SPACE and Studio Voltaire

Jo Spence (1934–1992) emerged as a key figure in the mid 1970s from the British photographic left, crucial in debates on photography and the critique of representation. Her work engaged with a range of photographic genres, from documentary to phototherapy, and responded to the prioritisation from the late 1970s onwards of lens-based media in art-critical discourse.

Rough edged, recycled, personal – in essence positively amateur, Spence’s work stands in direct opposition to numerous artistic givens. She proposed process over object, collaboration and collectivity over heroic authorship and, above all, generosity (to self and other) over the pursuit of any singular creative ambition. While adroit with its arguments, she swerved the academic theorisation of photography, preferring an experimental and biographical exploration of ideas. This resulted in a richly didactic yet highly idiosyncratic output, one that is playful, silly even at times, while also being capable of delivering images of excoriating intensity.

Spence held the firm belief that photography has an empowering capacity when applied to complex issues of class, power, gender, health and the body. From this perspective she rallied against all forms of hegemony, dominance and control. Her critical concerns, be they with the idea of naturalism in the documentary image or protocols within the National Health Service, became the primary productive principal for her output, drawing her into action – variably as an artist, writer, activist, community leader, adult educator and patient.

While a prevailing wind of cultural pessimism might propose Spence’s work as specifically periodic, to those who know it, and to those who – through this exhibition –came to know it, it is clear that she has much to offer contemporary audiences. Her work is best described as energetic, one that is constantly agitating, asking awkward questions, and pushing against things. It is no wonder that Spence was never quite at ease with the title ‘artist’. Instead she had a preference – one linked both to the behavioural condition of the photographer, but also to the nature of her critical enterprise, that of ‘cultural sniper’.

On the twentieth anniversary of her death, Jo Spence Work (Part I & Part II) offered an important opportunity to experience a significant presentation of the photographer’s practice first hand. In doing so, we hope the exhibition allows for a recognition of the relevance of her work and working methods, both of which remain as sharply radical and transformative today as they were over two decades ago.

The exhibition was chronologically split across the two sites:

[space]’s presentation focused on Spence’s work from the late 1960s to the early 1980s and explored the explicitly social and political dimensions of her early solo and collaborative work. Studio Voltaire presented later works from the early 1980s up to the artist’s death in 1992. The latter works broadly deal with issues of health, therapy, self-empowerment and mortality.

Curated by Joe Scotland and Paul Pieroni

Exhibition Guide

SPACE exhibition page

Studio Voltaire exhibition page

This exhibition also toured to White Columns, New York. Exhibition page here


Artforum #1

Artforum #2