"I'm not speaking abstractly about this," Chris Jordan says. On the word "abstractly," he waves his hand to the side as if pushing something away, as if to say, "Forget it, forget being abstract." He pauses, breathing audibly. When he starts again, he opens his arms wide, taking in everyone. "I'm speaking—this is who we are in this room, right now, in this moment." On "this moment" he pulls his hand to his sternum and bows slightly, like a religious leader. "Thank you, and good afternoon."
That is the last 30 seconds of Jordan's TED talk, which makes a big impression, as his talks often do. At one point, he had to employ an assistant solely to help him with his mail, which comes from budding environmentalists, artists, and the occasional angry nationalist who takes Jordan's critique of American consumption as an attack on the country.
TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and it is a kind of public-intellectual think-tank organization that holds a conference every year in California in which experts from each field give short, incredibly inspiring talks based on a single great idea. (These are all available online, where they are a cult hit.) Some TED talkers are big names: Al Gore, Stephen Hawking, Jeff Bezos, Bono. Others earn their place at the table by holding forth on wondrous, cross-disciplinary subjects including how bacteria communicate, the design of the camel, Zulu wire art, mathematically deduced predictions about the future of Iran, and a software program that gathers photographs from all over the web to create navigable three-dimensional spaces of real places.
Jordan, a Seattle artist, had the idea of how to make the vast and unthinkable numbers that come with global awareness visible, and even inviting, in photographs. He had this idea around 2006, and since then he has been constructing, in Adobe Photoshop, large composite images of tiny photographs. On macro and micro levels, as Jordan demonstrates during his TED talk by zooming Google Earthishly in and out and overlaying a scale image of, say, the Statue of Liberty dwarfed by the piles of office paper used in a year, the photographs depict unfathomable statistics in a suddenly very fathomable way. They make waste beautiful by giving it form—one million stacked plastic cups arranged in a silvery maze, 1.14 million paper grocery bags piled into trunks to create a denuded wintry forest on a white background, or, one of my favorites, six vertical panels that measure in total 10 feet high by 23 feet long and that from afar look like burnt-orange monochromes. Get closer and you see what look like stacked bread crusts; closer still and you discover that these are soft and precarious piles of identical pieces of clothing, each crushed garment representing a person. The caption tells you: "Depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world."
The beauty and the horror are the two poles of tension; author Lawrence Weschler (Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees) told me in a recent phone conversation that Jordan's work reminds him of the Rainer Maria Rilke lines, "For beauty is nothing/but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure/and we are so awed because it serenely disdains/to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying."
On my way over to visit Jordan in his studio one idyllically sunny morning last week, I find myself in a productively uncomfortable situation. The reason is that, over the years, I have been alternately very convinced and very unconvinced by Jordan's art.
J ordan lives on a quiet street in Ballard and looks like Clark Kent. It's the first thing Stephen Colbert noticed about Jordan in 2007, when Jordan appeared on The Colbert Report. Colbert was onto something: Jordan does fly around the world trying to save it, and many people consider him something of a hero. "Absolutely mind-blowing" and "pierced my heart" are typical comments on Jordan's TED talk on the web. Lying on his studio desk is a two-page, handwritten letter from a Southern Methodist University student who was brought to tears by his recent talk at the Dallas school; she felt as if he were speaking directly to her with his message that change is possible.
Jordan was groggy when I visited; a few days earlier, he'd returned from speaking in Australia at the Ideas Festival in Brisbane. While there, he was invited to speak at the 2010 World Thinking Congress in Melbourne, recruited by the Tasmanian government to do a series of immersive school visits (he's also done work like this in Caracas), asked to exhibit at a new art museum in Brisbane, approached to do a children's book by an Australian publisher, and awarded a residency at a Brisbane university focusing on law, environmental studies, and art.
The only place Jordan isn't converting people en masse is in the art world—where his prints sell for $25,000 each, but his reputation has little currency as of yet. Over the last two years, Washington State University director Chris Bruce organized a retrospective exhibition of Jordan's work and Prestel published a handsome catalog with it (which is freshly out), but Bruce couldn't convince any major art museums (or any art museums period in Seattle) to take the show. "They told Chris my work was just illustrations, not arty enough," Jordan said. It stings. The New Yorker, in a blurb, said the same thing when he showed at a New York gallery. Jordan's exhibition Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait will be seen at Pacific Science Center in the fall rather than Seattle Art Museum or the Henry Art Gallery. (He also has a small exhibition at Portland Art Museum through July 12.)
There are a handful of practical reasons for Jordan's predicament. He certainly isn't the first artist whose publicity got ahead of his development in a heated art market. Jordan is 45, but has only been an artist for six years. He has years of art-making ahead of him. But as an outspoken critic of consumerism whose work relies on his political commitment, he also faces special (but not unprecedented) challenges in making a living as an artist. Does the paradox of his $25,000 price tag neutralize his credibility? His website, where anyone can see his images for free, although at limited size, gets 100,000 unique visitors in a month. Statistically, that's almost double the 57,288 visits to all four art museums in Seattle combined every month (taken from 2008 attendance figures: 498,732 at Seattle Art Museum, 46,162 at Seattle Asian Art Museum, 84,000 at the Frye Art Museum, and 58,570 at the Henry Art Gallery). It's easier to visit a website than a museum. But Jordan is arguably the most popular artist in Seattle.
