Micro/Macro

I’m in Austin, Texas visiting family.  It’s hot as hell here, but so far the forests aren’t burning down as they are in Russia.  Austin is a pretty progressive town, with a very forward thinking municipal energy company that does a pretty good job of encouraging people to switch to renewable energy sources.  My parents actually had to enter a lottery to get the right to buy wind power from the city – shows how popular it is!  And TX has some of the biggest wind farms in the country.

Nonetheless, people live like they’re in outer space here during the summer.  It’s over 100 degrees Fahrenheit every day in August, and everything is air conditioned.

Signs of awareness of the environmental crisis are not hard to find, though.  I recently went to a show at the Austin Museum of Art.  Called “Running the Numbers,” it focused on the work of the photographer Chris Jordan.  He was apparently a corporate lawyer whose work included defending oil companies until he had a kind of conversion experience and became a photographer focusing on the mammoth piles of detritus produced by our culture.  He began by simply photographing junk yards piled high with used automobile tires and similar objects.

His work has, however, evolved in far more interesting directions recent.  In “Running the Numbers,” digital photomontage images reference famous images from art history such as Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” and Van Gogh’s “Skeleton of a Skull with Burning Cigarette”.  If you click your computer mouse on these images, however, the computer zooms in to reveal that they’re made of hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of smaller objects – aluminum cans in the case of the Seurat image and cigarette boxes in the case of the Van Gogh.  Each image exemplifies a statistic – in the case of the Seurat, 106,000 cans, equal to the number consumed every 30 seconds in the U.S. Very clever – it even comes out better on the computer than in the gallery since one’s eyes simply can’t zoom down to the scale obtainable through the computer.

The museum did a great job of contextualizing the show.  We arrived in the middle of the day and were given a tour by a very knowledgeable young intern who had been present when Jordan came to introduce the show, so we were able to ask critical questions about Jordan’s intentions, references, and impact.  The museum also provided a table filled with books dealing with similar topics, including a new publication by the amazing Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky on the incredibly timely subject of the oil industry.

Burtynsky’s images in this book are, in many ways, far more traditional than Jordan’s work – building as they do on longstanding practices of landscape painting and photography as well as the minimalism of Bernd and Hilda Becher.  But Burtynsky’s work evinces far less of a sense of awe at the physical structures created by industrial modernity and far more of a sense of dread at the horrendous waste streams we produce.  For me, the most powerful images in Burtynsky’s book are the ones at the very end, the ones grouped under the (perhaps wishful) heading “the end of oil.”

Going to a show like this is in many ways quite depressing.  Burtynsky’s overwhelming vistas of waste and Jordan’s even more mind- and soul-numbing aggregations of microscopic objects that illustrate death-dealing habits of mass consumption leave one feeling overwhelmed, desperate, and perhaps even numbed.  But at least there’s some acknowledgment here of the crisis of our times.  Better this than simply sticking our collective heads in the sand.

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