Body talk

Our Bodies Ourselves explores many of the myths and taboos surrounding women’s bodies. Gill Roth takes a look at the work of the eleven women artists who have used their own experiences of health and sickness to make some powerful and provocative statements.

Gone are the days when ‘women’s problems' were discussed in hushed tones. followed by an embarrassed silence. In recent years the outspoken awareness of women's health issues in the mainstream media means many people are clued up about the causes of toxic-shock syndrome and even the average bloke knows what PMT stands for.

Diseases such as breast and cervical cancer and conditions like eating disorders are no longer sidelined. The establishment of Well Women Clinics and a trend towards a more holistic approach to cancer and a wider acceptance of alternative therapies has meant those involved are not always the victim of their illness but emerge with a positive approach. which in turn gives hope to others.

Our Bodies Ourselves is an exhibition of photography by eleven women who have translated their own experiences of health and sickness into photographic images. Jo Spence became a pioneer of photo therapy after being diagnosed with the breast cancer that eventually killed her. Her photographs document her own responses towards her body and her illness as well as the treatment that she underwent. Recording what was happening to her meant she was not merely an object of medical scrutiny but the subject of her own investigation. Putting ‘private‘ and ‘personal‘ images on display for public consumption she hoped to empower those who were in a similar situation. But Spence's work treads a fine line between being positive and being downright terrifying. One picture shows her standing naked from the waist up with her left breast marked with a black cross for amputation. If you’re a woman this one will have you searching for that discarded self-help leaflet on breast examination.

It’s said you can never be ‘too rich or too thin‘ and. as an ex-dancer with the Ballet Rambert and model for Vogue magazine. Clare Park was a prime example. But her photographic self-portraits of her own battle with anorexia reveal the unrelenting pressure to conform to a stereotypical body shape. Her photographs show her naked. boxed into a confined space. with her mouth gagged against the entry of food. Depicting an obsession with perfection through self-punishment and deprivation. she shows us her observations of the distorted quest for ‘ideal‘ womanhood.‘

Although some of the images in Our Bodies Ourselves are shocking there are plenty that are upbeat and humorous. ‘Our aim isn‘t to shock but to

Rounding apace: preganant women photographed by Kit Anderson

break down barriers between men and women. doctors and patients and the sick and healthy. We don't want to put men off; we're not interested in being exclusive.‘ say the organisers.

Jenny Aston. a freelance photographer. charts the growth of the baby in her womb using plants and sticks. There‘s a series showing the stages a pea goes through from germination to flowering. The size of everything in her photographs relates to the size of the foetus at its various stages. ‘All the herbs and plants come from British gardens and they all have a place in folklore and history. I used bor'age as a metaphor for the last month of pregnancy because it’s

‘Seltishness as a virtue hit a nerve with lots of women. It means you can’t wait for recognition or endorsement. You have to take time for yourself and buy your own tlowers.’

traditionally a plant used for celebration. and that‘s the birth.‘

Claire Collison is a widely exhibited photographer but when she developed ME in I989 she became allergic to photographic chemicals. The images in this show are from her series Faith Hope Charity and Seljisltness. Using a tripod. mirror. self-timer and projector she reflects images onto her body to make her self-portraits. ‘lt hadn't occurred to me that I could use my health as a reason for making work. I had to find other ways of working because of the chemicals but something positive has come out of something I thought would wreck my life.‘ Claire also wanted to use the idea of selfishness as a virtue. In .S‘eljis/iness. we see the attist from above. laden with flowers and surrounded by blooms. ‘Selfishness as a virtue hit a nerve with lots of women,‘ she says. ‘It means you can't wait for recognition or

endorsement. You have to take time for yourself and buy your own flowers.’ ME was merely a starting point for these photographs. Claire doesn‘t see her work as photo therapy. ‘Using something negative to do something constructive is the common ground I share with other artists in the show but I want my work to transcend the private and the personal and for people to view it in the same way they would any art form.‘

Our Bodies ()urselves was conceived as a touring show and was first shown in Nottingham last November. In Edinburgh. the exhibition will be staged in three venues. (()ut ()fThe Blue. the Royal Infirmary and Napier University's KJP Gallery) with the hope that the work will be seen by a greater cross-section of the public. including patients. doctors. out—patients. gallery goers. students and teachers.

in bringing the exhibition to Scotland. Out Of The Blue intend to develop the links between art and medicine with a wide range of workshops. debates and discussions led by artists. performers. therapists and medical staff from the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and practitioners from the Whole Works Complementary Counselling and Therapy Centre. ‘Complementary medicine is expensive but people are losing faith in the health service and there‘s a need for more communication between established practices and altemative methods.’ say the show’s co-ordinators. With leaflets on everything from support groups for people leaving hospital. post- operative trauma. breast cancer. eating disorders and ME. the only thing missing is advice on how to treat a severe case of information overload.

Our Bodies Ourselves is at 011/ tiff/16 Blue. with additional events at the Royal Infirmary and Napier University 3‘ KJI’ Centre. Wed / Mar—Sat l Apr (not Sun, Mon). [lam—6pm or by appointment.

The List 24 Feb-9 Mar 1995 63