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On entering the Wellcome Collection to review Misbehaving Bodies – a collaborative exhibition of two artists, one living, and one no longer of this world – I was reminded of two very different regimes of health care. The Wellcome Collection’s grand headquarters rise proudly adjacent to the imposing, all white, wipe clean clinical cladding of University College Hospital. These buildings represent the authority of the medical model, and its response to caring for life and death.
Yet, once inside the Wellcome Collection exhibition space, I encountered a startling and surprising challenge to medical orthodoxy. Misbehaving Bodies invites us to examine more domestic, idiosyncratic and humane responses to bodies that grow old, suffer, and die. We are drawn into the private, domestic and intimate spaces of this messy process, very much reminiscent of how therapy can help create the space to think about the tragedies and paradoxes of life and death. Indeed, it is through the dialogue of works by Jo Spence (1934-1992) and Oreet Ashery (b.1966) that we begin to open up and find creative challenges to tropes such as the ‘fighting cancer’ narrative. Here lives space for fear, anger and rage.
These tensions are evoked within the exhibition layout and design. I felt at once ‘at home’, and yet at the same time in a space that felt deeply uncanny, with tie dye drapes and bean bags inviting me into a living room, yet of course we are entering into the realm of death and dying. The curtains echo the inside of a cell or tissue, yet gleaming TV screens displaying Ashery’s series ‘Revisiting Genesis’ (2012) and her new commission ‘Dying Under Your Eyes’ (2019) reflect the technological interventions on our bodies considered in the exhibition. I felt confused and apprehensive about where to start my journey into what Susan Sontag’s quote on the wall reminds us is “the kingdom of the sick…the night-side of life”.
‘Revisiting Genesis’ is a video series of twelve parts that begins with a familiar request by an automated operator to “state your symptoms”, as a group of artists living with chronic conditions converse about ‘Genesis’, a fictional artist who is dying but whose lack of embodiment creates an effect both confusing and strange. The group discuss what to do for Genesis, and the sense of health services outsourced to a voice is at once supportive, yet distant and chilling. Alongside these scenes are discussions between Martin O’Brien; an artist called ‘Bambi’ who is living with cystic fibrosis, and a ‘digital legacy’ support worker. Bambi is a blogger whose love of sharks is playfully printed all over his t-shirts; his boyhood passion now an echo of a sinister force ready to take him below as he prepares for the end of life.
These dialogues are analogous to that of a therapist and client relationship, but move beyond the emotional contact of two people and into the corporatisation of death. The discussion encourages Bambi to prepare a posthumous ‘slideshow’ to be sent to family and friends after death. In a later episode the assistant explains to O’Brien that the average adult will have 30-40 digital accounts at the time of death. What we ‘do’ with these assets and accounts is a question we all now face. When asked whether he cares about his digital legacy O’Brien responds, with a sense of baffled fear, ‘I think I do’.
Ashery’s 2019 commission follows the journey of the artist and her family during the death of her father. I found this a humbling and moving piece. Filmed over three years using mobile phone footage, shot mostly amidst and within the home, we do not encounter the medicalisation of death and dying but instead the rather ordinary ‘at home’ routines of her father reading the local newspaper and watching the posturing of politicians on the TV news; the background noise to the gradual deterioration of his body.
In one particularly poignant scene Ashery’s father slowly climbs the stairs during a walk outside, and notices pigeons in the trees. Speaking to the artist’s camera he says that pigeons always stay together, reminding me of the impending separation of death that we all know is coming. The film reminded me that digital technologies create possibilities for connection, but is also another reminder of how many families are separated and rely on these technologies to stay ‘in touch’. This left me wondering about the process of dying across continents. This theme was beautifully explored in a recent film The Farewell, in which family members return, reconnect and re-live scenes from earlier in their lives within the same four walls in which they were once children and teens. Such geographical upheavals sit alongside the humour and everyday images caught in the film.
As the catalogue to the exhibition suggests, one wonders what Jo Spence would have made of the accessibility of smartphones, with their cameras allowing us all to capture the everyday moments such as those in ‘Dying Under Your Eyes’. Spence’s photographic work challenges idealised images of what was then a ‘Kodak’, now ‘Instagram’ perfect life, and highlights how ‘misbehaving bodies’, either through illness, or indeed choosing not to follow the regimes of ‘evidence-based cancer treatment’, disrupts hegemonic rules of healthcare.
I felt the raw courage in the frankness and personal-political works in the exhibition covering the span of Spence’s career. Her diaries, which she exhibits in ‘Beyond the Family Album’ (1979), unearth the history of Spence and her family as she reflects on her parents who, while ‘caught up in their learned assumptions about themselves’, did what they could within the time they lived through. Spence’s photography makes real and uncomfortable that which is usually ignored, including ageing, grief, tantrums, and the despair of cancer.
Her putting of private distress on display challenges the clean, clinical and relentlessly positive imagery of cancer charities and supportive heroes and heroines. Spence was an artist who felt alienated by the ‘art world’, and whose work on display does not conform. I found the imagery, diaries and scrapbook collection of family history objects a reminder of the objects that we, as therapists, might also encourage our clients to use to help reflect on family secrets and unofficial narratives. How we, too, might try and make visible what is often ignored and missed, as we document with our collaborators life’s transitions, terror and misbehaviour.
The exhibition is free and runs until 1 March 2020.