Wellcome Collection Exhibition 
30 May 2019 - 26 January 2020

Jo Spence & Oreet – Misbehabing Bodies

In 2015, Wellcome collection acquired six works by British artist Jo Spence (1934- 1992) to expand its Art & Health collection. Spence explored her own lived experience of illness, and her photographs offer a vital contribution to the archives. In one of the acquired works, we encounter the artist floating in water with her arms outstretched. The final Project [‘End Picture’ Floating’] (1991-92) belongs to the artist’s final project, a series of photo fantasies created after she was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1991. The mediative image was printed after her death by her collaborator Terry Dennet and it counters the artist’s previously raw and confrontation works. As we contemplate this metaphorical photograph of Spence’s body returning to nature, we ask: How does Spence’s work claim an existence that doesn’t conform to standardised images of the perfect life? How does illness disrupt and shape our identity?

These are important questions to be asking at Wellcome Collection, an institution dedicated to challenging how we think and feel about health. The exhibition brings Spence’s work into conversation with the artist Oreet Ashery (b. 1966), who similarly explores the representation of death and life-limiting illness. Ashery’s 12-chapter film series Revisiting Genesis (2016) combines multiple narratives that merge real-life testimony with fiction. We encounter a fictional artist called Genesis who is dying and is sometimes manifested as an iPad, alongside, real-life artists with various chronic conditions. Martin O’Brien, an artist living with cystic fibrosis, plays Bambi, who discusses the services provided by a company that specialises in ‘online emotional wills’ and which claims that “life continues when you pass away”. Among other emerging technologies, such as life-extending avatars and augmented gravestones, the company compiles sentimental pre-recorded video messages that can be sent to loved ones on significant days. In this way, the promise of everlasting life is perpetuated digitally and controlled posthumously. 

While working in different eras and media, Spence and Ashery challenge the medical gaze and look beyond a diagnosis to form a more complex portrait of their subjects. They foreground collaborative ways of working to create a safe space where vulnerability is made visible. They take a critical approach to the vulnerability is made visible. They take what is often seen in a negative light and reclaim it, misbehaving productively to undermine assumptions and question typical narratives and structures. 

Through the events programme, interpretation and guidebook we’ve brought together the voices of people with lived experience of life-limiting and chronic illness, caregivers, healthcare professionals, artists, writers and academics to create a varied picture that – like the work in the exhibition – complicates our understanding of these issues. In a country where lifespans are being extended for some, how do we care for those who are ill? How do we care for ourselves? Ashery and Spence make emotive and playful works that reclaim other ways to be – and create – beyond traditional notions of normality, a strategy that defines our programme at Wellcome Collection. 

By Barbara Rodríguez Muñoz & George Vasey

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