Photofantasy: A Curatorial Essay

Lizzie Merrill discusses the curatorial thoughts and processes that led to her upcoming exhibition at Four Corners.

Photofantasy, an exhibition, showcases the works of artist Jo Spence alongside the contributions of 6 other art makers inspired by her practice. It will be on view from 12th-15th June 2024 at Four Corners Gallery, London.

When I first came across the artist Jo Spence’s work, I walked out of her exhibition. I was excited and frustrated in equal parts. My excitement sprang from the fact that Spence was the first artist I had ever come across to be making work while living with leukaemia. Having been in remission for my own leukaemia diagnosis since 2005, this felt like an incredibly rare opportunity to see my experiences represented and find some commonality with my own. What I found, however, was quite the opposite. Where Spence was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1990, her subsequent works were explored by curators as solely a meditation on death and dying. There was no sense of the living Jo Spence who was waking each day and existing with a diseased body. Instead, the terminal nature of her diagnosis presented a barrier.

Thankfully, I did walk back into the exhibition of Jo Spence’s work, and intended to reframe her terminal diagnosis not as a barrier to understanding her life, but to explore living with illness drawing from my own experience. Nearly 5 years of research later, I have curated Photofantasy.

A person in a dress, facing a wall, arms outstretched, casting a shadow. Over this image purple cells have been collaged, overlapping and engulfing the person
Figure 1: Jo Spence, Image from The Final Project (1991-2), © Jo Spence Memorial Archive, The Image Centre

Photofantasy is the name of Jo Spence’s primary artistic method from 1991-2. Spence was a photographer, cultural worker and Marxist feminist whose artistic practice emerged from her background in commercial/wedding photography. In the 1970s, she began the practice of politicised documentary photography for which she is most well-known. This continued through a breast cancer diagnosis in 1982, whereby Spence created some of her most renowned projects looking at her management of health issues. However, in the 1990s, when Spence was diagnosed with leukaemia, this all began to change. The artist refocussed to a practice of photofantasy, which was entirely different to her usual mode of art-making. This abrupt change in method came from the fact that leukaemia had made Spence less mobile and sapped her energy (Dennett in Spence 1995, 222). Instead of leaving the house and photographing herself in different settings, photofantasy consisted of collaging old images from her archive to create entirely new scenes. Its purpose was to allow Spence to continue creating visual works that expressed “the stories and actions in her mind” (Spence 2013) while living with exhaustion, reduced access to the outside world and her changing bodily appearance. As Johanna Hedva theorised, some modes of expression become unavailable when you’re unwell (Hedva 2022) and photofantasy arose in direct response to this. Hedva’s ‘Sick Woman Theory’ focusses on the idea that “most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and therefore invisible” (Hedva 2022). Photofantasy, which was born from the harsh conditions of Spence’s illness has created an ideal opportunity to uncover the ways that her later works address the experience of “internalized, lived, embodied, suffering”.

I began researching Spence while studying for my masters, eventually leading me to begin a PhD based entirely around her later works. Looking at these retrospectively, there was a huge potential in the method of photofantasy as a mode of expression uniquely attuned to the challenges faced by people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Beyond just writing about Spence’s practice and offering a new perspective on her images, I opted to trial her method with others, running one-to-one Photofantasy workshops as a way of sharing thoughts and experiences around the disease. For most of her life, Spence ran photography workshops, encouraging others to explore creative expression. This felt like a full-circle opportunity to continue where she left off.

“As a student, a workshop organiser, an educator and collaborator [Spence’s] work was always conducted in the collective spirit of radical shared empowerment”

Frances Hatherley, 2020
The outline of a woman walking, cut from newspaper, on top of a collage of different red materials
Figure 2: Lizzie (also known as Art Maker 6), collage on paper, 2022.

