The recent feature exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), a Douglas Coupland retrospective, provided an opportunity to explore another dimension of an artist known by many as a prolific writer.
Coupland was born in 1961 at the Royal Canadian Airforce base in West Germany and later moved with his family to Vancouver in 1965. He is a graduate (1984) of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and his many creative talents (in addition to writing) have included installation, painting, photography, print making, quilt design, as well as public art commissions.
As you proceed through the various galleries you come to appreciate the skill and imagination of the artist as he manipulates everyday articles, modifying some, over-sizing others to create images or structures that raise questions regarding, among other things, what it is to be Canadian; consumerism and the omnipresence of technology; and, the use of language in an age of social media. One of the contributors to the show’s extensive catalogue suggests that Coupland is a skilled “assemblagist” creating material essays as he reflects on the foibles and the challenges of living in the 21st century.
Before entering the first gallery of the exhibition you encounter The Brick Wall (2004/2014), an entire wall of shelves filled with hundreds of small objects. As you examine the “wall” you begin to recognize the myriad objects (toy building materials) randomly placed on the shelves, noting their shapes and then their color (all primary colors). You begin to identify the pieces and likely have a memory flash-back to when you used such pieces to create objects or games on your own. This seems to be the leitmotif of Coupland’s style – you can create anything from everything.
I particularly liked the installation Secret Handshake, 2014 as it continues a theme of Coupland’s – to document things Canadian. He started this theme in his early books Souvenir of Canada (2002) and Souvenir of Canada 2 (2004). He moved from the literary to the conceptual with this creation which incorporates and expands an earlier site specific installation entitled Canada House (2003). He likes to joke that if you are not a Canadian you won’t understand the components of Secret Handshake.
Coupland expects us to get up close and personal with his installations as each requires a macro-view and then a much more detailed micro-perspective. For me the more I consider the various components of an installation the more of a context emerges.
For example in the Secret Handshake installation one of the two sofas (Reservation Sofa) speaks to the marginalization of the aboriginal population by representing the larger non-aboriginal portion with the cushion covering in McIntosh tartan and the smaller section of the sofa in knitting reminiscent of a Cowichan First Nations sweater.
For the second sofa (Two Solitudes), Coupland fashioned a mid-19th century sitting arrangement allowing two people to sit “together” but not face one another in conversation. As noted in the catalogue, this piece offers “…a tangible metaphor of the strain of official Canadian biculturalism”.
In creating the installation 345 Modern Houses, 2014 Coupland has some fun at the expense of 1960 city planner’s utopian vision of an ideal subdivision. He has created a mind-numbing grid of 100 identical homes based on the number 345 Lego kit – a 1970 reproduction of a Copenhagen bungalow and the only Lego kit Coupland purchased as a child.
Another installation that I particularly liked was The World, 2013-2014.
Coupland’s take on the urban condition is fashioned from toys, architectural models, globes and corporate logos/signs suggesting the density and compactness of living and working in close proximity to one another and to the sources of our support systems – housing, offices, transportation, electricity and oil. The price of this urban model is over-crowding, pollution (represented by the defaced globes), changes to our environment (note the pile of dead bees) and the ever-present surveillance camera (scattered through out the installation).
Douglas Coupland is an artist who speaks to contemporary issues in a style that is both accessible and engaging. In place of his pen he has gone conceptual, adapting familiar objects in colourful and quirky ways in order to comment on the world around us.
The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in January 2015.