Seattle photographer Chris Jordan has received international attention and acclaim for his photographic series Running the Numbers, mural-sized images that visually dramatize key statistics about American consumption and politics, helping us grasp numbers that are normally impossible to conceive. Now local viewers have their first chance to see an large collection of Jordan’s work in person at an exhibition just opened at the Pacific Science Center. KUOW's art critic Gary Faigin has just visited the show, and joins us now with his observations.
So if I didn’t leave Jordan’s highly polemical, visually arresting exhibition more energized to reduce my carbon footprint, or struck by any epiphanies regarding the terrible daily toll our heedless, affluent ways are taking on the globe, blame my poor reptilian brain. My mind is still unable to react to the epic scale of statistics Jordan struggles so mightily to make concrete, like 30,000 gun deaths a year, 426,000 discarded cell phones each day, or 200,000 tobacco deaths each six months.
That I got even a glimmer of insight into some of these outsized numbers is still a remarkable accomplishment, and glimmers there indeed were. Furthermore, some – but not all – of Jordan’s images are spectacular and engaging creations in their own right, occupying that sweet spot where art and activism overlap, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial (another attempt to artistically personify a huge amount of data), or Neil Young’s Kent State ballad, “Ohio”.
My own Vietnam Memorial moment, appropriately enough, was inspired by the photomontage Prison Uniforms, at 23 feet wide and 10 feet tall by far the largest work in the show. Prison Uniforms is at the minimal end of the several strategies Jordan employs in the exhibition to make his data visible. Like the several other minimalist photomontages on view, Prison Uniforms fills the entire pictorial field with endless repetitions of the same tiny element, in this case, a stack of miniscule brown cellblock clothes, seen end-on. The resulting panel – divided into six sections – has the appearance of a rough, woven textile from a distance, like burlap. Upon closer inspection (the same discovery process that transpires with every piece in the show), the nubbly surface resolves itself into what the wall label informs us is precisely 2.3 million individual outfits, the number of Americans in jail each year. Perhaps because the picture illustrates the plight of people and not things, I found the image truly frightening. The work succeeded in conveying both the oppressive scale, and the nightmarish loss of individuality of incarceration, each entity hopeless trapped by the rest
My personal favorite image in the exhibit employs a very different method to personify the statistics in question. Cans Seurat is an eight foot wide replica of the signature Impressionist image A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, composed of the 106,000 aluminum soda cans Americans use every 30 seconds. Although composite images created from the assembly of much smaller photographic tiles have become commonplace in recent times (thanks to the digital revolution), Cans Seurat is remarkable for both the clarity and texture of the individual elements as well as the appropriateness of the connection. The thousands upon thousands of ant-sized soda cans, their dimensionality, labels and logos clearly legible, create a tapestry-like surface that is almost tactile.
Seurat’s painting of colorfully dressed, weekend strollers in a park celebrates the sort of bourgeoisie hedonism that was possible in the early days of the Industrial Revolution when its benefits (increased leisure time, fast trains to the countryside, cheaper goods) were so much more obvious than the horrors (weapons of mass destruction, pollution, depletion of resources). Jordan’s reinterpretation suggests that our modern fantasies of leisure and outdoor pleasure are fatally undermined by our addiction to unsustainable levels of consumption.
Throughout the exhibition, Jordan labors mightily (and with greater or lesser degrees of success) to sustain the viewers interest in what is essentially the same message, over and over: “Look at these incredible numbers!” Some of the pictures end up simply dull - grey fields of endlessly repeated, identical elements (the guns and the cell phones, for example), others make too great a demand on our imagination. I put into the latter categoryToothpicks, a rather generic landscape (complete with a cloudy sky) of a wheat field stretching into the distance that turns out to made up of (we are told) one hundred million toothpicks, the number of trees cut down to make the paper that represents the number of…
I trail off, because so did my attention. I wasn’t remotely moved by the sight of rows of what looked like a few thousand vertically arranged splinters of wood set out somewhere in the prairies. 100,000,000 turns out to be too big a number for even Jordan to graphically depict. Furthermore, the connection between the toothpicks and what they were meant to symbolize felt labored and indirect, the image itself lacking the requisite level of drama and density.
I similarly walked quickly past a merely diagrammatic mural of the 11,000 jets in flight every eight hours, their flat silhouettes and linear trails creating a fuzzy white and grey surface vaguely reminiscent of a slab of Formica or a furnace filter. I also wondered why I should be indignant over this particular statistic. Would 5000 flights be okay, but 10,000 not? According to who?
But I was outraged – outraged! – by Benjamin Franklin, his familiar engraved face staring calmly out from a photographic panel a full ten feet tall. This image of the greenback version of Franklin made up of 125,000 microscopically detailed $100 bills (the amount spent every hour on the war in Iraq during the Bush administration) truly struck a chord. I thought of Louis XIV at Versailles, Cleopatra on the Nile, or the Last Emperor in his Forbidden City as possible precedents, tales of wretched excess followed by social collapse. If America is indeed on the downward trajectory of those other failed empires, Chris Jordan seeks to be the prophetic voice exhorting us to change our wasteful and destructive ways before it is too late.