JO SPENCE: Memory Cardsby Nicole Miller
Shin Gallery | July 13 – September 3, 2017
“Women have been denied all access to the a-personal,” novelist and art critic Chris Kraus told an interviewer in this journal in 2005. Pointing out that a male first-person perspective is generally perceived as universal, transparent, or authoritative, Kraus suggested that “a straight female ‘I’ can only be narcissistic, confidential, confessional.”1 Her suffering is seen as evidence of personal misfortune or private dysfunction; her triumphs prove her exceptionalism. (There's only one ‘I’ in diva.) “Impossible,” Kraus writes elsewhere, “to conceive a female life that might extend outside itself.”2
In Memory Cards, the Shin Gallery presents a remarkable series of self-portraits by British photographer Jo Spence (1934-1992). In these images, Spence provides a first-person account of the female body and interrogates the ideological systems that govern and extend outside the self. Trained in London as a commercial photographer, Spence specialized in portraits of weddings and babies before turning the camera on herself. Politicized by second-wave feminism and the economic uncertainty of the 1970s, Spence became committed to public education and to collective action—promoting photography as an egalitarian, open-access technology.
Her series Remodeling Photo History (1980-82), made with her long-term collaborator Terry Dennett, is a pastiche of the female nude. Spence re-works genre conventions to expose the female body as a site of colonization, industrialization, or historic violence. With sly wit and a deadpan delivery, she creates a still life with apples, scallions, a chicken with giblets, and a pair of ceramic breasts marked 65p (The breasts-sold-separately assemblage brings to mind the work of Hans Bellmer, currently on view next door in the Shin Gallery’s Orchard Street space).
“Just as the female body is fragmented and colonized by various advertisers in the search for new markets or products, and through pornography is fetishized and offered for male consumption, so the body is similarly fought over by competitors for its medical ‘care,’” Spence wrote in 1986—four years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.3
Cancer caused her to question how health and disease are represented by the medical industry and consumer culture. Memory Cards includes her iconic image, A Picture of Health: Property of Jo Spence? (1982), taken by Dennett before Spence entered the hospital for treatment. Facing the camera with the crucial question written in marker on her left breast, Spence challenges the market value of the female body and conventional notions of beauty. A decade before Hannah Wilke photographed her own battle with cancer—and a generation before a theory of disability aesthetics began to emerge—Spence offers an ethic of resistance and an erotic of imperfection, struggle, disease.
As she advocated for patient autonomy and worked to take responsibility for her own well-being (relying on traditional Chinese medicine, for example), Spence developed a method of working she called phototherapy. Collaborating with photographer Rosy Martin and drawing on therapeutic role-playing techniques, Spence enacted personal and family narratives for the camera. Her phototherapy series, which depicts Spence as infant, mother, schoolgirl, wife, recalls the self-portraits of Cindy Sherman. While Sherman’s conceptual performance obscures the facts of the self, Spence drills down on the first-person. She reveals and examines private experience in order to reintegrate parts of the self that have been neglected, abandoned, or repressed. But she never turns her back on collective experience. As Martin put it in a 1987 interview with the BBC: “People seem to think, ‘Why on earth should you want to put your private distresses on public display?’ My answer to that is that they’re not just my own personal distresses. A lot of them have much more general ramifications.”4
- Chris Kraus, interview by Denise Frimer, Brooklyn Rail, April 10, 2006.
- Chris Kraus, Aliens & Anorexia. (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e): 2000), 27.
- Jo Spence, “The Picture of Health,” Spare Rib 163 (1986): 21.
- Putting Ourselves in the Picture—the Work of Jo Spence. Directed by Ian Potts. UK: BBC TV, 1987. Television.
NICOLE MILLER is a Brooklyn-based writer and coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York.