Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Art and Mass(ive) Consumerism

Seattle artist Chris Jordan was the featured speaker at our National Assembly of State Arts Agencies final plenary session last week in Chattanooga, TN. His work documents the monumental consumerism of our society in a way that forces each of us to consider our personal impact on earth’s environment. It is troubling work because he fools you into thinking what you’re seeing is beautiful, when really it is terrifying to behold.

For example, one work, titled simply “Plastic Cups,” is a silver, gray, and white image of a post-industrial Tree of Life made up a million plastic 6 oz. cups (stacked) which is equal to the number used by airlines every six hours. One can only wonder how many of those are recycled…

Another (my personal favorite) is called “Cans Seurat” and reproduces in exquisite detail the Seurat work “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” only instead of Seurat’s pointillist technique rendered in oil paint, Jordan has rendered it in aluminum cans—106,000 of them, representing the number consumed by Americans every 30 seconds.

In his lecture, Jordan was quick to point out how easy it is to become stupefied by such staggering statistics. 1.14 million is just a number. 1.14 million folded and stacked brown paper supermarket bags, however, presented to look like a primeval forest, barren of all life--now THAT makes an impression. Then consider that what you are looking at is what is consumed in just one hour in the United States.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that as soon as I could find a calculator I found out this means we “consume” nearly 10 billion paper bags a year, a depiction of which would have required Jordan to use a canvas as tall as the UN Building but nearly three times as wide.

What keeps humans from becoming numb; what enables humans ultimately, to process such staggering statistics, is art. Or as Jordan put it (and I paraphrase since I’m quoting from memory), “Art enables us to comprehend and come to terms with ideas that, intellectually, we are otherwise unable to process.”

Put in even more political terms, the saturating effect of these statistics on our brain simply numbs it. The more numb we become, the easier it is for us to accept things like a disappearing ice shelf or a 700 billion dollar Wall Street Bail-out. According to Jordan, we have never needed the arts more than now. The arts give us time and the internal resources to reflect on and, perchance, change our self-destructive behaviors.

* * * *

One who would probably never accept this line of thought is Geoffrey Norman, a writer and founder of (a “non-partisan, nonprofit advocacy and media enterprise”) whose recent opinion piece in the Times Argus "Stop the music, already" (9/21/08) was little more than a fluff piece advocating paying for everything that eight years of Bush Administration policies have wrought by among other things, taking away funding from so-called non-essential services like the Vermont Symphony.

There are so many ways to kick this sad, tired argument in the teeth that one almost doesn’t know where to begin. So give me a couple of weeks to organize my response.

Stay tuned…


idoline said...

What a shame that you didn't come to our (Helen Day Art Center's) Fall '07 exhibition, Nature Remains: The Artist as Environmentalist, which featured Chris Jordan's work. Included in the exhibit were Cans Seurat, Denali,Denial, Paper Bags and Jet Trails.
It is powerful stuff indeed and Chris is one of the most earnest and creative contemporary artists out there with such potential to have a huge impact on our slowly shifting consciousness about how we each have a roll in what's happening to our environment.
The good news is that, despite the fact that a mere 2000 people came to see our exhibit (including 900 VT school children), he IS becoming an international star.

Alex Aldrich said...

Ah, but Idoline, I did!

We had our fall board retreat there last year and Chris and I spoke about it after his lecture...

idoline said...

You're so right, Alex. I remember now.
I admit to being a tad sensitive about Vermont's lack of exposure when it comes to fine art. You and so many others are doing so much to promote the arts, yet we still struggle to get people to come to these major exhibitions that we put so much $$, effort and serious thought into.
Our summer exhibition, featuring acclaimed Mexican Muralist, Rafael Cauduro had about 1500 visitors which was actually good for a summer show, but these numbers should be much, much higher!
Where are the serious art critics and reviewers?? Aside from Anne Gallaway's excellent Times Argus piece, there was nothing but pithy regurgitation of our blanket pr piece for all ten weeks that Cauduro's work was here.
Perhaps it is a problem with Stowe. The perception that Stowe is not a serious art place, that people come to escape urban culture and turn off that side of their brain, if only for the weekend, or the day. This is not a easy perception to change, but we'll keep trying!!

Sorry to rant, but this is a blog afterall!

Ray McKenzie said...


Sounds like Jordan's talk was excellant!