Artist Yvonne Buchheim writes, “I vividly recall encountering Jo Spence's photography as an art student in the late nineties. Her naked body lying face down on a dirt road shocked me, as did her portraits, bare-chested, looking fiercely into the camera. Colonisation and Subordination from the series Remodelling Photo History (1981-1982) were done in collaboration with Terry Dennett and it only struck me years later that this work was made just before her breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 46, resulting in The Picture of Health? (1982).”
Like Spence, Buchheim received the diagnosis of breast cancer as a shock that led to new realities of a “life turned upside down.” The resulting work, Kopfüberleben (Life Turned Upside Down), which took form in both an exhibition (2021) and a text/image book (2023), was developed during two years of treatment and recovery. Also like Spence, Buchheim combines text with photographic self-portraits (as well as with drawings and video). Textual narration and visual repetition capture the experience of trauma and the search to deepen her own understanding of her altered “body-home.”
The series Lebensfunke (Spark of Life) offers a portrait of the artist that is shrouded in mystery, creating subtle effects of repetition and variation. In the two images above, Buchheim is enfolded in a diaphanous pink wrap that wrinkles like delicate paper. The vibrancy of bright color contrasts dramatically with Buchheim’s light skin, her serious expressions, and the sense of bodily and emotional vulnerability in her partially exposed figure. Might this pink expanse evoke the ubiquitous and frequently-critiqued “pink ribbon” culture of breast cancer awareness? Or does this almost flame-like explosion of color refer to the “spark of life” in Buchheim’s title?
The image below, Einem Traum (In a Dream), offers a similarly stark contrast between a vibrant pink background and a nude pose that suggests vulnerability and grief. Cradling breast-like spheres encased in what appears to be a stocking, resulting in a snake-like form, the figure here may mourn what is lost or changed within the body, what the dream state may or may not be able to restore.
About This Site
A Picture of Health: Jo Spence, a Politics of Disability and Illness is a multi-pronged project curated by Kenny Fries and Elisabeth Frost.
In 1986 the British artist, educator, and activist Jo Spence (1934-1992) described the question fundamental to her work: “how to represent a body in crisis.” Spence’s work reveals powerful political and artistic responses to the experience of inhabiting such a body and is as timely as ever. This website places her work in the context of the lived experience of chronic illness and of contemporary Disability Arts.