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!

Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything

Douglas Coupland atrium

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.”IMG_8786

The Twin Towers with images of falling humans in the works behind.

The Twin Towers with images of falling humans in the works behind.

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.

All you Piet Mondrian fans, do you get the reference?

All you Piet Mondrian fans, do you get the reference?

Lego installation. Suburbia vs. urban jungle. Utopia vs. dystopia?

Lego installation. Suburbia vs. urban jungle. Utopia vs. dystopia?

As a Canadian, it was fun to recognize the “Secret Handshake” in the Canadiana-themed rooms:

Canadiana

Canadiana

Secret HandshakeHub cap blanketCanadianaI also enjoyed identifying some familiar objects I played with as a kid in “The Brain” installation (Mousetrap, toboggans, old cash registers, etc.)

"The Brain"

“The Brain”

Details from “The Brain”:

Detail from "The Brain"Detail 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.

IMG_8778IMG_8769Cleaning Products

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:

"Slogans for the 21st Century"

“Slogans for the 21st Century”

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?

"Talking Sticks" series

“Talking Sticks” series

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?

Hornet's Nest Girlfriend in a Coma

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?

Gumhead. Can you tell I visited it on Canada Day?

Gumhead. Can you tell I visited it on Canada Day?

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.

Inspired paintings

This was my favourite

This was my favourite

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.

Pop headsPop explosion descriptionTurns 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?