I look back at myself two decades ago, and I think of how different me and my brain were back then–and how differently I looked at the world and communicated with others. The essential “me” is still here…it just relates to the universe much differently. What will the world look like when anywhere becomes everywhere becomes everything becomes anything?
Based on this introduction to the current exhibit by Douglas Coupland at the Vancouver Art Gallery, you can imagine that technology plays a major role, as this has been one of the big influencers in what Coupland calls “the 21st century condition.”
Other themes in the exhibit, according to the program guide, are “the singularity of Canadian culture” and “the power of language.”
Having devoted half my Master’s thesis to Coupland’s dystopian novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, I was particularly keen on seeing the first ever museum survey of his career which had a strong emphasis on images as well as words (fitting since he’s an artist and a writer).
I found this exhibit fascinating and thought-provoking. There are so many different types of art to grab your attention, from the unfinished plywood basement filled with Canadiana to a Lego tower installation; abstract art renderings of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr paintings; sticky-note style memes representing the 21st century condition; pop art referencing Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Piet Mondrian; and a peek into Coupland’s brain, to name a few.
As a Canadian, it was fun to recognize the “Secret Handshake” in the Canadiana-themed rooms:
Details from “The Brain”:
Based on Coupland’s inclusion of any and every sort of material (hub caps, cheerios, cleaning products, license plates, road signs, pencil crayons, lego, wooden blocks, plastic fruit, toy piano, etc), you get the sense that he is blurring the lines between high art and mass culture. Anything and everything is art, and it’s anywhere and everywhere, just like the title says.
The exhibit is engaging, accurate, and timely. Afterwards, I was talking with an artist-friend about the purpose of art and whether all art strives for beauty. We concluded that not all art does or necessarily should, and that Coupland’s work would not fit into the “beautiful” category. Yet to my surprise, Coupland talks about his surprise at finding “Gumhead” and “The Brain” beautiful, albeit “weirdly beautiful.” (see video below) I think I know what he’s getting at because ordinary objects definitely can be beautiful, but overall, I would characterize Coupland’s work as “critique” more than anything else. Take a look at these “Slogans for the 21st Century” that exemplify this:
The artist-critic has an important role in society. As Coupland says in the video, “Sometimes you have to look at these things” (i.e. things that are uncomfortable or unsettling) and I’m thankful he draws our eyes to them. He makes us question and rethink how our society got here and where we’re going. But I also find that Coupland doesn’t go further than this. It’s the same with his novels. He’s great at doing the dystopia thing where the world has gone wrong, how technology is making us less human and more lonely, how we need to do something to wake up and make changes before it’s too late. But just what these ideas for change are, he doesn’t give. My friend had suggested offsetting the 21st century slogans with a different room full of slogans we haven’t heard yet—ones that speak to a different story of how we could live. Coupland affirms the power of language and creativity (as evidenced by these dark reconstructions of children’s toy blocks below), so why not create new, hope-filled language? Can the future not hold hands with hope?
I found the works that most embodied his critique and methodology were a series of hornets’ nests. The ones hanging from the ceiling were real, but the ones enclosed in glass were Coupland’s own nests made from the chewed up pages of his novel, Girlfriend in a Coma. I don’t think it’s an accident that the shape resembles a brain, which, in his novel, was a metaphor for a biologically and culturally comatose condition. Similarly, in this series, Coupland questions the relationship between cultural and evolutionary time, between cultural artifacts and natural objects and how long either of them last. He’s deconstructed his own language as far as it can go. It’s not words and pages anymore. It’s pulp in the mouth. It’s chewing gum. It’s biodegradable. It’s unrecognizable. Now what?
On the subject of chewing gum and unrecognizability, you can’t help but notice this 7-foot tall sculpture of the artist outside the Gallery. It’s called “Gumhead” and it’s meant to be transformed over time to the point of unrecognizability by the application of gum. Seattle’s Gum Wall, anyone? Again, Coupland’s blurring the lines between high art (bust of a head typically found in museums) and low art (chewing gum straight from the mouths of passersby). Given Coupland’s fascination with time, I wonder if he’s keeping track of how long it takes for his face to be deconstructed/defaced?
Back to the question of beauty, the closest works I found that edged towards this category were the abstracted depictions of the Group of Seven’s and Emily Carr’s paintings. It’s interesting that they were inspired by iconographic Canadian art which, in turn, was inspired by the Canadian landscape or, in other words, natural beauty—not pop art or technology.
While I am aware that I, too, have offered a critique of Coupland, I do admire him for the amount of thoughtfulness that goes into his work. For example, it’s fairly easy to have a surface-level reading of what’s happening, but then you read the description and realize, “Oh, there’s a lot more to this piece than meets the eye.” I felt that way a few times while walking around the exhibit, especially with the hornets’ nests and with the series below. My initial reaction was, “This is something about how our brains are all the same now because of technology and we’re going to explode soon,” but if you read the description, it’s actually about a lot more than that: it speaks to the formative teenage years, emotions, anonymity, influence, information, pressure, etc.
Turns out I had a lot more to say than I anticipated on this exhibit. I do find it exciting that the Vancouver Art Gallery took a chance in having something completely different fill its walls from now until September 1. So if you live in the Vancouver area and haven’t gone, you have 2 more months to pop in! And for those of you who have visited it, what are your thoughts on everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything? Would you call it beautiful?