By Rachel Katz
Douglas Coupland’s -everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything-
Until only very recently did I learn anything about Douglas Coupland. Up till then he existed on the periphery of my awareness. Sure, I’d heard of him—all Canadians of a certain age have—but I’d never taken the time to get to know his work. If I thought I was lacking or culturally deficient in some way, those feelings were put to rest when I finally ran into someone who’d never even heard the name Douglas Coupland.
And then a friend of mine tried, in the space of five minutes, to give me a rundown of all his “most important” books. It was a dizzying lecture, very little of which I remember. Weirdly, the titles (with the exception of Generation X) didn’t mean much to me until I later saw the book covers in the “Reading Corner” at the ROM. J-Pod and Hey Nostradamus were instantly recognizable, suggesting that book marketing is as much about the cover as it is about title and content, if not more.
Coupland made a name for himself as a writer long before he was celebrated as a visual artist. Piling on the irony, Coupland attended art school but paid the bills as a magazine writer. His breakthrough (and first) novel, Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture began life as an article in the September 1987 issue of Vancouver Magazine. Based on the article’s popularity, Coupland was given an advance to write a book on the same topic, and that manuscript was promptly rejected by no less than sixteen publishers in Canada and the US. It was picked up eventually by an American publisher and far from being an overnight success, the book slowly gained traction until a critical mass of followers was reached. Only then was Coupland recognized as the “voice of a generation.”
Coupland’s books are set in the immediate present. Sometimes described as a futurist, he’s more of a “presentist,” commenting on the now. The same could be said of his art. As a pop theorist, Coupland’s art is steeped in the moment—he’s a contemporary artist with an emphasis on the influences that shape the current cultural condition. Terrorism, particularly 9/11, the waning environment, and new technologies are all contributing factors, are all responsible for how we live now, and they make their presence felt in his work. Silver Boogeyman and The Lovers, for example, are meant to be viewed through a mobile phone, and Slogans for the 21st Century points out curious aspects of modern life.
Through his art, Coupland discusses life in North America. He neither idealizes nor condemns it, he merely shows it to us. Nor is his art political. The idealization or condemnation or politics, they all come from us. Coupland doesn’t comment necessarily on the positive or negative aspects of a post-9/11 society, for instance. He just points out how different the world is now. Any value judgements come from inside us.
The MOCCA exhibit is smaller and more cohesive than the one at the ROM. It’s a less-is-more sort of feeling that is created by two relatively large installations. Over eight pictures form Coupland’s G7 series, and a selection from Canada House that resembles a basement den, are discrete units within the gallery space. Unlike the exhibit at the ROM where everything is everywhere, at MOCCA visitors are able to experience one thing at a time. The stark and angular beauty of the G7 series gives way to the fun and fundamentally conflicted Lego creations in Growing Up Utopian, which in turn gives way to the odd comforts of Canada House.
Photography is highly encouraged and I took a great deal of pictures both at MOCCA and the ROM. So was everyone else, particularly of Slogans, an installation at the ROM that was first teased in the windows of the Holt Renfrew flagship store on Bloor Street West. As I watched, a trio of friends rotated through the roles of photographer and subject. “That’s great,” said the guy holding the camera phone. “The slogan behind you is perfect.” It was clear the setup wasn’t intentional, but the slogans are so numerous and so incisive/insightful it’s hard not to photograph oneself in front of them and not get one in frame that isn’t apropos.
When I held up my phone to Poseidon Adventure, as directed by a sign on the wall, I have to admit I didn’t see much of a difference there. Maybe my Lumia 1020 is too hi-res for the art. I stood by as another visitor held her iPad up to The Lovers. She remarked on how she didn’t “see” it, and asked if it had worked for me. I took a photo of and blurred the image, hoping that might help, but only met with limited success. I understood what Coupland was trying accomplish and was mildly put out that I couldn’t experience the art in quite the way he expected.
That is, until I looked back at Silver Boogeyman and Drone Attack from across the room. The space between me and the images brought the subjects into focus. The distance gave me perspective and I could make out Bin Laden’s silhouette and the shape of the drone. I’m sure it’s not exactly how Coupland meant the encounter to play out, but it worked for me.
Hanging around the corner from one another are selections from two different series: Dead Grads, and Pop Head. Dead Grads is a series of blacked portraits in which the images have been darkened to be nearly invisible. As I stood there, trying hard to concentrate on the portraits, which I could just barely make out, my attention kept getting drawn to the reflections in the glass. I could see the faces, but I couldn’t linger on them, distracted as I was by the art reflected back at me. I can’t say for sure if the effect was intentional, but the result gave me pause to consider the ADD nature of our culture, bombarded as we are on all sides all the time with competing stimuli. And life, at the centre of it, fleeting and forgotten.
Compare that to the Pop Head images, yearbook-style portraits in which the faces have been painted over. Here, the faces are completely hidden and no amount of staring will make them appear. The bright colours of the paint obscure the image in a deliberate attempt to upset the viewer. Moreover, the way the paint pours down over the face makes it seem like the portrait is bleeding.
Coupland’s art isn’t violent, though some of it is inspired by violence. The eerie calm of Twin Towers speaks to a violent moment in history and the white scale models of the two towers are ghostly reminders that all things will eventually end.
The art at MOCCA is less abstract than some of what’s on display at the ROM, meaning it’s perhaps a bit more accessible to the uninitiated. It’s also distinctly more Canadian. The G7 series is recognizable as Tom Thomson and Group of Seven-inspired works. Indeed, Coupland recreated the Canadian landscapes by Photshopping crummy digital images he found on the Internet. Ice Storm, which is a bent electrical tower, is a literal/visual representation of the damage caused by the ice storm that ravaged eastern Canada in 1989.
Anything can be art, Coupland says. It’s been said elsewhere that he’s a bricoleur, using whatever’s at hand to make his statements about North American life and the 21st century. Coloured pencils, children’s toys, even his own books have been turned into something other, something else. Abstraction is the wrong word for it, (re)presentation might be more on point.
Everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything features works made since the early 2000s and is the first major survey of Coupland’s oeuvre. Spread over two museums, and including an interactive installation at Holt Renfrew Men, everywhere truly incorporates any- and everything. It’s fun and scary and thoughtful and weird—a lot like our lives and world in which we live.
everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything is on display at the Royal Ontario Museum through April 26, and at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art through April 19.