The workshops generated 36 new photofantasy artworks, with each building on the visual language of illness experience that Spence had begun. These workshops were held on a one-to-one basis with five participants. The art-making and discussion was kept very fluid, with researcher and participant making art together for a period of time before breaking to discuss. We repeated this process several times until the two-hour sessions were over. What I expected to be a period of data collection, turned into a very introspective, meaningful series of meetings with five women who have each had such distinct experiences with cancer. This was perhaps the most interesting thing about running the workshops, seeing the medical encounter beyond the universalising, reductive model for which we are often encouraged to understand it. The workshops really made space for seemingly contradictory experiences of healthcare and diagnosis.

“I found it very interesting to be doing [the workshop] with Lizzie and to see her collages and what images meant to her and her experience of cancer. What was really interesting is how we were able to point out things in each other’s collages that we ourselves hadn’t immediately seen. For instance she pointed out that the black clouds in my 3rd collage were prominent but not dominating in the picture, that out of that came something else. I got a lot from looking at her collages and from her looking at mine, as I did from me making and looking at my own.”

Sasha, one of the workshop participants
Black cloud shapes at the top of the page with water pouring from them, leading into secateurs and a small word, “hope”. The imagery of secateurs is continued, within which there is a small hissing cat. This leads into the text “a cut above” and “weight loss”. At the bottom of the page there are fairy lights, a sprouting yellow flower and a woman reclining on a sun lounger reading a book.
Figure 3: Sasha (also known as Art Maker 2), collage on paper, 2022.

Spence’s death in 1992 left several of her projects unfinished, while her ideas about the representation of unwell bodies and how illness disrupts and disorients us remain poignantly relevant today. Terry Dennet, one of Spence’s long-term collaborators, wrote that Jo wished “that after her death a contemporary generation of women be enabled to explore and comment on her unpublished work” (Dennett in Lee 2013). Fulfilling this wish and resurfacing these questions was a primary intention behind the exhibition. Overall, Photofantasy asks how Spence’s method of art-making might allow people to express contemporary ideas about cancer experience, over two-decades after its conception. By putting Spence’s works from 1991-2 next to those that have reinterpreted her method today, a really unique visual language for cancer experience has started to form.

Curatorially, I focussed on 6 key themes: The Internal Body, Visualising Cancer, The Photostory, Plants and Specimens, Perspective and Masks. By grouping visuals and ideas it was clear to see how Spence had influenced the contemporary works. From the impossibility of visualising leukaemia to imagining the body as a rhubarb plant, the exhibition poses complex questions about representation and living with disease.

The metaphorical nature of cutting and repurposing images leaves the works open to a variety of interpretations. The exhibition, therefore, is not only a space to share these new visual expressions of illness but to stage important discussions about meaning, intention and perception.

Consider new ways to visualise the cancerous body: Photofantasy is on from 12th-15th June 2024 at Four Corners Gallery, London. This exhibition was organised by Lizzie Merrill, with thanks to Professor Patrizia Di Bello and the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive at Birkbeck, University of London for their materials and support.

About the Author

Lizzie Merrill is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Women’s Studies at York University and Co-Editor in Chief of Cultivate, a feminist academic journal. Her project “how do you make leukaemia visible? Well how do you?”: Jo Spence’s photofantasy as a participatory artistic method is supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, through the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities. Find their work @lizziemerrill on X.

References

Hatherley, Frances. 2020. Class Slippers: Jo Spence on Fantasy, Photography & Fairytales. Bristol: RRB Photobooks.

Hedva, Johanna author. 2022. ‘Sick Woman Theory’. Topical Cream, March. topicalcream.org/features/sick-woman-theory/.

Spence, Jo. 1995. Cultural Sniping: The Art of Transgression / by Jo Spence ; Literary Editing by Jo Stanley, Picture Editing by David Hevey, Foreword by Annette Kuhn. Comedia. London ; New York: Routledge.

Spence, Jo. 2013. Jo Spence: The Final Project / [Editor, Louisa Lee]. London: Ridinghouse in association with the Jo Spence Memorial Archive.

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