Misbehaving Bodies at the Wellcome Collection

Josie Stewart, BA Fashion and Dress History, reflects on an important exhibition at Wellcome Collection, London.

The Wellcome Collection in London is a space that combines science and art through thought-provoking exhibitions that challenge the discourse on health. A current display, ‘Misbehaving Bodies’, creates a conversation between the artists Jo Spence (1934-1992) and Oreet Ashery (b.1966) concerning the representation and understanding of chronic illness by raising complex questions surrounding how it shapes identity. Through Spence’s photography and Ashery’s films, the artists offer a layered narrative from a patient’s perspective and gives individuals living and dying from illness the reclamation of agency that is so often taken away during periods of ill health.

Fig.1: ‘Misbehaving Bodies’ at the Wellcome Collection. Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

The exhibition space itself differs from the stark, bleached image of the medical world and it is also a far cry from the more ‘palatable’ public images of illness that tend to not show its full reality, such as scars and bodily functions, particularly when it comes to women’s health.

Spence’s photographs, which cover most of the gallery walls, confront both the physical and mental effects of her breast cancer diagnosis in 1982. Previously a family portrait photographer, Spence observed how her subjects composed façades in front of the camera. She examined these ideas further in ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979) (Fig.2) that referenced her mother’s unpaid domestic labour, financial struggles and her parents old age and subsequent failing bodies. Noticing that she had concealed her own unhappy childhood behind a smiling face in early photographs, Spence decided to document her lived experience of cancer treatment in what she termed ‘phototherapy.’

Fig.2: Excerpt from ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979.) Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

Spence’s pre- and post-surgery body feature in a series of self-portraits entitled ‘The Picture of Health?’ (1982-86) (Fig.3). This series addressed her feelings surrounding the trauma of illness and her attempts to reclaim her body, which she felt had been taken over by doctors and western medical intervention. The images are raw, showing Spence at what could be considered her at her most vulnerable. Instead they are powerful and arresting and not without a sense of humour and irony. Spence displays her naked post-op body alongside photos of glamour models, which could also be interpreted as a play between ‘inspiration porn’ and pornography.

Fig.3: Excerpt from ‘A Picture of Health’ (1982-86.) Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

Feelings of disempowerment and infantilization are also expressed in Spence’s photos. There is an anti-elitist theme to Spence’s work, as the idea that socioeconomics contributed to her illness and that illness in turn exacerbates those existing struggles is suggested. The text accompanying the images was enlarged and laminated in order to make them accessible to the people that Spence believed were also affected by these issues.

Ashery’s film, ‘Revisiting Genesis’ (2016), also explores socioeconomic factors of illness in terms of how capitalism benefits from our fear of death, of being forgotten and our fear of losing creative control. The idea of film and video influencing the memory of the dead is also discussed. The fictional artist ‘Genesis’ is not actually seen but encapsulates elements of Dora Goldine, Amy Winehouse and Ashery herself, all London-based, female artists of Jewish descent. The film features people with life-limiting illnesses themselves, including artist Martin O’Brien who themes his own performance art around living with cystic fibrosis. It blurs fact and fiction, with the script being based on real interviews conducted with palliative care nurses and their patients discussing digital wills, cremation jewellery and augmented tombstones, all of which are currently viable options. The absurdity of even death being inescapable from capitalism is highlighted through the characters names and appearances, making the film seem somewhat surreal.

Fig.4: Still of ‘Revisiting Genesis’ featuring Martin O’Brien showing in ‘Misbehaving Bodies.’ Personal photograph by the author. 16 Oct. 2019.

The viewing space is an important part of the exhibition experience, with visitors sitting on giant teddy bears within an area draped with pink fabric (Fig.4.) Crucially, the shade of pink is a far cry from the sugary sweet hue usually associated with women’s health charities. It instead evokes the inside of a body, which causes discomfort yet at the same time the space feels safe and intimate, intended to allow the viewer to be vulnerable to contemplate subjects such as illness and death. It represents the themes covered in the exhibition, the openness of discussing these topics in an uncompromising way that breaks away from the clichés of ‘courageous battles’ and allows us to be more comfortable with the realities of living and dying with ‘misbehaving bodies.’ The exhibition provides a lot to take in but viewing these issues from an artistic female approach feels more important than ever in the current climate.

‘Misbehaving Bodies’ is on at the Wellcome Collection until 26th January 2020. ‘Revisiting Genesis’ can be viewed online at http://revisitinggenesis.net/.

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