“HOW DO WE each convince ourselves to act as if we matter, given that there’s really good evidence that we don’t?” asks photographer Chris Jordan, striking at the heart of activism’s biggest challenge. “One over six and a half billion — that’s my mathematical significance in the world.”

Jordan’s also one of a number of big names with artwork in a wide-ranging exhibit of activist art at the Katzen Arts Center. As his contribution to humanity, he makes visual art that shows us our culture’s outrageous consumption.

For the Katzen show, “Close Encounters: Facing the Future,” he made a photo-mosaic of Barbies, 32,000 in all, that meld into a pair of perky breasts. That large number, by the way, is also the count of breast enlargements performed monthly in the United States.

The exhibit shows us the latest impassioned pleas from today’s artists about not only materialism, but also war, politics and the economy.

And these visual protests are happening in a newly nuanced way. The art is both understandable and a little oblique in places; and though each piece has a point, it’s not as aggressive as, say, a LaRouchian or an IMF protester.

“I think there’s a new kind of activism that’s more self-aware, more respectful,” says Jordan. “Less finger-pointing; more ‘Let’s all look at this,’ instead of ‘You need to change!'”

That’s not to say the art is meek; Yoko Ono’s got a grove of graves in the space. Her “Ex It” is 47 plywood coffins, each with a bright young tree sprouting from the head, and birds chirping brightly in the background.

Jenny Holzer projected “A Truce to Terror: Let Us Invoke the Blessings” into a photograph of a city skyline. Yikes. And artistic duo Ligorano/Reece built the word “Democracy” out of ice, and filmed democracy melting into puddles over the course of a week — twice, actually, at both the Democratic and Republican conventions.

Art offers a particular power to those who wish for world change; images stick in the mind in a way that facts and quotes sometimes don’t. “I see myself as a translator,” says Jordan, “from the dry, unfeeling, incomprehensible language of statistics into a visual language that allows for some feeling.”

“Close Encounters” offers a fresh take on some long-standing controversies. Not to say that you’ll necessarily be convinced of something new by looking at a framed piece of art in a gallery, but it might get you talking with your friends. A little nicer than being yelled at, no?

» Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW; through Oct. 26, free; 202-885-1300.

Written by Express’ Chris Combs
Images courtesy Ligorano/Reece (top) and Chris Jordan (middle) via Katzen Arts Center