If one could pass a magnifying lens over the pixelated realm of mass consumption in contemporary American culture, one might peer into a mind-boggling sea of just how vast our appetite is for consumer goods and household products. How might we then effectively zoom in on the detritus and trash that is cast-aside every day, every hour, and every second of our lives for that matter?
Chris Jordan’s new photographic series, Running the Numbers, An American Self Portrait (2006-2007), puts a very visceral spin on the statistics of waste. The Seattle-native’s large-scale inkjet images depict the sheer volume and heaping mounds of cell phones, phone cards, plastic bottles, paper bags, and circuit boards that now grace our landfills and neighborhood refuse bins.
Through the assemblage of thousands of smaller photographs, Jordan’s images convey the specific quantities of disposables that now populate the world we inhabit. His staggering visualizations bring to life the throw away statistics to which we would otherwise be numb. In an interview with Nicole Pasulk in the Morning News, Jordan comments on his Running the Numbers show at Von Lintel Gallery in NYC as being an opportunity to depict the enormity of the cumulative and the collective.
“One of the huge problems that faces our society right now, is that this problem with our consumerism, and the resulting global warming, worldwide environmental destruction, the toxification of our oceans and the desertification of our agricultural lands, and so on, are not happening because there’s an extremely bad person out there who is doing a huge amount of terrible consuming.
This is happening because of the tiny incremental harm that every single one of us is doing as an individual. The problem is this cumulative effect from the behaviors of hundreds of millions of individuals. Each person looks around at his or her own behavior, and it doesn’t look all that bad. What we each have to expand our consciousness to hold is that the cumulative effect of hundreds of millions of individual consumer decisions is causing the worldwide destruction of our environment.”
‘CIGARETTE BUTTS’ from the ‘Intolerable Beauty’ series (2005)
Some have criticized Jordan’s works for focusing too much on the beauty of image making, of seducing us with dream-like scenes of contemporary complexity. Challenged by this notion of beauty versus reality, Jordan had previously created the most disgusting image that he could come up with: a large-scale photo of 125,000 cigarette butts laid one atop another. Viewers still flocked to the image finding it to be disturbingly beautiful and edgy.
Which leads one to ask whether art and mass culture are ready for the mind shift that needs to occur for the reduction, elimination, or substitution of the practices we employ with sounder alternatives. Are we, as a beauty conscious and consumer-driven collective, unable to hold a mirror to ourselves, or to even recognize ourselves when a mirror is held up for us? How might ‘running the numbers’ in our own households make a difference, both individually and collectively as we try to move forward, bit-by-bit or in sustainable leaps and bounds?
All images courtesy Chris Jordan and Von Lintel Gallery; all images copyright © Chris Jordan, all rights reserved.
‘JET TRAILS’ depicts 11,000 jet trails – equal to the number of commercial flights in the US every eight hours
‘PLASTIC BOTTLES’ Depicts two million plastic bottle beverages, the number used in the US every five minutes
Plastic Bottles, 2007
PAPER BAGS – Depicts 1.14 million brown paper supermarket bags, the number used in the US every hour
‘PAPER BAGS’ 2007 (detail)