Fiery curator and author Lucy Lippard, who came out of Seattle to national prominence after she curated an experimental 1969 exhibition here on conceptual art, sees in Jordan a culmination of the anti-commercial, anti-institutional dreams artists had in the 1960s. She writes in the exhibition catalog:
Imagine a new kind of art world in which creative production and practice are not limited to museums (necessary for preservation and public viewing) and galleries (artists have to live on something) but are as ubiquitous as commercials. Imagine art schools in which students are trained to work for something and with someone... I've spent forty years conspiring with artists who either want to stay in the art world and gain some control over how their work is handled or want to get out of the art world, reach a broader audience, "make a difference" and—what the hell—change the world... Jordan, who worked for a decade as a lawyer, has earned opportunities to make his case to the world at large, to nonart groups, to wide TV audiences. Because his case is our case, this is decidedly to everyone's advantage.
His case is our case. This rings true. In many ways, Jordan is the embodiment of the reforming American of the early 21st century—the one who elected Barack Obama, the one who isn't sure whether he has the strength and conviction to be a better world citizen but would desperately like to try. His most affecting images end up emphasizing the inspiring dream of perfect cosmic harmony and interconnectedness, but also the chasm between this universal dream and the equally universal imperfect experience of being only one person with a limited view and a short life. Paradoxically, Jordan's best artworks may not be his best advocacy tools. It's a difficult balance to strike. Jordan considers his work a failure when it receives one of two fairly common responses: The viewer is overwhelmed into apathy, or (this happens with wealthy, liberal-minded CEOs) the viewer "agrees" that other people are the problem.
When Jordan talks, he is quick to point out that he is not always one of the good guys: His carbon footprint is bloated from jet travel, for instance. (About this he has been personally reassured by none other than Al Gore.) Jordan talks openly about his past life as a greedy American: Seduced by money, he went into corporate law and stayed in it for 10 years, where he defended the kinds of companies he now critiques. He left, and resigned the bar, in 2003.
Then, in 2005, after successful art shows in New York and Los Angeles (he is represented by Paul Kopeikin Gallery), Jordan caught himself again succumbing to the temptation of money, this time hypocritically. "I had this message I was trying to convey that just wasn't getting through, and it wasn't even getting to me anymore because I was too busy getting off on all this stuff, on making lots of money and staying in expensive hotels and going out to really expensive dinners, clinking glasses of hundred-dollar Scotch about how many prints we just sold. I was falling into the very trap that I was raging against."
These days, Jordan is starting his third series, Running the Numbers II, which uses global, not just American, statistics. This is what he talks about for the first hour we're together, nonstop: how to convince people to stop eating shark-fin soup, which has caused the imminent danger of shark extinction worldwide (the director of the 2006 documentary Sharkwater sent Jordan a viewing copy); the 27 million people living in slavery, 50,000 in the U.S.; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a slowly rotating gyre full of 100 million tons of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, first documented by a California-based sea captain named Charles Moore, who has sent Jordan boxes of plastic items from the patch for his photographs (he's working on a piece based on Hokusai's 19th-century print of a breaking wave with fingery whitecaps); and how the baby albatross on Midway Island, fed by adults who've flown over the patch and unknowingly collected plastics as food, make rasping sounds as they slowly die, choked by plastic. Jordan can barely get through describing what happens to the albatross, whose skeletons are discovered later with rib cages full of plastic objects like combs, bottles, flip-flops. He is hoping to go to Midway to photograph the birds later this year—"Before they're gone," he says, regaining his composure.
The man is not a fraud. Neither is his work always worth the hype. It can be formulaic and appear passionless, and, as came violently to his attention when he was accused of copying, other artists have done similar projects, including most notably Edward Burtynsky, who has made poetic portraits of factories stretching all the way to the horizon. Plenty of artists (and writers), from Ralph Waldo Emerson (a Jordan favorite) to Andy Warhol to Vik Muniz, have presented the dilemma of the part and the whole, the specific and the universal, the individual in the mass. These issues are practically the heart of art in a democracy. Jordan can be clumsily direct with his message. His skull made of thousands of cigarette-carton labels is literal: There's no frisson between beauty and horror. His new photograph of a sea of watercolor tuna fish—his first foray into nonphotographic source material—is corny and simpleminded: It's just a spectacle of cute-faced fish. Will these images be effective in motivating people anyway? Bruce, the curator of Jordan's traveling show, makes an apt comparison between Jordan and street/political artist Shepard Fairey, who created the Obama "Hope" poster and now has his first museum survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. In the New Yorker, art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote: "I question the I.C.A. director Jill Medvedow's claim, in the show's catalogue, that Fairey pursues a 'quest to challenge the status quo and disrupt our sense of complacency through his art.' What isn't status quo about political rage?... I'm not sure he knows what he meant, beyond wanting to get a rise out of people. But if he did know—that is, if he were a better artist—he probably could not have helped change the world with one magically ambiguous picture."
The first Jordan image I saw was a large photograph of a silvery mountain range made of sawdust against a cloudy sky, pictured straight-on, documentary style. (This was at Lawrimore Project; currently Jordan has no dealer in Seattle but is in talks with G. Gibson.) What I liked so much was that it unhinged my sense of scale. Standing in front of me, the sawdust was several feet tall, taller than me, but there was nothing in the photograph whose real size I could use to put things into relatable perspective. The stuff was drawing me in, but it was out of my realm, perpetually. And what were the absent products of this dust? Gone, also. I felt hopeless to find answers, to reach and grip the subject of the photograph, but soothed and distracted by the fantastic view.
It might have been a nice work of art, but as activism it failed. Jordan wants both. He wants to make great art and to make a great difference. As he embarks on the middle stages of his life as an artist, I can't help but root for him.