Something Missing: The Whale Without Jonah

Whenever Douglas Coupland has art in Vancouver, I’m usually keen to check it out. The city has a few public artworks by him and Vancouver Art Gallery held the first major survey exhibit of his work in 2014 that I reviewed here.

I’ve read many of his books, spending the most time with Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) as that was one of the books I analyzed for my Master’s research paper. The book is set in suburban North Vancouver where Coupland grew up, and I looked at how place shapes characters and their interactions in contrast to characters in another Vancouver-based novel who grow up in a walkable, high-density neighbourhood. I recently learned Coupland is recreating the book through photos via The Rabbit Lane Project.

The Whale Without Jonah by Douglas Coupland at Dal Schindell Gallery, Regent College.

Coupland is a writer, artist, collector of objects, and cultural critic. His novels and artworks have an uncanny ability to speak to our times, ask the big questions, spark connections to unlikely things, and make you feel a little less alone. He’s an interdisciplinary thinker par excellence. As a result of his focus on contemporary culture, topics like humanity’s obsession with technology and our role in the environmental catastrophe frequently recur in his practice.

The latter is a prominent focus of his current exhibit at The Dal Schindell Gallery in Regent College, a theological graduate school in Vancouver that positions itself as a place where students come to ask the big questions (I know this because I used to work in their marketing department!)

Douglas Coupland, The Whales Without Jonah, 2021. This piece was toddler candy.

The focus of the exhibit The Whale Without Jonah is the title piece, an installation of found whales ranging from battery-operated plastic Fisher Price toys to wooden sculptures mounted on rods, all swimming the same direction. There are some plastic heads of action figures lying on the bottom, probably meant to represent the ocean floor, and a few “Jonahs” hanging out of select whales’s mouths, but for the most part, Jonah is conspicuously absent.

Coupland explains why:

I can’t help but wonder that with the Book of Jonah, the medium was the message, and the message was the whale itself. I have to believe that God’s message to Nineveh was ecological, because so rarely in religious texts is the natural world ever even addressed, meriting only casual statements along the lines that humans have dominion over nature, which seems merely to have given license to humans to do whatever they please wherever they please.

Detail of The Whales Without Jonah.

I had never thought of this interpretation before and I am still considering it. To me, the confounding story of Jonah reads like a satire and makes even less sense if it’s all about the whale and not the reluctant prophet on either side of the sea voyage, but I digress.

His other installations include racks of spice jars from the 1970s, Band-Aids from the artist’s AstraZeneca vaccines, a pile of his clothes “left behind” in the rapture, and vintage Christmas spray cans of snow he calls Global Warming.

Douglas Coupland, The Rapture, 2012-2021. The 1.5 tsp of nutmeg under a glass represents the approximate amount of DNA in the average human being.

While his arrangement of objects is somewhat interesting to look at, what is more interesting is reading the pamphlet about the works available at the Gallery entrance. In my review of his 2014 exhibit at the VAG, I said a similar thing—that after reading his statements, I realized, “Oh, there’s a lot more to this piece than meets the eye.”

After seven years of working in an art gallery myself and being that much older/bolder, now I would say I wish there was more that met my eye, more than kept me looking at Coupland’s art. My 21-month-old daughter was with me and her reaction to the artist’s Band-Aids mounted in a frame illustrates this point: she glanced, pointed, announced “Band-Aids” and then ran to the next piece in less than two seconds. In his lengthy write-up about the Band-Aids, though, Coupland talks about provocative slogans he would put on his Instagram feed to elicit reactions and how COVID revealed people’s worst behaviours. Okay, but what’s the connection to the actual Band-Aids hanging on the wall, other than that he believes in science and that the vaccines are a modern-day miracle? (with the latter phrase, I’m just assuming that based on the artwork’s title).

Douglas Coupland, Miracle, 2021.

Similarly, when I saw the wall of old spice racks, I looked closer to see if I was missing something, if he had changed out the labels or done something with them. No, they were spices exactly like you would see in your grandma’s kitchen. In his written statement though, he philosophizes about them:

Spices were from some place far away, and difficult to obtain and spoke of other worlds and other realms. I began to see the connection between spices and death—both the ancient Egyptians and the Vikings included spices in burial sites as offerings to celestial gatekeepers. They were rare and valued and it is only now, as I type these words, that I’m making the direct connection between my need to collect 1970s spices and my father’s death.

From left to right: Frankincense, 1972 McCormick’s spice bottles; King Tut’s Tomb, 1983 Crystal Foods spice bottles; Myrrh, various 1970s American spice tins.

Given that the atwork’s titles aren’t even beside the works (they’re printed in the pamphlet), there is nothing in the art itself to communicate these compelling connections to the viewer. If the medium is the message but the message isn’t getting through, perhaps the visual medium is not serving him well here.

At the risk of sounding the opposite of interdisciplinary, what I’m trying to say is that the exhibit shows Coupland as a collector and I’m more interested in what he can create as an artist.

I wonder if this point is related to my disappointment that I didn’t actually need to experience these works in person—the photographs on the website sufficed just as well. There should be a difference, right? Shouldn’t there be something additive about seeing a work in person?

I think the other reason the physical experience didn’t add value is because there wasn’t much, if any, craft to see in these works. That’s the nature of found art installations—you’re putting things together that already exist, but you’re not demonstrating a level of craft like painting or collage or weaving or photography.

I shared this critique with my husband who has an MA in Painting and studied Arts and Theology at Regent College. He says the issue he finds with a lot of conceptual artists is that they don’t take their ideas far enough and don’t seem to care about the actual material. Their message or idea is more important than the medium used to express it (which is interesting given that Coupland quotes Marshal McLuhan in the quote I pulled earlier from The Whales Without Jonah).

Douglas Coupland, Global Warming, 2019.

He gave an example: with the aerosol spray cans containing Freon that is known to damage the Earth’s ozone layer, Coupland could have taken those cans apart, hammered flat the labels stating their toxic chemical contents, cut and pasted it on top of the continents on an actual globe. That way his clever paradox of showing Global Warming with snow cans would still hold and be even stronger because he’s manipulating the material to make something new that matches medium with message, form with content.

Wanting to give credit to my husband where credit is due, I’ll share another idea he had. With the spice racks, Coupland could have dismantled the wood, used it to make a miniature tomb or coffin, and put the spices inside of it. Then your material is helping communicate the message about spices and their relationship to death.

Douglas Coupland, Umami, 2021, Various 1980s American spice bottles with wood rack.

Maybe that’s the missing piece I go to art galleries in person for: to see and marvel at how an artwork is made and to contemplate how the making contributes to the meaning. I wanted more how from Coupland in The Whale Without Jonah; I wanted art that held my attention before turning to the pamphlet to read about it instead.

What do you go to an art gallery for?

This exhibit is showing until September 5. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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