Everyday disasters

By Moira Jeffrey

Published in the catalogue ‘Janice McNab’, by doggerfisher and Tramway, 2002.
ISBN 1 899551 27 1

Janice McNab's paintings are quiet, almost silent, works. They show individuals and families, domestic and office spaces and household objects - a Baby Belling, a yellow toaster, a glass ornament - with a stillness and intensity which holds the viewer. The places she paints are intimate and claustrophobic, a cramped steep hallway or a family sitting room. Often there's a glimpse of the outside world, either through a pane of glass or through machines like the fax, computer or telephone. These glimpses serve both to reinforce the apparent isolation and voicelessness of her subjects and to suggest the need for their stories to be told.

What these paintings portray, for all this quietness, are human disasters: the effects of chemical exposure on individual health. McNab has created two bodies of work in recent years. The first is with sufferers of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). This is chemical injury (organo-phosphate poisoning is a frequent example) which leads to multiple symptoms and to severe allergies to many of the substances present in everyday products and environments.

The second body of work is with a group of factory workers who believe that exposure to carcinogenic chemicals in the workplace is damaging the health of, and in some cases killing, staff involved in the manufacture of microchips.

What unites these two groups is not just the means of injury, but the isolation of sufferers. The problem of chemical injury in the home and workplace is one that reflects the larger global political order. The voices of individuals suffering ill health are difficult to hear over those of manufacturers and employers. The underlying causes of chemical exposure are issues of health and safety, of industrial regulation and of access to advice and representation. Many of those who sustain chemical injury in the course of work do not have access to trades union representation. In the global marketplace it has become increasingly difficult to regulate transnational corporations because of the economic imperative of maintaining employment levels.

The illnesses that McNab has encountered range from hyperactivity, fatigue, and respiratory problems to cancers, miscarriage and birth defects. For MCS sufferers, their chemical sensitivity often actively prevents them from leaving their homes or keeping their jobs. We tend to think to believe that such illnesses are individual miseries, family problems or domestic disasters, rather than political, economic and legal problems that can be resolved. McNab's paintings ask us to consider the latter possibility. They do so in two ways. As individual paintings they reveal true stories that have been hidden from our view. As a body of work they forge links between isolated individuals and recognise the importance of group action, advice and support.

When it emerged as a condition MCS was often described as an "allergy to the twentieth century" as sufferers are intolerant to chemicals found, even in minute quantities, in everyday substances like paint, carpets, perfume, cosmetics and vehicle fumes. The common experience of people with MCS is one of extreme isolation. Many cannot leave their homes. Most have had long difficulties in getting a diagnosis for apparently unconnected persistent symptoms. Often these symptoms are mistaken for stress or mental health problems. There is no current treatment that can reverse MCS, although the condition can be alleviated by reducing contact with the chemicals that trigger symptoms.

McNab first became interested in this subject in 1998. A two-month residency in New Mexico allowed her to visit and photograph members of the large community of MCS sufferers who live in extreme conditions in the desert. Recently she has worked with people living much closer to her own community in central Scotland.

To meet and photograph the subjects of her paintings, McNab must ensure that she limits the risk of chemical exposure. She uses scent free soap and shampoo for about a week before a meeting. She rinses her hair frequently after washing. She doesn't use cosmetics and washes her clothes in bicarbonate of soda. In extreme circumstances she refrains from painting in her studio before a meeting, as lingering turpentine fumes in her lungs can cause a reaction. These routines, necessary for a brief meeting, are ample illustration of the lifestyle changes necessary for the friends and family of people with MCS. McNab says she experienced a "slow-dawning shock", when she worked on this project.

The Greenock Factory Project is a response to such shock. In January 1998 a group of women in Greenock Scotland, founded Phase Two a support group for local workers at the National Semiconductor Factory. Workers from the nearby Motorola plant later joined them in East Kilbride. The organisation believes that the cocktail of chemicals, including glycol ethers, used in the electronics industry are responsible for causing cancer, miscarriage and reproductive defects in workers involved in the manufacture of microchips. The claim is denied by National Semiconductor and now subject of a court action for compensation in Santa Clara, California where the global company has its headquarters.

The group estimates that some 200 workers may have been effected by exposure to chemicals used in the manufacture of microchip wafers. They allege that some deaths in the workforce are as a result of this exposure. Many of the Greenock workers involved in the campaign are not only ill themselves but have lost friends, colleagues and immediate family members to cancer and leukaemia.

Set up in an area of high unemployment, the plant employs many women from a close and small community. The workers do not have trades union representation in the workplace, although the work of the Phase Two group is now supported by the trades union movement.

Greenock is an industrial town on the River Clyde. The once-prosperous community has suffered years of economic decline with the collapse of the shipbuilding industry. Now Greenock represents the western fringe of Silicon Glen, the cluster of electronics companies across central Scotland, which was founded with the arrival of the company IBM in 1951. By 2000 Silicon Glen employed around 40,500 people directly and a further 29,500 in supply infrastructure.

McNab met with members of the Phase Two group in the Greenock employment rights office where they hold their meetings. While the MCS paintings show individuals in their homes, the Greenock paintings reveal their subjects as activists. The artist recorded interviews with the some of the group and took photographs which are the direct source material of her paintings. These paintings show the workers in the office interior with the architecture of Greenock often visible outside the window. An exception is a landscape painting showing the exterior of the plant itself. In a reversal of the interior paintings, we look from the outside in. The plate glass of the plant's entrance is impenetrable, we cannot see beyond its doors. This is the local face of a global corporation.

