I have seen work by Spence before, been aware of her dying from cancer and the loss this was to the photographic community but have never really looked at her work very much. A room full of it at Tate Britain is an ideal opportunity to do so. There is bound to be something behind what I have experienced as banality in her work which I see in the way she tends to project herself as ugly when she is not (presumably a reaction to the presentation by media of women as desirable objects to cater for the male gaze), her use of political arguments which were not often clear as well as a lack of finesse to the finished product of the print (the photograph does not need to be a work of art). A better understanding of Jo Spence might be possible by visiting her website where much of what was on show here is referenced.
There is a notice that talks about her. She lived from 1934 to 1992 so died in her 50’s. She made photographs that “represent, frame and construct reality”. She started as a commercial photographer and became committed to the “political potential of her medium, connecting personal, often emotive, narratives with broader social issues.” Saw photography as empowering, a way to explore the self, celebrating the feminist statement that “the personal is political”.
The first image (below, left) ( these are photographs but not finely crafted ones) shows her standing outside a shop though the window of which the viewer sees wedding garments; Spence is holding a sign that says, “I’ll take (almost) any work.” Made in 1979, it apparently references a work by John Heartfield, a Dada artist and photomontage pioneer.
Next is a series of 3 photographs (above, centre) all titled, Remodelling Photo History and cover colonisation, revisualisation and realisation and are dated 1981-1982. The middle one is striking as she sits reading Freud’s On Sexuality while wearing a pair of popping out eyes. In the third, she has a greasy darkened face which reminds me of the photographer Cindy Sherman!
The next photograph (see top) on show is a grim reminder of Spence’s cancer. She is naked from the waist up and on one bosom is written the words “Property of Jo Spence?” This is an early photo from the series in which she documented her struggle with cancer.
One needs to read the captions for this exhibition it seems. The meaning of the images is striking but certainly in retrospect, text can help to clarify what this work is about.
The next wall is a display of images that reveal Spence’s exploration of photography as a kind of therapy. They show her playing with a Hoover and wiping what looks like blood over her naked body but is perhaps tomato sauce. This work was made in conjunction with her therapist. There is an exhilaration to some while the final one of her standing naked by a bed holding a flower suggests some kind of an end to what is an abstract narrative.
The penultimate part of the show, there is no clear order to all of this, I am just walking clockwise around the room, is a framed display and four light boxes. This is from the time Spence was part of a collective called The Hackney Flashers who produced a body of work in 1975 called Women and Work. These photographs are about the lot of women at the time and were followed by another exhibition entitled Who’s holding my baby? about motherhood.
There is also a slide presentation on a screen that deals with various endeavours of the Hackney Flashers. The political element is obvious yet there are interesting images that are contextualised by typewritten text emphasising the often overlooked value of women not just in the home but also in society. Some of the images are advertisements and cartoons which by being appropriated, examine the role of women.
Seeing this BT display makes me aware of what Spence was about; her work is not easy to look at although the message is still relevant today.
After seeing the exhibition, I purchase Jo Spence: The Final Project, a monograph with essays of her final body of work as the title suggests. The subject is her approaching death and the cover shows her standing wearing a skeleton mask.
The book itself contains photographs that reflect her dying days along with a kind of will in which she asks for things to be done for her and allots her effects to people. There is a striking montage in which her head peers out through a body that would have been a pharaoh ‘s while the statue holds a photograph of a young girl presumably Spence herself. This is the best work I have seen by Spence since the message is clear and inevitably timeless; it is almost a manual for death that allows the reader/viewer space to consider the inevitability of death and issues that surround it.
I came to Tate Britain today to see another exhibition (Art and Empire) and came across a photography exhibition and book that has left me feeling inspired. I never quite understood what Spence was about and found myself put off by not just the banality of her message but the banality of much of her hard copy that seems amateurish in it’s physical construction. In The Final Project she seems to transcend this and present something that strikes the viewer whatever their gender or political persuasion. It is one of those books that I would like to give to friends particularly those who work with living and dying.
In the book, there are two texts by Spence; one is Thoughts on Dying (Being Constructive) and the other is a collection of quotes on death that she collected that were retrieved from a floppy disc after she died.
Another review inspired by this exhibition is HERE