Chris Jordan saw more than just plastic bits and a carcass while kneeling over the albatross chicks that had died from eating garbage: He saw a mirror.The Seattle-based artist speaks Wednesday, Feb. 25, at Washington State University and will use his photographs and film clips to show how the albatross of Midway Island reflect American culture.
Midway Island is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between North America and Asia. It is smaller than the WSU campus, Jordan explains in a phone interview, and yet it is home to 3.5 million birds. Most of the birds are healthy, but the scavenging habits of the albatross have made it susceptible to changes in the environment.
It used to be that anything floating on the ocean’s surface was food — pieces of dead, floating fish or other sea life. Now, just as often, it is garbage. Not knowing the difference, the adult birds feed on the garbage and regurgitate it to their young back at Midway Island. The baby’s stomach slowly fills with plastic until they die of starvation.
Early response to the story told by Jordan’s photographs was hopelessness and despair, much like he himself experienced after his first visit. But the tens of thousands of carcasses were only part of the story; he realized that he needed to tell about the albatross that are alive.
“They’re these magnificent beings, like eagles,” he says, describing the birds’ spiritual intensity.
While on the island, he approached a group of hundreds of thousands of the birds. Instead of flying away, they came up to meet him. After this experience, Jordan knew he wanted to do more than gather photographs for a book; he wanted to create a feature-length film, which is currently a work in progress.
“It wasn’t until I had been back a couple more times that I came to hold what’s happening there in a more complete way — to hold the beauty, the majesty and mystery of the albatross and to hold the horror. I learned to hold them both,” Jordan says.
Finding that balance is not only a goal of his artwork, it’s the intention of his life.
“If we only turn toward the horror then there’s this dark, heavy energy we carry around,” Jordan says. “I want to learn how to fully face the monster and at the same time hold the beauty and majesty and live in gratitude for the miracle of our world. Because it’s still a miracle.”
Jordan has been exploring American consumer culture in his work for a number of years, but his work is not about telling people what they should do.
“Art can operate on a deeper level,” Jordan says. “It can help us reorient to what we value and what we love and from there each person is free to behave how they want.”
His hope is that audiences will leave inspired and aware, perhaps similar to looking in a mirror — only this one shows a pile of bones and feathers and garbage found on Midway Island.
“It’s our spiritual bankruptcy reflected back to us,” Jordan says. “We suffer the same thing as the albatross. They lack the ability to discern and so do we, so they become a multilayer mirror and metaphor.”
If you go:
WHAT: “Encountering Midway: A Barometer for Our Culture and Our World” presentation by artist Chris Jordan
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25
WHERE: Compton Union Building Auditorium at Washington State University in Pullman