If you’ve ever heard someone throw around the term “Generation X”, you can thank – or blame – Canadian writer and artist Douglas Coupland.
His 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture became a best seller and “Gen X” entered into pop culture idiom to describe the children of post-Second-World-War “Baby Boomers”, as did “McJobs”, the term used in the novel to describe dead-end, low-paying jobs. Coupland has gone on to write many more novels, works of non-fiction, cultural commentaries, film scripts, a television series based on his novel jPod, a play, and even a biography of Canadian communications and media commentator Marshall McLuhan.
He didn’t start out as a writer, however. As a young man he studied art and design at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver and, to this day, Coupland makes Vancouver his home.
I noted over the years that Coupland’s visual arts side was re-emerging; he was commissioned to create several monuments and installations across Canada. In 2013, the Vancouver Art Gallery came calling, wanting to mount a major survey of his creations. As he said in interviews at the time, he thought he “was being punked.”
I read early reports about the exhibition, noting it included Lego structures and trash-heap-bits-become-“art” assemblages: stuff that normally set off a “wanker” alarm bell in my brain.
The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything (named after an unpublished Coupland essay) had six sections, starting with “Secret Handshakes” and ending with “The Brain”. My friend, arts writer Marsha Lederman, wrote a detailed feature for the Globe and Mail on the exhibition. She made it sound compelling. When it was coming to Toronto – parts 1 and 2 at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art and parts 3 through 6 at the Royal Ontario Museum – I decided to set aside my “are you serious?” reservations and go take a look.
Who among us likes to admit they are wrong? So, reluctant confession: I had a hoot at the bifurcated Toronto version of everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything.
The “Secret Handshake” section was one big Canadian insider love-in. When Coupland has been described as a “collector,” that hardly covers it. The installation was filled with “omigod look at that!” artifacts of Canadian history, assembled in wood chests, on shelves or in other displays. “Growing Up Utopian” juxtaposed two versions of urbanity via Lego: one was a militarily precise patterned repetition of a simple Lego house model Coupland had as a child (times 100, thus evoking the Malvina Reynold’s song made famous by Pete Seeger, Little Boxes); opposite were 50 Mad Hatter meets Dr. Seuss skyscrapers.
Moving to the ROM, “Words into Objects” was a massive wall of aphorisms, black type on brightly coloured rectangles. They ranged from the ominous – “THAT SICKENING FEELING YOU’VE LOST YOUR PHONE WILL SOON BE PERMANENT” – to the plaintive – “LET’S MEET IN REAL LIFE” – to observations on the future as predicted by popular culture: “THERE IS NO SHOPPING ON STAR TREK.”
“Pop Explosion” played on the styles of Roy Lichtenstein, among others: but what looked like accomplished abstract art paintings apparently function as QR codes. “The 21st Century Condition” was an unnerving mix of silly and serious. The works were constructed out of tiny plastic discs that normally would be used as stick-on eyeballs in a kid’s craft project, but this time stuck by the hundreds onto painted canvas: you had to stand back a huge distance, or look at the work through a mobile phone view finder, to see the depiction of a military jet or people leaping from the upper floors of the collapsing World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001.
There was much, much more. We went to a lecture Coupland gave in Toronto on the exhibition. I was thinking about, still think about, the zany and crazy way Coupland used found objects – from coloured pencils to material effluvia spray-painted white and assembled as “The Brain” – to express his visions of the world.
I expected this exhibition to be an eye-roller. What a surprise is was an eye-opener, instead.
Main photo: Douglas Coupland signing the book/catalogue for “everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything.” Photo by Chris Moorehead.