Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Power of Visual Imagery

"A picture speaks louder than words," according to the old saying and there's no better proof of that than the current exhibit at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles.

I'm a great fan of Seattle photographer Chris Jordan who creates huge ink-jet images of massive quantities of everyday objects that art critic Christopher Knight suggested might be called "Still Lifes on Steroids." Jordan's photos are exhibited along with statistics connecting them to our penchant for over-consumption and the challenges we face to be socially responsible.

For example, the piece "Building Blocks, 2007" is 16 feet tall x 32 feet wide in eighteen square panels, each 62" x 62," and depicts nine million wooden building blocks, representing the number of children without health insurance in 2007. The piece "Toothpicks, 2007" is 60" x 99" and shows 8 million toothpicks, representing the number of trees harvested every month to make paper for mail order catalogues.

Viewed from a distance, the photographs make stunningly beautiful abstract works of art; up close, the effect is just as stunning as we're forced to contemplate the real-world information they convey.

Jordan describes "Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait," the title of this recent series, as follows:

"This new series looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 426,000 cell phones retired every day. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs. My underlying desire is to affirm and sanctify the crucial role of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming."

The exhibit continues through October 20th. If you're in the Los Angeles area, I highly recommend it; if you're unable to see the work in person, Jordan's website does a fine job of conveying his message.

© 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


BigNerd said...

Nice chewy nugget you posted here!

You've hit on a parallel message that has a book deal written all over it. Something along the lines of "The Numbing of America. Another Day, Another Stat. How We Try to Justify Everything With Numbers."

(Have your people call my people to set this up.)

We've long passed the point where Data alone can move a person to ACT. An example from my early school years was when a teacher tried to relay how much a "million" was. "If you took a breath every second, for the rest or your life, you would not reach a million." This childhood memory allowed my brain to briefly quantify how really big a 'million' was. Cool! However, this message was not enough to ramp up my breathing to a state of hyperventilation.

As a society we've lost this 'wow' factor. Chris Jordan's photography points us in the right direction by forcing us to react via a quiet, shock induced, visual stimulation on the level of a fireworks show. That's a good thing. It does not answer why we can't fathom 'bigness' by simply closing our eyes and triangulating our relative position - and impact - to the world around us.

Blog on!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

I agree that we have lost the "wow" factor about a lot of things; I don't think that's to our benefit as a society or on a personal level. It makes too many of us jaded and cynical, attitudes that I've always considered excuses for not taking responsibility for what we're doing -- and that definitely gets in the way of positive change.

Thanks for your comment!