Jo Spence

Collaborative works
Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney

The medical body of the 19th century was a body of renewed physicality, whose vision was a productive capacity which could be regulated by processes analogous to those governing the flows of capital and labour. Vision emanated from the body, and was subject to conditions imposed upon it by the body.

In Jonathan Crary's work on vision, power, and the creation of the observer in the early 19th century1, his articulation of vision as lodged within the body, as opposed to an objective, ordered vision external to it, established the conditions of possibility for the institutional manipulation and domination of the body, of which Foucault speaks in Discipline and Punish.

In the late 20th century, the medical gaze of surveillance and normalisation is typified by a canvassing and pacification of the body as a terrain of potential infiltration and malignancy. McKenzie Wark has described the manner in which perceptual technologies common to medicine and the military create a second, abstract, body: a mapping of coloured and coded data morphologically analogous to the first body. This terrain is scanned for signs of malignancy imperceptible in the first body.2

Upon entry to this exhibition, one sees a quote which indicates that the similarities between the diagnostic methodologies of the medical and the military are not merely coincidental.

... Since the rise of the cellular hypothesis-that cancer is a mysterious, tumorous condition of localized origin- the medical establishment has sanctioned only three methods of treatment: surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. On a larger scale, these are precisely the three major weapons (search-and-destroy, bombardment and chemical warefare [sic) utilized militarily against social problems (i.e. political and economic insurrections) in VIetnam and other parts of the Third World.3

Jo Spence's work is concerned with the production of the pacified body by the medical gaze via the dynamics of family and class structures. Spence, as both director and sitter for her photographs, examines the silences connecting the political and the social with the self in an attempt not only to reveal the effects of power but to recuperate a sense of personal agency for herself, thereby countering the disempowerment of the controlling gaze turned upon her.

The exhibition is composed of five related collaborative works, arranged as an installation of laminated photographs on each wall and on an entry partition, the work one encounters first. Spence generated this work, Remodelling Photo History, with fellow photographer Terry Dennett in 1982. Well-known photographic genres are utilised and subverted by these six diptych panels, given titles suggestive of Western sociological concepts of 'progress ', such as Industrialization, and Regulation.

Colonization pairs the medical with the ethnographic: the left image is a close-up of a foot, a centimetre rule inserted for scale; the right is a take of Spence, nude to the waist in a sarong, standing proprietorially in a doorway. Realization couples a still-life of a typical Englishwoman's groceries and a Henny Hill-esque pair of elastic tits, with an image of Spence reading Freud, laughing uproariously and wearing goggle-eyed gag spectacles.

As Helen Grace indicates in her thoughtful catalogue essay, Spence's work was born of the crisis in representation and the beginning of the women's movement in 1970s Britain. Her work thus engages fundamentally with the role of photography in constructing and perpetuating social myths, particularly those concerned with the reproduction of women's roles. This grounding is also apparent in her reference to many of these collaborations as "phototherapy"- as an anti -psychoanalytic antidote, which is informed by class and social analysis.

When Spence's left breast was diagnosed with a malignant cancer, her doctor drew upon it in ink a large X, and said, "This one will have to come off. " In photographs such as Mind/Body Split, which juxtaposes Spence's forehead, inscribed 'I," with her buttocks, inscribed "BODY?", and Exiled, an image from the work Narratives of Dis-Ease, in which Spence opens her hospital robe to reveal her deformed breast and the word "MONSTER" written across her chest, Spence repels inscription by counter-inscription-by naming a codifying principle as such.

In the prologue to this work, Spence has arranged a series of charts attesting to the lucrative hypertechnologising of a cancer industry which spends less than 2% of its funding on education and prevention. As a subscript recalling the panoramic surveillance of Foucault's Panopticon but negating its power by a strategy of reversal- by placing herself at the centre of power "vacuum"- Spence has placed below these charts, a long sequence of shots taken of the flow of staff and the array of machinery around herself in a hospital bed.

Following this sequence is a collection of reconstructions of snapshot-like portraits in which Spence replays roles in order to dispel the monumentality these images have acquired as icons of privileged moments. Spence is then able to recover the lived experiences these snapshots elide. This work recalls an earlier project, Beyond the Family Album (1979), in which Spence interrogated the conditions of production of family documents in terms of their contents and omissions. Two works in this current exhibition appear to reflect upon this project most directly, and acquire particular incisiveness and poignancy when viewed in conjunction with the work on cancer: Libido Uprising, which seeks to release and recuperate the sexuality of the daughter in the mother daughter relationship; and Things My Father Never Taught Me, which attempts, according to Spence, to establish a "non-critical, non-controlling" female gaze, by placing the viewer in the voyeuristic position of a (female) child watching her father showering, seeing his false teeth and his used condoms on the dressingtable, and so on.

Though much of Spence's work recalls the militancy and immediacy of 1970's radicalism, she has rejected its narrowing of the political field to the apparent foci of power, a reductivism that excluded analysis of more nebulous power-effects. Spence illuminates the felt experience of the intertwining of "the political ", the social and the subjective in terms of the perceptual strategies of power. She recognizes that the forces by which we are moved and shaped leave traces which can be located, and which, when interrogated, necessitate an active self-empowerment.


1. See Jonathan Crary: "Modernizing Vision", in Hal Foster (ed). Vision and Visuality, Dia Art Foundation/Bay Press, Seattle, 1988; "Techniques of the Observer," October, No. 45 (Summer 1988). Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, October/The MIT Press, 1990 .

2. McKenzie Wark, "The President's Rectum," Art & Text, no 36, (May 1990).

3. Alex Jack, Cancer Control Journal,Vol5, no. 3/4