Updated: Feb 14, 2020
Misbehaving Bodies Exhibition- Wellcome Trust
“Influential photographer Jo Spence’s (1934–92) work documents her diagnosis of breast cancer and subsequent healthcare regime throughout the 1980s. Her raw and confrontational photography is shown alongside Oreet Ashery’s (b. 1966) award-winning miniseries ‘Revisiting Genesis’, 2016. Ashery’s politically engaged work explores loss and the lived experience of chronic illness in the digital era.”
I had the pleasure of visiting the Wellcome Trust’s “Misbehaving Bodies” exhibition back in November. The exhibition took you on an exploration of illness and identity, Spence and Ashery’s work are captivating, confrontational and very moving. My friend and I were both really touched by the exhibition. Ashery’s portrayal of her Father, and his progression through illness and death was extremely moving, raw and beautiful. I think it highlighted our own personal demons about illness and anticipatory loss within our own families.
Jo Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, and her photographic work, and personal explorations into cancer and serious illness were very powerful. “A Picture of Health: Property of Jo Spence” taken by Terry Dennett, was my favourite piece; it explores her own sense of agency (meaning a sense of being able to make your own choices, independently and without influence), following a clinician marking her left breast with a black X as she was facing an operation, without asking her, telling her what he was doing, nor asking for her permission to cross that boundary to intimate touch really stayed with me. Suffice to say, I would expect that clinicians are a bit more aware in their practice these days. I loved the rebellious nature of her portrait, the two fingers up to “the man” quite literally in this instance, and the reclaiming of her body and sense of agency whilst facing a really challenging and frightening time.
(Taken from: https://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/XFHHShUAAAU_pE70 )
The work made me reflect that a close friend of mine and I have a long standing joke, where we end up self-diagnosing for our perceived or real ailments, usually after going down the rabbit hole of google searches – “does my ongoing cough mean I have TB?”, “That’s it! My headache must mean I have a brain tumour and I will die immediately!”. It’s a curiosity of our friendship, that has brought us much humour over the years, also I believe some comfort in knowing that we can share those scary (if not slightly over dramatic *ahem*) moments, where essentially, we are facing our own mortality. It makes me laugh but I’ve always been relieved that someone else shares my idiosyncrasy of thinking the worse and being preoccupied with fatalistic thinking about our health.
I identified particularly with Spence and Ashery’s work in this respect, where they take a “critical approach to the representation of illness and death and present it as a part of the creative texture of life” (Muñoz & Vasey 2019). This rolled around in my mind, as I figured that given what I do for work, and that I’m entering “that age” where more people will start dying around me, that I need to find a way of making my peace with the prospect of illness and death. I do not think that this is a particularly easy thing for any of us to do, unless perhaps you have faith which I guess provides a gateway to a sense of peace for your own mortality and eventual demise. My current antidote is to try and stay in the present moment, to enjoy where I am right now, and celebrate the fact that my body has not yet conked out on me (it can even do Boxfit- who knew!)
I meant to post this blog a bit earlier than I have done, but I think the reflections are still relevant now as they were when the exhibition was live in the gallery. I’m heartened that there has been a shift for people to explore and challenge their thinking towards difficult issues such as serious illness, and the unknown of death and dying. We hope that the work of The Loss Project, can also contribute towards this movement for more open thinking, feeling and connecting on these issues.