Review: Douglas Coupland exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery

The other week, I joined Twitter and was immediately flooded with information, including the news that Douglas Coupland was opening a new solo show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Naturally, I used the newfound medium of Twitter to its fullest purpose: whining.

I really do get some weird stuff people want me to write about. But my petulant cry into the Internet was rewarded with an undeservedly generous response from VAG staff:

I am going to come right out and say it: I am a Douglas Coupland fan. I’ve read most of his novels as well as his photo essays Terry, City of Glass and Souvenir of Canada. I credit Terry with getting my young nieces excited about the story of Terry Fox and motivating them to raise money for the Terry Fox Foundation each year on their birthdays. I even met Coupland at a book launch party once, where he patiently let me slobber my fandom all over him in the guise of a conversation for about 10 minutes. It had been a terrible night, for various reasons, but I felt great walking out of there after that chance encounter.

Aside from the carefully composed photos in his Canada books, or the Terry Fox Memorial at BC Place Stadium, however, I hadn’t seen very much of his art. His books have evolved a distinct visual style, with a sans serif typeface on the covers that should probably be named “Coupland” by now. (Or, if you prefer, the “Cards Against Humanity.”) That typeface is seen throughout the VAG show, too.

Everywhere Is Anywhere Is Anything Is Everything uses material culture, Pop Art, consumer products and interactive technology to explore what it is to be a human, particularly a Canadian one, in late 20th and/or early 21st century. If you possess these attributes, you will likely get this show.

Coupland and I are similar in a lot of ways. We both grew up on Vancouver’s North Shore, which is also where Coupland set some of his novels. I used to deliver pizza to Rabbit Lane in West Vancouver’s British Properties and to the Delbrook neighbourhood of North Van, prominently featured in Girlfriend in a Coma and Hey Nostradamus! respectively. “Growing Up Utopian,” which largely consists of a “perfect” Lego suburbia backed by tall towers, could be taken as the view of downtown Vancouver from many a North Shore neighbourhood, albeit with more hills.

Coupland is fascinated with the material culture of our society, as well as ambivalent toward technology, a tension I think we all feel with living in a consumer-oriented society. His assemblages of familiar objects delight, whether it is plywood shelves holding a variety of retro Canadian items such as Labatt’s stubbies and Woodward’s brand canned goods in the Canadiana section titled “Secret Handshake” or the giant assemblage of food and toys and furniture making up “The Brain.”

Technology is derided in the room of witty put-it-on-T-shirt messages titled “Slogans for the 21st Century,” mostly dealing with the onslaught of social media (“I miss my pre-Internet brain” reads one); yet other parts of exhibit use interactive technology to enhance the experience. The Pop Art Explosion displays paintings that look like giant QR codes – and they can be scanned with a smartphone (if you can get it all in the screen) to reveal messages – and the 21st Century Condition section displays pieces that seem to come into better focus if you view them through the lens of a phone or tablet. (There is also an audio tour component for iPhone and Android, and the gallery has some iPads you can borrow.)

There’s a fair amount of “a-ha” if you share this milieu, and also homage to artistic influences such as the Group of Seven and Andy Warhol. The blacked-out grad photos reminded me of Warhol, as did the Tokyo Harbour assemblage of Japanese cleaning products, in the sense of putting everyday objects into artistic context. Why is it that coming across bottles of the mysterious pink cleanser I used to clean my tiny Japanese apartment fill me with delight upon encountering them in a gallery? Or spying a tiny model of our old Chiba City hangout, the Toyoko Inn, in the midst of the otherwise apocalyptic installation “The World, 2013-2014”?

Frankly, I’m not an art critic, but these witty references to popular culture, these particular ways of seeing a screwy world, are very familiar if you read Coupland’s books. His views are often dim, dealing with a post-apocalyptic near future/present (Player One and Generation A come to mind), but there’s a glimmer of delight, cynical as it may appear.

He works in the medium of familiar, with found objects, putting them together in ways that perhaps appear obvious (“Oh, I could have done that … if I’d thought of it!”). But that’s just the beauty of it, Coupland’s highly developed visual style and his way of connecting and putting objects together are perhaps what you would express if you knew how. I know I smiled a lot while walking through this exhibition.

And I’ll probably go again.

Everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything is on until September 1, 2014 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Image gallery

Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.

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