During the 1970s and ’80s Alexis Hunter and Jo Spence helped to establish a view of the body as a space for political activism in contemporary art. It was a radical re-appropriation of the female form, a sort of reverse objectification that, as this show of work from the era makes abundantly clear, would heavily influence the course of art.
Though both infused their work with a similar political drive, their approaches to photography were distinct. During the 1970s Hunter, who was born in New Zealand in 1948 and has lived in London since 1972, largely employed her hands as subjects. They clean, squeeze, scratch, stab – as if they’re at once weapons and victims. In ‘Approach for Fear XIX: Voyeurism – Exposure’ (1978), her hands contort sensually on a white sheet but finally pick up a camera, confusing the roles of viewer and viewed. Hers is a subtle, hugely personal approach to the political.
Spence’s work is considerably more in your face. The British artist, who died of leukaemia in 1992 aged 58, turned the camera on herself, documenting a series of disturbing and often humorous roles that prefigure the likes of Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing. Sets of images show Spence in various states of distress and undress – putting on fake nails in saucy lingerie; naked and destroying stuffed toys while crying and scoffing chocolate; writhing on the floor in a plastic mask with the words ‘not wanted’ scrawled across her naked body. It doesn’t make for easy viewing, but it’s not meant to – this is deeply political and distinctly confrontational work.
These two artists set precedents for how women’s bodies could be used in art. It’s difficult stuff, but boy does it pack a punch.