The art of dis-ease

I have lifted the title for this essay from Narratives of Dis‑ease (1990), a series of works by the late British photographer Jo Spence. The series was made following the artist’s partial mastectomy for the treatment of breast cancer. Closely‑cropped around her body, the photographs show Spence partially nude, using props and performing emotive gestures, compositions and sight gags that were suggestive of the sub‑titles she ascribed to each individual image: Expunged, Exiled, Included, Excised and Expected.

Narratives of Dis‑ease addressed the psychological toll of illness and the burden of the cancer patient in performing normative social behaviours. Through her photographs, Spence confronted the underrepresentation of the medical patient experience and the disappearance of the patient body from Western culture. In this series, the shock of seeing the artist’s body transformed by cancer held the potential for surprise to transmute to empathy, and an understanding of the psychic trauma that accompanies such radical change. As Spence said, “I put up these photographs of my illness and progress and I got no feedback from anyone ... I felt as if I were in a madhouse. I thought ‘Don’t you understand that I might be dying—that I’ve put up this work on the wall to help other people see that there are other ways to think about this illness?’ And additionally, ‘This isn’t just an art work. This is an actual body that someone inhabits.’” 

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