Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything
Vancouver Art Gallery
May 31 to September 1, 2014
By KYRA KORDOSKI, JULY 2014
Douglas Coupland is best known as an author but he has been creating visual art throughout his career. His 1991 novel Generation X aptly captured and consequently named an entire generation of human beings; it’s not surprising that his first major institutional art exhibition has a quest for zeitgeist at its heart, albeit not an entirely straightforward one. In the pop art influenced everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything at Vancouver Art Gallery, Canadian national identity is set into play with a “21st Century Condition” that has been wrought by the intermeshing of capitalism, disaster, and information.
In 2010, Coupland penned a biography of pioneering media theorist Marshall McLuhan, which he opened with a quote from his subject: “When you give people too much information, they instantly resort to pattern recognition to structure the experience."The work of the artist is to find patterns.” Taken from this perspective, everywhere is anywhere functions with a gesture something like rune casting. While large canvases, prints and sculptural elements are present, Coupland has primarily gathered objects—and words as objects—together as a means of examining contemporary life, allowing patterns to emerge from their convergence.
The exhibition is laid out through a circular course of rooms, which, as security directed, is meant to be viewed counter-clockwise. Its six sections are, in sequence: The Secret Handshake; Growing Up Utopian; Words into Objects; The Pop Explosion; The 21st Century Condition; and The Brain. The mid-point of this circuit (part of Words into Objects) is covered with a collection of rainbow hued posters hung in grids, each bearing a Slogan for the 21st Century. The slogans are aphorisms, prophecies, questions, and pithy phrases focused mostly on pervasive digital connectivity and its psychological affects. Their tone ranges from bordering on sardonic to almost poignant. Of them, “I miss my pre-internet brain” probably comes closest to a being slogan for the exhibition itself. It points not just to the massive amounts of information we deal with, but to the 21st century’s massive relative increase in information, when compared to the 20th century. It also positions the brain, a bio-physical entity, as bearing the brunt of this shift, rather than the more nebulous ‘soul’ or even ‘mind’, a distinction which is emphasized by the finale of the show—a large-scale rendition of the artist’s own information processing organ. This particular slogan furthermore carries whiffs of the nostalgia imparted by the exhibition’s preponderance of now quasi-historical objects.
Many of these objects feel ‘quasi-historical’ because they were in fact gathered over the course of several years by Coupland himself—out of a self-described packrat instinct—without him knowing their ultimate purpose. The sheer number of found things, many of which are branded, imparts a granular quality to the exhibition and strengthens its ties to pop art. Their variety encompasses anything from tobacco pipes, to commercial ice freezers, to garbage, and they feature in a number of scenarios.
On entering the exhibition, viewers encounter Brick Wall: rows of shelves reminiscent of Hirst’s The Void but lined with what can best be described as ‘stuff’, instead of pills. (It is pieces from a building kit, but this is not an immediately familiar visual reference.) The Canadian identity offered in The Secret Handshake is fashioned in large part by empty but clearly labled product packages, crowd sourced from Canadians who attended the artist’s past events. The World is a tabled assemblage of bureaucratically-coloured model towers, planes, highways, missiles, and surveillance cameras; it feels like a mid-century urban planning model gone awry. The majority of ‘stuff’ in the exhibition, though, has been used to construct The Brain—a cognitive self-portrait of the artist in which the bits and pieces have been arranged according to specific regions of brain function.
In terms of emergent patterns, Growing Up Utopian succinctly illustrates the manner in which contrasting impulses tend to run through the show. The section consists of two Lego creations. The first, 345 Modern House, consists of multiples of the only Lego kit Coupland bought as a kid; it is a grid of 100 identical, white single family dwellings that recalls the unanticipated dystopian monotony of post-war suburban ideals. The second Lego creation, Towers, is a soaring cluster of 50 irregularly shaped multichromatic structures that were built collaboratively over several months. Set under their section’s title, the pieces suggest two potentially utopic social conditions, two visions of The Future—an historical one, and one that might feel more current. These Futures could be mapped to two versions of progress: progress as increasing simplicity and order, or progress as increasing complexity and flexibility. The bias here seems to be towards the latter.
