Yvonne Buchheim

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.”

Two self portait photographs by Yvonne Bucheim, side by side
Yvonne Buchheim, from the series Spark of Life (2019-2021). Photo credit: Yvonne Buchheim. Two photographs side-by-side. The left photograph: against a black background, Yvonne Buchheim stands, her right shoulder, which is bare, facing the camera. Her torso and head are covered with a diaphanous expanse of wrinkled pink cloth or paper. Her right ear is visible at the edge of the pink expanse. The right photograph: against a black background, Yvonne Buchheim stands facing the camera. She is bald and has light skin with large brown eyes. She gazes directly toward the viewer with a serious expression. There are two scars above her right breast. Her torso appears draped in a diaphanous pink expanse of cloth or paper. On her left side, it extends up in wrinkled form along her neck.

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.

A photograph by Yvonne Bucheim
Yvonne Buchheim, In a Dream, 2021. Photo credit: Yvonne Buchheim. Against a pink background, Yvonne Buchheim appears nude, visible from the waist to just above the mouth. Her skin is light. Her arms are folded around a long, snake-like collection of pink spheres that are held in a stocking-like form. The pink spheres cover her torso.
Three Yvonne Bucheim pieces in a gallery space.
Yvonne Buchheim, installation view of Kopfüberleben (Life Turned Upside Down): What Does Your Body Know, 2019. Photo credit: Claus Bach. An opening from one room to another shows on either side of the doorway a divided image on the wall: against a pink background, naked arms are outstretched, each with fingers spread and a graphic of an eye at the tips of the fingers. Round black-and-red drawings appear where each breast would be. Over the figure’s head, which is covered by red cloth, appears on each side a large drawing of a breast-like form, with a red circle on the at the edge of the form on the right of the doorframe. In the background, against the wall of the next room, a large photo of Yvonne Buchheim shows the artist gazing out at the viewer. Her head is covered in a red cap. Scars are visible on her right breast. The photo has been cut and divided so that the face and body of the figure appear split.

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.

The Artists

Links to artists, with an image representing each artist that is explored in further detail on the artist's page.