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Jo Spence & Oreet Ashery: Misbehaving Bodies

“I keep thinking about the intimate and vulnerable tone of the work and it being hosted in this large institution that has huge audiences. For me this is where the politics are situated: between the private and personal themes and how a large audience will encounter this.” (Oreet Ashery in conversation at The Wellcome Collection, London.)

‘A picture of health – How do I begin’ – Jo Spence
GB. London. Wellcome Collection. Misbehaving Bodies exhibition featuring works from Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery. 2019.

In 2015, Wellcome Collection acquired six works by British artist Jo Spence (1934-1992) that explored her experience of illness, and asked: how does illness disrupt and shape our identity? ‘Misbehaving Bodies’, currently showing at Wellcome in central London until January 2020, explores this concept.

It brings Spence’s work into conversation with the artist Oreet Ashery (b. 1966), who similarly looks at the representation of death and life-limiting illness. What results is an arresting, thought-provoking collection that ranges from a series of Spence’s photo fantasies created after she was diagnosed with leukemia in 1991, to some futuristic storytelling from Ashery in the form of her 12-chapter film series ‘Revisiting Genesis’ (2016), which combines multiple narratives that merge real-life testimony with fiction and looks at the central themes of mourning loss and vulnerability.

‘The Picture of Health’ – Jo Spence
Oreet Ashery

Both Spence and Ashery use art in an exciting and innovative way to question forms of representation, and to amplify their own and others’ stories.

Spence explained: “What I want to do is create images that people can see in galleries or books that will stay in their minds as seeds, so that when they look at their own photography they will think, ‘My God! I never thought of that before.’ By letting loose these seeding ideas in the world, one hopes that other people will see that the dark side of their lives has a validity in coming to understand who they are. And not be afraid to show it and discuss it.”

Certainly, Spence is fearless and determined in her exploration of the immediate feelings she encountered after her breast cancer diagnosis in ‘Cancer Shock, Photonovel’, where she documents her rejection of orthodox NHS medical treatments and her exploration of Gerson therapy, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine.

‘The Picture of Health’ – Jo Spence

In Autumn 2019 a new commission by Ashery, exploring the death of her father, will be added to the exhibition. Not that I needed an excuse to go back and take another look. With photography, art and narrative that is so layered, challenging and poignant, there will always be more to reveal.