This article was first published online by Wallpaper* on Feb 15 2016
‘The Final Project’ is a great title, capturing the unsettling combination of humour and honesty with which photographer Jo Spence (1934–1992), with her long-term collaborator Terry Dennett, documented her death from leukemia over two years in 1991–92. As a selection now being shown at London’s Richard Saltoun gallery demonstrates, the scope of the project was unflinching and ambitious – testament to an artist with nothing to lose.
‘The Final Project’ has a few different strands, which echo both the deterioration of Spence’s health and the stages of emotional trauma. An early part involved photographing comical assemblages in a graveyard, including joke-shop skeletons, flowers and bushy blond wigs, recalling the adage that sometimes the only response to tragedy one can muster is laughter.
These beautiful montages, with Spence’s body floating above a stream or a field, have a serene atmosphere of acceptance. Using older images of herself was also a way around what Spence called her ‘crisis of representation’, whereby she felt her emaciated body to be totally estranged from her spirit. Ultimately, though, she overcame this challenge as well. In a series of self-portraits from her deathbed, she manages with a peaceful stare to confound mortality itself.