Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Green Art Installations: Running the Numbers

Lately I’ve been quite fascinated with the power of visuals (art) and narratives (stories) as a way to “prick our hearts” (Acts 2:37), a way to wake us up and realize that something about our behavior needs to change. The installation I’d like to talk about today is a great example of artwork that does exactly that.

As a continuation of my series about green art installations, today I’d like to highlight Chris Jordan’s installation called Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait. Jordan is an artist based in Seattle who is most well-known for his large-scale artworks about mass consumption. According to his website, he conducts original research into statistics about consumption “the same way a journalist would: referring to articles, websites, government databases, and other sources.” He then gathers materials (usually trash) to turn those statistics into a visual display of some kind, often parodying a well-known work of art.

Here’s a parody of George Seurat’s iconic Sunday on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1886). Jordan created this piece using 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used in the U.S. every thirty seconds:


Here’s a partial zoom from the image:


And here’s a detail at actual size:


This next piece depicts one million plastic cups, the number used on airline flights in the U.S. every six hours:


Here’s a partial zoom:


And here’s a detail at actual size:


This next piece is a parody of Kokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa (1832). It depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans every hour. All of the plastic in this image was collected from the Pacific Ocean:


Here’s a partial zoom:


Here’s a detail at actual size:


There are lots of other similarly interesting artworks such as his pieces about junk mail, electricity waste, paper bag usage, oil usage, and more.

Although sometimes Jordan’s artwork is a little too didactic for my tastes, I nevertheless see value in his approach of visualizing the effects of mass consumption. Many times the effects of consumption are largely invisible to us: we don’t really see what happens before the product came to us and we don’t see what happens after we dispose of it. Since we only see how the product is being used at the moment we consume it, we don’t think about how our consumption of the product impacts the global environment. It’s out of sight, so it’s out of mind.

Furthermore, we don’t always think about the significance of our seemingly benign individual acts of consumption when they are multiplied to a massive scale. It’s difficult to keep in mind that millions of other people are simultaneously using the same product at the same time and what impact that might have on the environment. The numbers are sometimes too big and too abstract for us to really comprehend their full significance. And that’s what I think is particularly striking about Jordan’s artwork: it helps us to visualize the abstract consequences of consumerism in a way that is much more easy to comprehend.

It is tempting to feel overwhelmed by Jordan’s artwork. But rather than wallow in the valley of despair, I think that it’s good to have my heart pricked from time to time by images like these. They motivate me personally to want to join with others to brainstorm potential solutions to these kinds of problems. Because problems like these are going to require mutual cooperation on a global scale to solve. Maybe humans are a big part of the problem, but they’re absolutely part of the solution too.