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Art, Big Numbers & Mass Consumption


Found In: Arts, Mathematics, 6-8, 9-12

How can we make sense of big numbers? Infographics is one strategy. Another is the imagery created by photographer and artist Chris Jordan. Jordan’s work is large scale. One image of Benjamin Franklin is 10.5 feet tall and 8.5 feet wide. It is constructed with $100 bills and depicts the hourly cost of the Iraq war. Other Jordan subjects are mass consumption and waste, particularly garbage.

Jordan’s website has two galleries devoted to making sense of consumerism. Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait looks at consumerism on the national scale. Some examples:

  • Caps Seurat, 2011” uses 400,000 plastic bottle caps, which is the average number of plastic bottles consumed in the United States every minute to recreate Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” 1884. The use of bottle caps to imitate Seurat’s pointillist technique should appeal to art teachers.
  • Running the Numbers II: Portraits of Global Mass Cultur” addresses the same problem on the global scale, using 92,500 agricultural plant seeds, equal to one hundredth of one percent of the number of people in the world today who suffer from malnutrition.
  • Shark Teeth, 2009” is based on a watercolor by Sarah Waller and uses 270,000 fossilized shark teeth, or the estimated number of sharks of all species killed around the world every day for their fins. The fins are used to make shark fin soup. The rest of the animal is thrown back into the ocean to die. If you want an idea of what the oceans will look like without sharks, walk a city’s streets during a sanitation workers’ strike.

Two cautionary notes. One image is an abstract depiction of nude female breasts, using 32,000 Barbie dolls to represent the frequency of breast augmentation surgery; be sure to follow school policies and use discretion. Another image represents the suicides of Indian farmers following Monsanto’s introduction of Terminator Seeds; the statistical connection has been questioned.

Jordan’s images would be especially effective on a whiteboard. Clicking the image zooms in to reveal the objects used to create it. Jordan addresses the educational use of his images on his FAQs page.

 

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