A friend of mine emailed me a link to some images he thought I’d like. They changed my afternoon. And I had to share this with you simply because work like this needs to be shared. They are images taken by photographer Chris Jordan. (Please click on the links below the photographs to take you to his website so you can view his entire body of work and learn more about him.) He’s an artist that actually contributes something to the world without being didactic. The images he produces have a post-mortem feel to them–absent of sound, movement, and mostly life. I’d seen some of his work before in coffee table books and such when I was in art school and had forgotten he existed. Then the other day I was sent a link and was told I had to look at these. Forgoing any thought that I was looking at “art” I sat in my study and let my afternoon be changed one image at a time. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen images that could produce a special kind of white noise left inside me after I see them–the kind of noise that comes after you experience something you never asked for–I was refreshed and taken by the shoulders.
They’re dead birds.
The images were shot in September 2009 on small island in the North Pacific. They are the corpses of baby albatrosses fed by mothers who scoop up what looks to them like food from open waters and bring them back to Midway Atoll, which is a tiny protrusion of sand and coral in the middle of the ocean. According to the artist, “To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.”
Forget that you are looking at “photographs” because these are some of the most cross-genre photographs I have ever seen. I like to think of them as interdisciplinary works. Because most of the images are shot straight on with little or no perspective, it’s easy to read the image as flat, abstract paintings–simply color and variation in texture, which is arguably what a painting is at its roots. The conglomeration of faded plastic pieces becomes a discovered palette. In context, what we’re really looking at is an abstraction of both the biological and the industrial strewn together in one of natures most beautiful accidents on a picture plane excised from the ground somewhere on a remote island and brought to us by artist Chris Jordan.
And they’re what the art world calls “assemblages:” sculptures or masses of found objects manipulated and assembled by an artist. In this case, the assemblage is a collaboration in which one of the collaborators dies. Ironically, the finale is that the birds themselves become nests, their bodies a single, frozen frame of a gastric explosion–the grotesque embodiment of our world’s habit of over-eating, over-consumption, and excess in general. They simply needed to feed, and the objects they discovered were no treasures. No tokens. No trinkets. Of no significance to them. The tragedy is obvious.
I’ve used a lot of “arty” words and concepts. But I want you to know that the thing that works about these images is that I don’t feel like I’m looking at art. In a world where we are constantly over-saturated with prepared images from advertisers and political figures, sometimes we are graced with things like this. We are quality-obsessed when we think we’re looking at art. “Is it good?” we ask. But the real question should be, “Does it affect you?” Otherwise it doesn’t matter anyway. They are pockets of silence in which we can realize that just the act of looking can change us. Thank you, Chris Jordan for reminding me of this.