“The beautiful is the beginning of the horrible, because with indifference, it, the beautiful, delivers us to decay” – Rainer Maria Rilke.
Our chaotic sense of the modernity of the world is inextricably bound up with our increasing awareness of the limits of individual and collective knowledge. Change, compounding upon change at an exponential rate of growth, makes the stability of home truths seem modest in the face of unadulterated invention. We lack the vocabulary, the specific expertise, to understand much less to confront the challenge of this unceasing change, and we feel a dull but persistent anxiety in the face of attendant detrimental effects. In this way change is bound up with rupture, which could as well be beneficial as deleterious, but which can require seismic transformations in the normalcy of daily life.
Thilde Jensen’s The Canariesis a book characterised by sudden and visceral alienation. Her pictures are charged by an unintelligible intensity, full of improbable recalcitrance, monastic seclusion, and a sense of fear and disequilibrium that resides at some subcutaneous level. Her photographs render, in unflinching detail, the profound measures undertaken by those who suffer from the grievous sensitivity to a wide array of chemicals. Thus the literal subject of each picture is always itself invisible, since the affliction her pictures describe occurs at some microscopic level. Moreover this invisible catalyst is so utterly pervasive and resilient, that our inability to confront it through her lens mirrors her subject’s vulnerability to an insistent and intangible threat.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) produces extreme reactions to commonplace concentrations of chemicals, which are foundational to a range of goods that runs from pens and pencils to vitamins and beverage can coatings, from carpets and fibers to aspirin and cosmetics, from computer and phone casings to resins and adhesives, from wet suits and car seats to upholstery and paper products. Consequently, for those vulnerable to these extreme sensitivities, their proliferation into all ordinary activities renders proximity to their presence a matter of clinical risk. After succumbing to this illness in 2003, Jensen left her life in Brooklyn for upstate New York, and gradually discovered “an otherwise invisible subculture of people… who shared this isolated existence.”
In the portrait of Dennis, losing his balance at the edge of a lawn in a sunny Nebraska suburb, or that of Craig hemmed into his three-door Nissan, his gloved hands on a phone anxiously gazing out of his window, we are given some sense of the distortion of normalcy that accompanies this illness. But we are incapable of identifying the cause of the unease that we see, even as the gestures of each individual relay a distinctive sense of some deeper unease. The traumatic effects of these little-researched disorders recur in an unstinting and dynamic variety of ways, and our powerlessness to intervene is allegorised in each image by its subject’s overt and inexplicable vulnerability. Jensen’s photographs describe the effects, and the necessary countermeasures against an allergy toward everyday tools of modern living, and in this they capture what Griselda Pollock describes as “the eventless event, unremembered”:
“this happening is not in the past, since it knows no release from its perpetual present because it is not yet known: was never known, hence never forgotten, and thus not yet remembered.” – Griselda Pollock “Art/Trauma/Representation”
In a series of seventy-one photographs that run the gamut from still lifes and intimate portraits to distant landscapes, or from pastoral hues to ghoulish shadows, Jensen invokes the persistence of an affliction that renders its subjects exiles from themselves. Her pictures show people’s alienation from their bodies, from public space and from the land, in a negotiated resistance against an intangible assailant. Their separateness from the normalcy that otherwise assaults them helps to engender real distance, and this distance renders their protective measures into nonsensical gestures.
To watch Jessica arriving at school in her patterned facemask, dismissed with rank scepticism by her peers, or to witness Karen in Texas suffering from extreme sensitivity to the sun is to reckon with the alienation that accompanies the experience of this sensitivity. And thus the making of the photograph helps to specify a subject to which we might otherwise not attend, and questions the surety of our disbelief at the likelihood of such an illness.
In a paradoxical kind of inversion, Jensen’s pictures specify the absence of their underlying subject so as to redirect us toward the specificity of those things that are actually present. We cannot see the microwaves or gaseous fumes that are sealed off by foil or by layers of impermeable sheeting. But we can see a framed glass plaque gifted to “A Most Special Mom” in a kitchen lined with the chaotic sheen of aluminium foil padding. Through the instigation of the world framed by the picture, we might hazard some guess as to the complexities of sustaining even a fraction of the essence of basic social relations. The picture places us in orbit around a community from which we are typically separated, reversing their inexplicable isolation by the omnipresent impacts of a nameless root cause, and redrawing our lines of social interaction along an expanded field.
What is intimated in these images has seeped through every fabric of social life in the modern world – it is deeply embedded, enormously profitable and thus of unassailable virtue. To track the spread of petrochemical products through each ecosystem of industrial production, is to reckon with a contagion whose root is consuming the protective shield of the earth. In today’s climate, to argue first for the protection of disinterested scientific study, and the imposition of strict and transparent regulations, would be to blaspheme against the secular precepts of free market growth. Jensen’s challenge as a photographer is thus to challenge the normalcy of this preventable affliction, and in this her illness aligns her with unnumbered millions around the earth. The profitability of fragility is the lifeblood of a neoliberal logic that seeks to consume its own home, and if the estrangement of everyday privilege is clarified by the extraordinary expulsion of those we see here, then these pictures measure a valuable fraction of what is at stake any struggle for survival.