Despite an overall fairly buoyant pop character, the exhibition is also seeded with threat, both social and environmental. In The Secret Handshake, blood seeps out from under a chain locked ice-freezer, perhaps alluding to Canada’s violent colonial past and present, though these is little to orient the viewer as to a particular reason for it. A model of Toronto’s CN tower, titled Rob Ford’s Scepter, lies snapped off and charred at the base—not a particularly optimistic reflection of civic politics. A large sculptural electrical tower is bent and bowed before remixed Group of Seven landscapes, an arrangement that seems to pit human structures futilely against nature, and which directly references a ferocious winter storm that crumpled such a connective structure in real life. One of the 21st century Slogans flat out declares: “Healthy people are bad for capitalism”. In The Brain, Coupland’s death drive is represented by the oil-slicked carcass of a seabird.
The most prominent instance of this darker vein is the section sweepingly titled “The 21st Century Condition”. The larger of its two rooms is dedicated entirely to 9-11, with models of the Twin Towers standing over head-high in the center. The walls around them are hung with dot prints that, when viewed through the camera app of visitors’ own smart phones, reveal low-res portraits of Osama Bin Laden, drones, and falling victims who jumped from the burning towers. This process essentially forces viewers to enact how we tend to behave in response to any significant (or even insignificant) event these days—by pulling out our phones—which emphasizes our increasing psychological integration with technology. The larger claim is that what we are today has been very fundamentally shaped by this one traumatic event. In the second room of the section, The World, described above, is not only scattered with warheads and (seemingly fake) surveillance cameras pointed back out at viewers, but its centerpiece is a model of the N.S.A., and it is ornamented with prominent globes whose continents are depicted smothered in thick black oil.
For a show so explicitly concerned with social implications of the digital, it is at very least notable both how little technology is used within the exhibition, and how little acknowledgement there is of contemporary new media and net art. Couplands Slogans are frequently about the internet without necessarily feeling like they are taken directly from the internet; despite the presence oversized smartphone barcodes in the Pop Explosion section, the formal affect remains solidly pop without veering significantly towards post-internet. Age of course can’t be pegged to medium or style, but the marked formal distance from contemporary digital culture does throw into relief the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have never, or have only very briefly, had a pre-internet brain to miss. anything is everything is patently not digitally native, which makes sense, as neither is Coupland, but his work here seems to be more specifically addressing the psychological experience of those whose adult brains span the transition from 20th to 21st century, a fact which complicates the ubiquity suggested by the exhibition’s title and claims of universal social conditions.
Another of the Slogans states, “Nostalgizing the way people’s brains worked in the 20th century helps nobody”. While the pop art influence may feel fairly nostalgic in and of itself, it doesn’t seem like Coupland is trying to romanticize the past here. Rather, the juxtaposition of (largely but certainly not entirely) 20th century aesthetics with 21st century social, technological and ecological issues emerges as a strategy for productively dealing with massive change and potentially devastating threat. To an extent, anything is everything has a more political character than it seems to care to admit. The reticence is perhaps due to the fact that, as Boris Groys puts it, “many critics say that the morally good intentions of art activism substitute for artistic quality.” The idea that the ‘job of artists is to find patterns’ implies a kind of ethical neutrality, as if the work of interpreting and acting on those patterns were the responsibility of an abstract ‘someone else’ or a generalized ‘public’. Coupland couldn’t be called an activist, but the patterns he chooses to highlight are themselves ethical choices, which shouldn’t be downplayed. Gumhead—the gigantic version of Coupland’s head parked outside the gallery, which anyone and everyone is invited to decorate with chewed gum—could well be one of the most socially productive pieces in the show, particularly when set against the disorientation and danger alluded to in the main body of the exhibition. So far engagement with it has been enthusiastic; as such, it draws attention to and encourages an essential impulse to not merely passively ‘view’ but to act.