Chris Jordan’s subject matter, in the artist’s words, is “the immense scale of our consumption” (Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption). It is the life cycle of commercial products, the habits of the individual consumer and the social implications of systems of consumption: power, excess and waste. Jordan, who until 2002 was a practicing lawyer, has experienced hurried success as an art photographer, gaining attention in his native Seattle and in national and international forums. His accomplishments derive not only from his images but from his role as a pop statistician and a vocal proponent of an environmental policy that favors far flung and immediate action.
Jordan’s photo portraits of the Pacific Northwest’s industrial sites and waste management facilities treat accumulated waste as landscapes: towering mountains and crumbling cliffs, vast plains planted with discarded products and industrial debris. These dense, sensual images express a Romantic appreciation for the aesthetics of ruin and share scope, physical size and subject matter with Edward Burtynsky’s sweeping photographs of polluted mine sites and Andreas Gursky’s portraits of architectural spaces that are chockablock with people or products.
The deep impression of our collective environmental footprint enjoys limited visual representation by the popular press, whose eco-lite reportage often comes across as a slow, simultaneously mouthed “oops.” But Jordan has had the experience of seeing the evidence first hand, of being privy to hint after hint after screaming hint. While he began taking photographs of regional trade and waste locations because of their formal qualities, the massive stacks and piles of cast-off tertiary materials comprise dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of individual components that are snowflake unique, worthy of attention as finite objects in an infinite, unknowable panorama. Jordan’s project has developed into a piecemeal survey of the innumerable components and vistas of this panorama, a deconstruction and reconstruction of artificial landscapes.
The landscape has long been a vessel for thinkers and makers who need a big, complicated metaphor for big, complicated propositions, and nowhere has this been more so than in the United States. In the mid-19th century, Manifest Destiny, the desire to expand presence and influence to the Pacific and beyond, heavily influenced social programs and personal philosophies. Expressive of this were the compulsory taming of nature, the dominance and displacement of native peoples and the consumption and manipulation of resources acquired as populations and powerbases shifted. While some artists working during this period of expansion embraced the dominant ideology, an influential set including the Hudson River School endorsed a proto-environmentalism, a Romantic appreciation for the sublime, pre-industrial/Enlightenment landscape. Popular during this period were enormous, day-glo, heaven-on-earth landscape paintings that depicted nature as both endless and unknowable.
In the Pacific Northwest, one still catches a whiff of Manifest Destiny. The mountains and trees (logging facilities aside) remain tall, the glimpses of the sea (beyond our busy ports) heroic. We have arrived, but we are searching. Chris Jordan binds this duality in his photographs of the region. Romantic and enterprising sentiments mingle; nature and industry are at once tamed and untamed. Photographs such as Recycling Yard #6 offer a lewd materiality, an unexpected sensuality. The shiny but tarnished debris, in fact large but made miniature by the photographic process, has been gathered, bound and stacked like so many delicate, geometric bird nests. And in the center of the image some of the debris has come loose and cascaded down the stacked structure, forming a bronzed and alluring mess.
In the early 20th century, Progressivism emerged as a broad-based reform movement with core philosophies of social justice and regulation. President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most influential proponents of the movement, responded to the environmental impact of expansion by creating conservation-related federal projects, acts and advisory bodies. Concurrent to the birth of broad environmental stewardship in America, however, was the makeover of Manifest Destiny as the American Dream, a messy, ecologically destructive system of elbow grease, industry and capital. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps was an attainable promise and in its long, smelly wake: factories, Ford, the interstate system, suburbia, disposable cutlery, Kmart, imported consumer electronics, Styrofoam, and waste, lots of it.
By mid-century, increasingly mobile and convenience obsessed consumers had observably impacted the roadside and greater environments. Littering was a new vice and characters such as Woodsy Owl, Smokey the Bear and the tear-spilling Native American of Keep America Beautiful fame made direct pleas to the individual consumer. This approach was problematic in a medical sense: it addressed the symptoms of rash consumption rather than its core illness. Similarly, Chris Jordan, after settling on his industrial subject matter for its awkward beauty, was compelled by frequent exposure to scrutinize production/consumption cycles, their damning statistics and the efforts to counter environmental impact. As it is with the wider, ever more educated public, this information gives Jordan the opportunity to fine tune his criticism and his art practice.
For the past two decades, more and more artists have created practical applications for work on ecological themes. (Contemporary with this work are the science fair type projects of artists who adapt trials, taxonomies and prettied Petri dishes for a museum or gallery environment and these environments only, a good example of which is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2000-01 exhibition Unnatural Science.) These applications are most often achieved by introducing scientific and engineering practices into the art-making process and are most effective when an artist draws on the expertise of professionals working in relevant fields. In many cases, the art status of the final project is evident only in the participation of the artist and the financial or institutional support of an art foundation or museum. A successful and influential example of this is Revival Field, an ongoing multi-site project by Mel Chin. Working with Rufus Chaney, a research agronomist for the USDA, Chin sows gardens of hyperaccumulators, plants thought capable of removing heavy metals from contaminated soils. The gardens function as artworks and as field laboratories for Chaney’s research, which if successful, will be used to clean soil on a larger scale.
For his ongoing series Running the Numbers, Jordan assembles images to build composite landscapes. (Additional to his earlier, more documentary photography practice, he introduces other art historical standards, such as nudes and abstractions.) The artist multiplies a single object or a group of like objects — cigarette packs, plastic cups, prison uniforms — to create busy, didactic compositions that present, literally and unflinchingly, data on national and international consumer habits, as well as statistics associated with controversial social programs and behaviors. Jordan has consistently favored large format prints, but to fully represent the complexity and detail of the Numbers images, to impact the viewer who can, for instance, read the label of one plastic bottle in an image purported to feature two million, he produces installation images that are, on average, five-feet tall and upwards of eight-feet long.
Art making often moves through stages analogous to scientific and empirical processes, from concept to deliverable, and Jordan’s recent practice is in line with the activities of the environmental advocates and science/design innovators giving shape and urgency to the consequences of unfettered production and consumption. Whereas Mel Chin’s Revival Field represents an intersection of art with botany and chemistry, Jordan’s visual presentation of information gathered by consumer and research groups could be expressed as easily with graphs and pie charts. (One wishes that Jordan would more consistently site the sources of his statistics, however.) From an empirical standpoint, the photographs differ little from the video segments produced “outside a major tobacco company” by the American Legacy Foundation, in which smoking death statistics are represented on a giant, block-long banner or by a crowd of people playing dead on the adjacent streets and sidewalks. Because of and despite this day-to-day didacticism, the Running the Numbers series is both practical and poetic. The one-two punch of statistical evidence that is both complicatedly, densely visual and bluntly numerical conveys the full compass of the artist’s subject matter. And the photographs, they are calm, but urgent, information landscapes.