Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Re-Covering the Scarred Body: Textual and Photographic Narratives of Breast Cancer

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Re-Covering the Scarred Body: Textual and Photographic Narratives of Breast Cancer

Article excerpt

The figures' strongest representation ties were to the disorienting and radically denuding bodily sense generated by medical imaging and illness itself on the one hand; and on the other, to the material urges to dress, ornament, to mend, to re-cover, and heal.

--Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "In the Bardo"

The site of the amputated breast has generated a vibrant conversation, taking place through breast cancer autobiography and art photography, in academic circles and feminist groups as well as in the countless stories of ordinary women. In The Cancer Journals, African American poet, activist, and essayist Audre Lorde writes about her refusal to follow the path of prosthesis, which she calls the path of "silence and invisibility" (4). Twenty years later, American feminist critic Diane Price Herndl, who also underwent a mastectomy, justifies in an article why she did not have "to wear breast cancer in the same way [as Lorde]" ("Reconstructing" 150). (1) With this critical dialogue, the essay juxtaposes visual representations of breast cancer experiences by two British artists who are also speaking from different historical moments: Jo Spence (1934-92), a photographer who has had a huge impact on generations of photographers to come (especially in Britain), and Sam Taylor-Wood, a photographer and video artist (born in 1967), who is at the forefront of a new generation of contemporary British artists. In particular the photographs on which I focus are "Property of Jo Spence?" (1982) and "Self Portrait in a Single Breasted Suit with Hare" (2001). (2)

The debate between Lorde and Herndl, around which my argument unfolds, has a more specific focus, dealing as it does with understandings of prosthetics and breast reconstruction as, to echo Michel Foucault, techniques of "disciplinary normalization" of the female body. However, it raises broader questions concerning issues of concealment and visibility of the body, more specifically with reference to the site of the post-operative breast, and meditates on various versions of feminist politics that different responses to the disabled body invoke. Spence and Taylor-Wood initially seem to have very few things in common. Unlike Spence's extensive body of work on illness, Taylor-Wood has produced very few images of herself directly referring to her experience with cancer. But of course, she is still a young and active artist who is involved in campaigns raising awareness of breast cancer and whose work, especially portraiture, continues to draw on the theme of illness. A recent project, for instance, is an exhibition of intimate portraits of cancer patients who have visited Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres. Although both photographers can be seen as defying the "male gaze" by casting themselves as the subjects of their own stories in their self-portraits, there are important historical differences that separate their work. Spence's name is firmly placed in the seventies and eighties and is mostly associated with documentary and political photography as well as with phototherapy (a peer-counselling technique that uses photography as a vehicle of self-exploration and social change). Taylor-Wood's work conjures the postmodern and, as her detractors insist, is suspiciously tied to commercial media fields (for example, she has done music video clips and photography for fashion magazines). Her art is populated with characters, including a significant number of celebrities, who are portrayed as captive and alienated in secular, urban, and contemporary landscapes, but these settings are often fused with religious imagery informed by Renaissance and Baroque painting. Spence's images are plain or amateur-like snapshots, and her commitment to making the technology of photography accessible to everyone seems to contrast with the glossy technical expertise of contemporary photography, of which Taylor-Wood's work is a prominent example.

By juxtaposing what may initially appear to be very disparate narratives, the essay deliberately places images (particularly Taylor-Wood's) in new interpretative contexts. …

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