LONDON — Misbehaving Bodies welcomes the visitor into a bizarre environment. Oversized stuffed toys flop in soft womb-like enclosures under maroon gauze. These provided cozy viewing environments for Oreet Ashley’s, anything but comfortable, 12-part docufiction Revisiting Genesis (2016). The main protagonists are two nurses (played by actresses), both called Jackie. Their conversations articulate an overarching theme — physical degeneration under palliative regimes. Other characters are predominantly real people adjusting to terminal illness. Real too is a pervading sense of digital immortality. This is marketed to them in the form of a biographical slideshow, stored on a server, accessible in perpetuity. In the video’s episodic narrative, just such an archive is enlisted in an attempt to reanimate the titular Genesis, a fictional dying artist portrayed as a mannequin wrapped in a blanket.
In contrast to the soft ambiance of the videos, Jo Spence’s works privilege a stark aesthetic, inflected by second-wave feminism’s rejection of macho expressionist artistic heroics. Her presentation mostly comprised a scrapbook of laminated displays, reminiscent of a high school project.
Connecting the two artists from different generations is their willingness to turn an unflinching gaze on “untypical” bodies. In Spence’s case, this was usually her own. For Spence, the image of the body is used as a screen to cross-examine identity. In “Beyond The Family Album” (1979), she exhumes a photographic archive of her childhood and adolescence, annotating the relentlessly affirmative images with related memories of anxiety, petulance, and dissatisfaction. She juxtaposes the cute Jo of the family snapshot with candid photos of her body as it ages.
Spence’s perspective became inflected by her experience as a cancer patient. After a ten-year illness, during which she rejected conventional treatments in favor of holistic alternatives, she died of leukemia. Her later portrait photography, critiqued and lampooned the flawless visions of commercial photography, deploying sardonic humor as a means of consolation and defense. For example, in an un-glamorous topless self-portrait photograph from 1982, the phrase “Property of Jo Spence?” is inscribed in marker pen across her left breast — a rejection of mastectomy as a panacea, of the pornographic gaze, and of the commodification of the breast.
In Spence’s view, the photograph was part of a process, allowing spectators to measure change in themselves, each time seeing the same static moment from a new perspective. Her outlook anticipated characteristics of digital photographs disseminated across social networks, allowing multitudes to exchange perspectives while contending with events in other people’s lives.
Relatedly, Ashery’s latest film Dying Under Your Eyes (2019) was shot on a smartphone. Its watery lo-fi reads like “moments” circulating on social media, the banal beside the significant. With warm intimacy, the video shows the artist’s father over seven years, before ending on his last. Everyday routines become obstructed by physical deterioration. Slow aging is witnessed alongside the advance of modernization. From his apartment, he surveys the completion of the multistory Yarkon Cemetery on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Towards the end, after 70 years of living together, the father and mother find themselves in separate rooms in a retirement home. Ashery’s process — documenting the inevitable course of events — is matter-of-fact, not elegiac, punctuated with playful and incongruous scenes. She dances on the sofa in the family’s old apartment. Dressed in her father’s clothes, she reenacts a fall that, as with many elderly people, presages his final terminal decline.
While other exhibitions have shown death, cadavers, and dancing skeletons, rarely is protracted corporal degeneration considered. Where once people could “pass” as intangible spirits, living on in memory, remembered at their best, now the camera follows most people to the grave, snatching their dying image.
Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery continues at the Wellcome Center (183 Euston Road, London) through January 26, 2020. The exhibition was organized by George Vasey.