Did you know that 28,000 42-gallon barrels of oil are consumed every two minutes in the United States? How about that 270,000 sharks are killed worldwide everyday for their fins? Yeah, neither did I until recently, and it’s not difficult to imagine why. Though staggering statistics such as these seem to constantly play on repeat in public service campaigns and political speeches, numbers – I mean really, really big numbers – hardly elicit an emotional reaction other than, “That’s a lot,” for the non-mathematically minded.
Photographer Chris Jordan knows statistics can often fall upon a barren mental terrain when intended to plant seeds of social and environmental consciousness. At the Hazel Wolf Gallery in downtown Berkeley’s swanky non-profit organization headquarters, David Brower Center, the artist translates such daunting numerical figures into images of paralyzing intensity. Majestic yet also frightening, the massive feats of digital photography in “Running the Numbers” confront the viewer with stunning visual displays of the debris left behind from everyday human consumption.
Chris Jordan’s artworks wash over the viewer like waves with their beauty before gagging him or her with the plastic garbage swirling in the Pacific gyre. Each print spans several feet in each direction, unearthing a feeling of the sublime with expanses of tiny images that seem to repeat into eternity.
Just as Jordan’s colossal works soothe the eye with their geometric regularity, their accompanying statistics startle the mind with grim truthfulness. With its crisp, starkly contrasting color scheme, “Light Bulbs” launches the eye deep into its astronomical arrangement of a common household object. Large and small light bulbs float in a sea of blackness, densely concentrated at the center like an alien galaxy from a video game. But the statistic accompanying the print dispels its dreamy illusion of infinity: The 320,000 tiny electric stars in this fictional galaxy stand for the kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in our country every minute from inefficient residential usage.
The digital prints in “Running the Numbers” arrange the vestiges of consumerism with patterns borrowed from the natural phenomena our collective ecological footprint erodes. “Toothpicks” at first registers as an idyllic landscape, its creamy swirls of blue sky and white clouds floating over a wheat field. Upon closer inspection, however, the field’s artificiality becomes pronounced. Made up of 100 million toothpicks, the landscape represents the number of trees cut down yearly in the U.S. to make the paper for junk mail.
Wading into the waters of art history, Jordan’s overwhelming 8-by-11-foot magnum opus, “Gyre,” recreates Hokusai’s famous 19th century woodblock print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” The stylized image of a dark blue wave rearing its foamy head – easily recognizable as the quintessential image of Japanese art in the West, or as someone’s scenester boyfriend’s arm tattoo – inundates the viewer with simultaneous awe and disgust. Reminiscent of the short, stippled brushstrokes of Impressionism, tiny pieces of garbage collected from the Pacific Ocean compose the entire seascape, putrid and poisonous despite the image’s calm. The 2.4 million pieces of plastic in the image, Jordan’s caption explains, allude to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution entering the world’s oceans every hour.
While many artists work with an ideology in mind, Jordan’s aims in “Running the Numbers” are hardly subtle in spite of his works’ unostentatious visual elegance. But without pointing fingers at any particular culprit of impending environmental disaster, his monumental digital prints engage us in the task we all share in creating a more sustainable way of life.