Intolerable Beauty

By Ulrikke Myklebust Johansen.

With almost every new smartphone comes a new charger and other gadgets which doesn’t necessarily work with previous designs. Are the changes in the rapid succession of designs new and significantly better than last year’s model? If the answer is no, then why can we still feel a strong desire to own the newest version and what makes us so easily discard the previous design we recently had?

Cell phones #2 by Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan’s Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption [1], is a series of photographs portraying American consumer culture, but the images might as well apply to any other developed country. Throughout his works, Jordan sends what might be an uncomfortable message to mass consumers: it is time to sweat the small stuff. Because in our content consumer isolation, individual purchases of electronics, single-serving foods, tonnes of cheap clothing and shoes do not necessarily trigger visions of an environmental emergency. For an individual buying and consuming might make one feel happy and content in the moment, at least for a period before the desire or need for buying more objects arise. But as the human population approaches over eight billion, the amplification of every small act of consumption has an increased impact on the degradation of earth and its inhabitants [2]. When photographing his works, Jordan visited landfills and recycling centres to capture vast piles of discarded products such as cell phones, chargers, circuit boards, crushed cars, glass bottles and other consumer goods. He then transforms in his work these vast piles into what can be considered abstractions, whose intolerable beauty is at odds with the reality that discarded items consume resources in the recycling process. As well as propel a stream of residual waste into landfills, wastewater plants and the atmosphere. In the photograph Cell phones #2 [3], the abstraction of the vast amount of cell phones can seem dynamic, almost like a surging maelstrom of different colours, and in E-waste [4], what might at first glance look like the seafloor is a vast amount of hardware bits.

E-waste by Chris Jordan

Throughout the series of photographs Jordan seem to send a direct message; that the consequences of our daily choices are urgent and that we need to make a change as fast as possible [5]. But as humans we have a natural urge to improve and renew ourselves to heighten our social status. At the same time the way we currently design, produce, use and dispose of most of our products, including electronics is through a linear process. In this process we put unwanted products into the thrash once they no longer satisfy our needs. Are humans then too materialistic in the everyday sense of the word? But not at all materialistic enough in the true sense of the word, where we truly care about objects? Where our view on always owning new and better objects become obsessive, in a sense since objects affect our position in the status system. This situation isn’t tied to the consumption of electronics either, fashion houses might make consumers feel like they’re out of fashion after a few weeks because they want consumers to buy new clothing as soon as possible to generate income. Where our ancestors previously had four seasons of different clothing we now have a vast amount of choices in apparel being marketed. And if we think about the concept of fashion it then embodies in it the idea that you can throw things away not when they’re no longer usable, but when they no longer have a high social value [6].

And do we as individuals really want more objects, might it be that we just want what they can bring us? With the assumption that gratifying materialistic desires somehow will sum up in a perfect, happy life in mind then good design rather becomes an anaesthetic. Because the smooth surfaces of modern design have the power to eliminate friction and to remove bodily and psychological sensations [7]. Where the smallest object is thought to change the well-being, emotions and thoughts of whoever uses it, touches it, looks at it or reads about it, as well as affecting the lives of whoever encounters those that already encountered it [8]. Where groups of people are preoccupied with seeking happiness or feeling whole and content through consuming, while the reality is that the same consumer culture is having a major impact on the degradation of our habitat. As Jordan said about photographing:

“I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress. I am appalled by these scenes and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination. The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity. The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality.” [9]

And with this mob mentality that Jordan mentions, as well as our collective and unsustainable act of mindless consumption, it can seem like no one is really in charge or accountable for the consequences of our mass consumption. Even while we have scientific knowledge of how humans affect the earth, it is possible that by reflecting on difficult questions concerning climate changes, we can feel hopelessness, ignorance or apathy as individuals. However uncomfortable one might feel by looking at Intolerable Beauty; Jordan’s artwork can function as a gateway to a kind of cultural self-inquiry and heightened self-awareness.


[1] Chris Jordan Photographic arts, “Intolerable Beauty”.

[2] Artworks for change, “Chris Jordan”.

[3] See illustration 1: Cell phones #2 by Chris Jordan.

[4] See illustration 3: E-waste by Chris Jordan.

[5] Artworks for change, “Chris Jordan”.

[6] D’Avella, “Minimalism”.

[7] Colomina and Wigley, Are we human? Notes on archaeology of design, 89.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Artworks for change, “Chris Jordan”.


Artworks for change, “Chris Jordan”. Last visited 14. Oct. 2018.

Chris Jordan Photographic arts. “Intolerable Beauty”. Last visited 14. Oct. 2018.

Colomina, Beatriz. And Wigley, Mark. Are We Human? Notes on Archaeology of Design. Lars Müller Publishers, 2016.

D’Avella, Matt. In association with Catalyst, Asymmetrical and SPYR. “Minimalism: A documentary about the important things”. Film, 2016.