Photography exhibit shows the extent of consumerism

Enter SFU’s art gallery. The small showroom is plastered with immense 5 x 10 photographs. At a quick glance, these snapshots appear to be another attempt at abstract art. However, upon closer inspection, these photographs take on an entirely different theme.

Political and environmental issues are brought to the forefront of these highly complex portraits. For instance, one piece depicts an immense panorama covering what looks to be acres of land. If you look closer, however, it is composed entirely of plastic bottles – two million plastic bottles to be exact, this being the number of plastic bottles consumed in the U.S. every five minutes. This is the theme consistent throughout photographer Chris Jordan’s exhibit, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait.

Taking startling, hard hitting facts about American consumerism and attempting to display the numbers in an abstract, perhaps clearer way. Another piece that many people might be able to relate to is the photo depicting 426,000 cell phones, the number of cell phones retired daily in the U.S

Museum curator Bill Jeffries explains that Chris Jordan was a corporate lawyer until eight years ago. Although he can't say for certain, Jeffries suggests that Jordan's backstage role as a guardian to the soulless business elite of America has lead to remorse and resultant activism in Jordan’s art.

“Jordan is presenting quantitative statistical info in a different way,” says Jeffries, referring to our world dominated by graphs. “Photographs have affected political and subsequently environmental decisions in the past.” He notes that the creation of national parks as environmentally protected areas was in large part due to photographs of harmful practices throughout America at the time.

Photographs are used in many aspects of modern day life. Jeffries explains that photos “are a key tool in selling real estate, surveying mineral deposit sites or planning military maneuver.” He also explains that Jordan’s images are the first to represent environmental issues and problems in their quantitative context, while still creating a striking image.

Unsurprisingly, in attendance at the exhibit was KC Bell, co-chair of SFU’s Sustainability Advisory Committee. Bell felt that the exhibit was a good eye-opener about consumer impact and hoped that the student body would take heed to such a vivid warning.

In a critique of Jordan's work, writer Lucy Lippard states that, “[Jordan's] images offer us what we should already know but conveniently ignore.” In his own words, Jordan explains his strategy as taking “very large numbers of small things to create images of extreme visual complexity.”

For instance, his piece “Pain Killers” is a photograph depicting 213,000 Vicodin pills, which equals to the number of emergency room visits yearly in the U.S related to misuse or abuse or prescription pain killers. An emphasized look at modern society's desire to feel good and be healthy, perhaps exposing our misplaced trust in corporate and political leaders for how to achieve this health.

With the aid of Photoshop, Jordan has re-framed the way art can hold meaning and reach an audience to make a significant impact. Along with showing the extreme wastefulness of America, anyone can reflect upon their own nation's consumption numbers by seeing this exhibit.

Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait will be at the SFU art gallery until December 17.

//Andy Mac, Writer

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