Since I am currently on a ship slowly steaming across the vast azure void of the Pacific Ocean, it seems appropriate to discuss an artist that specializes in not only environmental conservation messages, but in a medium that calls our attention to the size and scale of the challenges that have beset our planet.
Chris Jordan is a Seattle-based artist who has both an unrivaled determination and an uncanny ability to tackle some of the largest problems in the world – and I mean that quite literally. Jordan excels at confronting issues that threaten our very survival, but are simply too large for us to easily understand. One of the ironic cruelties of ocean conservation is the fact that the problems facing us are so astoundingly immense that we simply lack the brain power to truly comprehend them. When talking about pollution, overfishing, and climate change, we routinely speak in numbers so large that we are unable to construct a mental picture that reflects the truth.
For example, consider the case of the world’s largest food fishery, Alaska pollock. For the last several years, the total landings of Alaska pollock have roughly averaged around 1.5 million tons. 1.5 million tons certainly seems like a huge number — but what does it look like? How many fish is that, exactly? How many freezers would that fill? How many people does that feed? How many football stadiums could we bury under frozen pollock fillets? The number is simply so large that we cannot grasp the actual amount of biomass in question. This lack of understanding stymies our ability to understand the impacts of our actions on the health of our planet.
Chris Jordan’s talent lies not just in his ability to translate the incomprehensibly large into the understandably small, but to do so in a way that actually enhances the gravitas of the subject matter. One area in which he has seemingly achieved the impossible is in the case of the North Pacific gyre, home of the litter-strewn waters known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “trash vortex.” When we discuss the gyre and its lamentable petro-saturated state, it becomes difficult to truly grasp the dimensions of the problem for the simple reason that it is so staggeringly large. We can say something like “twice the size of Texas,” but how does one truly visualize that expanse? What will it take to truly drive home the gargantuan scope of the trash vortex and the looming challenge that it represents?
Jordan attacked the problem head on by creating his awe-inspiring “Gyre”: a mosaic of discarded, waterlogged plastic that he has painstakingly arranged to mimic Hokusai’s “Great Wave off Kanagawa,” which is unequivocally one of the most well-known seascapes in the history of mankind. Jordan’s piece measures only nine feet by twelve feet, yet somehow manages to convey the immense scale of the trash vortex, which is nearly the size of the continental United States. The close-up shots reveal the millions of pieces of plastic that have been co-opted into this mammoth task. His use of actual flotsam and jetsam taken from the sea itself to create such an iconic encapsulation of the ocean is a stroke of genius — the viewer cannot help but imagine the foreboding reality of a sea composed entirely of plastic.
Jordan has also weighed in on the abominable practice of shark finning and the hellacious scope of the industry’s shark-slaughtering machine. His 2009 photograph “Shark teeth” showcases an artfully arranged collection of fossilized shark teeth ranging from off-white and beige to dusky blue and dark grey. The original piece measures 64″ by 94″ and is based on a watercolor by artist Sarah Waller. There are 270,000 teeth in the collage – one tooth for each shark that is killed by the global finning fleet every single day.
Jordan’s juxtaposition of stratospheric mega-imagery with close-ups of minute detail smacks the viewer with two difference senses of awe: the jaw drops upon perceiving the abyssal magnitude of the work, while the eyes squint and forehead wrinkles in disbelief at its pseudo-molecular intricacy. He accomplishes the same task on behalf of one of the world’s most beleaguered fish with “Tuna,” a photographic marvel detailing 20,500 tuna — the average number of tuna captured from the world’s oceans every fifteen minutes.
Jordan proves through his relentless drive, his attention to detail, and his willingness to confront issues beyond the scope of human imagination that we are truly an omnipotent race. We have created these problems for ourselves, but however massive they have become, however long they have festered, whether spiraling outward in plastic ripples across the face of the deep or tearing into it with greed-driven claws, it is within out power to understand them – and with that understanding will come one inevitable conclusion: we can, and we must, save the ocean.