The scale of global consumer culture is so vast that it can be impossible to comprehend. The United States alone goes through more than a million paper grocery bags every hour. Who can tell what that looks like, or what it really means? The vast dimensions of industrial society frustrate not only understanding, but imagination as well.
Perhaps the only way to see the big picture is to shrink it. That, in a sense, is what photographer Chris Jordan has done in his series, Running the Numbers. Jordan has long been preoccupied with the impacts of breakneck consumerism. His Intolerable Beauty project focused on lumber mills and junkyards and, through loving compositions, made their uniformity appear sublime. His more recent Midway series looked unflinchingly at the deadly consequences of the Pacific Ocean garbage patch. With Running the Numbers Jordan has taken thousands of small photographs and assembled them into intricately detailed prints that seek to put our consumption-based lifestyle into proportion.
An artist’s statement accompanying the series says: “Scientists tell us that the human mind cannot meaningfully grasp numbers higher than a few thousand.” The problem, as Jordan sees it, is that the “emotionally barren language of statistics” turns us off. We hear about the estimated 2.4 million pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans each hour, and the information is paralyzing. If, as Jordan believes, statistics are “anesthetizing,” his art is intended to be emotionally bracing.
With its obvious political statement, this sort of thing could easily become tendentious. Jordan avoids that pitfall by embracing humor. His composition depicting the more than 30,000 breast augmentations that occur each month in the US is made up of Barbie dolls. He takes our planetary tsunami of trash and turns it into a version of Hokusai’s iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Our inefficient energy system is turned into an exploding star.
The whimsy is essential to the series’ success. Jordan makes our mammoth appetites look not only regrettable, but also ridiculous. And that’s actually encouraging. If our consumption habits are so silly, they shouldn’t be so hard to change.
Chris Jordan’s photos have been exhibited at galleries and museums across the US and Canada. Portions of his Running the Numbers series were on display at the David Brower Center in 2010. You can see more of his work at: chrisjordan.com.
Barbie Doll, 2008: Depicts 32,000 Barbies.
Paper Bags, 2007: Depicts 1.14 million paper supermarket bags.
Gyre 2009: Depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic collected from the Pacific Ocean.
Light Bulbs 2008 (detail): Depicts 320,000 light bulbs, equal to the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in US homes.
Tuna, 2009: Depicts 20,500 tuna, the average number of tuna fished from the world’s oceans every 15 minutes. Made from 19 watercolor paintings by Sarah Waller.
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