300 million unconscious acts, mind-bending art and a Zen koan

The artist statement for American photographer Chris Jordan’s series Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption reads:

“Exploring around our country’s shipping ports and industrial yards, where the accumulated detritus of our consumption is exposed to view like eroded layers in the Grand Canyon, I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress……The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.

The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality. Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences….

As an American consumer myself, I am in no position to finger wag; but I do know that when we reflect on a difficult question in the absence of an answer, our attention can turn inward, and in that space may exist the possibility of some evolution of thought or action.

So my hope is that these photographs can serve as portals to a kind of cultural self-inquiry. It may not be the most comfortable terrain, but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake.”

No words can do justice to the result – you have to see it to believe it right now:

Now for the good news. For all our unconscious living, there are – literally- millions of organizations working for the environment, social justice, and peace, as outlined by Paul Hawken in his seminal book Blessed Unrest.

E. Pluribus Unum, 2009 [translation: The Many Become One] is Jordan’s take on it. He weaves together text representing those organizations intersecting at various angles to create a fascinating multi-scale mandala of the largest movement in the history of the world


Brilliant art is like a zen koan.

It is said that when a student successfully presents his interpretation of a mind-bending koan riddle, the teacher reminds him: “Even though that is true, if you do not know it yourself it does you no good.”

In other words, we can debate all day about the depth of Chris Jordan’s work and the unconscious acts of those around us, but the real question is: How did it move you? What did you feel? It’s not about the mind, and all about the experience.

I’m guessing you’re pretty moved by now – so while you’re in the zone, what do you make of this koan:

“If you meet the Buddha, kill him”

Good luck!