communal reading table. Displayed on the budget cardboard laminates on which they originally toured galleries, universities and public spaces across the country, Spence’s photographs were woven into a magpie-nest of newspaper clippings, information sheets, advertising images and diary-style outpourings – a scrapbook aesthetic that makes her practice difficult to frame with neat critical definitions.
Though Spence was the subject of a major retrospective at MACBA, Barcelona, in 2005, from whose collection many of the works were on loan, and of a smaller presentation at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art in 2008, this exhibition was the largest and most comprehensive in the UK since her death two decades ago and represented an admirable and long-overdue corrective to her underrepresentation in British public collections. Curators Joe Scotland at Studio Voltaire and Paul Pieroni, working closely with Terry Dennet (Spence’s long-term collaborator, sometime partner and curator of the Jo Spence Memorial Archive), made a forceful claim for Spence’s methodology as pioneering and provocative, and for the continued relevance of her work. And her cause has found worthy champions in SPACE and Studio Voltaire, both not-for-profit organizations and studio spaces with committed community and education programmes. But, involuntarily, something was lost in the strain to assert Spence as ‘more than a photographer’. The pointed aesthetic impact of the photographs themselves was somehow subdued by a barrage of words – Spence’s own; the hefty programme notes; an extensive recommended reading list, overwhelmed with a didacticism that felt a little heavy handed.
Against the back wall of Studio Voltaire were 14 images from her 1989 ‘Libido Uprising’ series, hung in two rows of seven, one against a white studio backdrop, one against black. In the top corner, a ridged hoover-pipe snaked its way around a slut-red stiletto and up a black fishnetted ankle. Below, Spence, at age 55 and dressed in a black negligee, smears herself with the red paint that stains her groin. Given space to breathe, these images make a bold and ever-relevant statement about the schizophrenic demands of model femininity. When the photographs have so much to say, they are best left to speak for themselves.