Critics’ Picks

Jo Spence in collaboration with Terry Dennett, The Picture of Health: Property of Jo Spence?, 1982, gelatin silver print on paper, 16 x 12''.


Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery

Wellcome Collection
183 Euston Road
May 30, 2019–January 26, 2020

Jo Spence’s iconic photographs of her body between her first cancer diagnosis in 1982 and her death ten years later appeal so keenly to a posthumous memorialization of her oeuvre that it becomes easy to overlook the community organizing and activism to which she devoted the majority of her working life. Still, the artist’s collages, scrapbooks, self-portraits, and interviews included in “Misbehaving Bodies” splay open with raw clarity her confrontations with patriarchal and classist value systems and the ways in which they govern lives and their representation. Spence made photography into a tool with which to take control of her own image and to determine how the narrative of her life was, and is, witnessed by others.

In what is perhaps a meta-rejoinder to overdetermined, thanatotic readings of Spence’s work, Oreet Ashery’s twelve-part web series Revisiting Genesis (2016) offers a macabre reflection on the contemporary death industry. Real people preparing for death are interviewed alongside fictional characters, contemplating the creeping corporatization of their afterlives. Repackaging online archives and dispatching videos to loved ones decades into the future are just two services offered to the dying. The final episode features a song written by Ashery, inspired by the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Jewish prayer recited in memory of the dead. A voice sings forlornly: “We are homeless, / Children of the government / And how we live is how we die / Only more so.”

Not only do the privileges that one has or does not have in life determine the conditions of one’s health care and one’s death, they also—in Ashery’s dramatization at least—define the posthumous representations on offer. Elsewhere in this exhibition, Spence’s photographs chronicle the alternative therapies she opted for after her lumpectomy. Despite being filtered through the kind of institutional lens she critiqued—not least to be exhibited in the Wellcome Collection, with its focus on the Western medical establishment she eventually shunned—Spence’s work upholds the possibility of self-determination and defiance, in life and at its end.