In 1999, in a barnstorming piece of writing, John Berger compared the effects of globalisation to a 15th century painting of hell by Hieronymous Bosch. Berger suggested it was possible to read the painting as a prophecy of the current economic order. "The culture in which we live is perhaps the most claustrophobic that has ever existed, " he wrote, "In the culture of globalisation, as in Bosch's hell, there is no glimpse of an elsewhere or an otherwise."

Berger's analogy is not simply that the current situation is hell, but an analysis of pictorial space. Bosch's painting, like today's economic order, appears to brook no alternative. Janice McNab's paintings provide us with a representation of that claustrophobia but also provide the glimpse of elsewhere: the view through the window, the lines of communication provided by phone and fax.

The experience of disaster informs both paintings. Bosch is only one among many artists and writers who used their own experience of war and disease to portray hell. As the history of painting moved beyond the making of religious images, the importance of bearing witness to secular disaster has been a recurring theme. This is most powerfully represented in Goya's savage etchings The Disasters of War (1810-14) which record the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. The words that Goya scrawled beneath the images, words like, "I saw it; and this also" convey both the urgency of the images and the desire to reveal their basis in real experience. But often in the painting of disaster such immediacy is absent. The image may be based on newspaper reports or first-hand accounts. This is the case with Gericault's history painting The Raft of the Medusa (1817), which is both a document of a maritime disaster and a metaphor for French national corruption. It combines macabre and realistic detail with a highly stylised pictorial structure. It is a painting that, like McNab's body of work, wishes to make an explicit link between disaster itself and its causes.

As the direct experience of conflict and pestilence in Western Europe and America has diminished in the latter half of the twentieth century so the imagery of disaster has become a more private matter. In our own time the experience and description of pain occupies a curious place. In one way it has become relegated to the domestic sphere of the home and the hospital bed. In another it has become amplified by a media focus on suffering. We have even created a cinematic genre, the disaster movie, to sate our appetite along controllable and highly structured lines, where the outcome will always be the survival of the principal character. But at the same time, our experience of real-life disaster is almost always focused on the individual, particularly the individual victim of crime. From such perspectives it can be hard to assess the causes and the implications of disasters.

At a particularly important junction in the imagery of these developments lies the early work of Andy Warhol. Looking at McNab's painting Chairlift, one is instantly reminded of Warhol's Little Electric Chair (1963), part of a series, Disasters, that linked highway and airline accidents, a reported incident of fatal tunafish poisoning and a violent period of American politics. Consumption, freedom of movement, and political debate all keystones of the American Dream, become potentially disastrous. In McNab's paintings one of the central premises of the chemical industry, "Better living through chemistry" as one historical advertising slogan went, is seen to have shaky foundations.

Disastrous illness, in Janice McNab's work is not only a metaphor for the broader ills of globalisation, of fragmentation, disconnection and isolation, but a straightforward documentation of the symptoms. Her paintings do not hide the fact that their origins lie in photographs that she has taken. They reveal the distortions and awkward cropping of the lens, the whiteout of flash.

The fact that she chooses to paint is important from the photographs is important. We have become almost immune to the photographs and television images of disaster, to the dramatic footage of Hollywood films that portray violence or death. Some photographers and artists have also become uncomfortable with the power of the camera. It's ability to tell lies or half-truths, its invasive nature. McNab only makes paintings after detailed discussion with, and informed consent, of the participants. While their subject matter is serious - the cause and effect of preventable illness and death - their appearance is neither lurid nor intrusive. When they are shown, the paintings are exhibited alongside detailed information about their subjects.

In contemporary British art the question of human disaster seems to have been privatised. Squeezed down to celebrity suicides or images of murderers like Myra Hindley. The art of Jake and Dinos Chapman, their reworkings of Goya and their portrayal of the holocaust through toy soldiers, suggests we have been reduced to ruminating on our cultural appetite for disaster rather than disaster itself. In an era of knowingness and irony, of mock-documentary and multiple fictions, it can be hard for real voices to get through.

Recent cinema, however, seems to have found an eloquent voice to describe both the collective and individual disasters of globalisation. In a brilliant essay on recent films, like David Russell's Three Kings and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, A.O. Scott identified a growing anxiety about the isolation which arises from the fracturing of community ties under globalisation and their substitution with brand loyalties.

"The anxiety arises not from the fear of collapsing markets," he writes, "but from the worry that human meaning and human connections may be in danger of collapse. Like any other art, movies are powerless to restore what is broken, but they can provide images of what the rushing world conspires to obscure - the anxious melancholy human face."

Janice McNab's careful, quiet paintings acknowledge their limitations. Of course they are unable to restore what has already been broken; they are just paintings after all. It is possible to read, in the isolation and silence of the people portrayed, another narrative about the solitary nature of painting and our doubts about its ability to speak about the world. Nevertheless, Janice McNab's paintings of everyday disasters suggest it is important and necessary to overcome our muteness.

Moira Jeffrey


1. Guardian, November 20, 1999
2. New York Times News Service, reproduced in Guardian, March 31 2001