Douglas Coupland solves our image problem
Born on an army base in Germany and raised in Vancouver, Douglas Coupland seemed reluctant for many years to market himself as a Canadian.
In 1991, he set Generation X, his first and most famous novel, in Palm Springs, Calif. His more recent novel, All Families Are Psychotic (2001), is largely set in Florida. But with his latest book Souvenir Of Canada 2, just published by Douglas & McIntyre, and a related art installation titled Canada House that opens tomorrow at the Design Exchange, he comes out of the closet to embrace his Canadian identity.
“Youth culture is completely globalized; it’s only when you are in your 30s that you are allowed to be Canadian,” he says.
A conceptual artist as well as a writer, he locates this identity mostly in the artifacts of our commercial culture ó objects, places, bilingual packaging, buildings and logos that resonate for Canadians as they do for no other peoples.
Billy Bee honey, the Massey-Ferguson tractor, the Sherwood hockey stick, the Robertson screwdriver, Oka cheese, the Eaton’s catalogue, the purple Crown Royal bag, plastic Canada geese, and the moose-patterned sweater are to Coupland what the wind-twisted pines of Georgian Bay were to the Group of Seven. Soul food.
“When I see something beautiful, I want to eat it,” he says.
Souvenir Of Canada 2, a followup to a similar book he produced two years ago, is filled with photographs of these iconic objects, along with short, quirky texts that deconstruct their meaning and incidentally reveal details about Coupland and his family.
We read about his grandmother, the first woman to drive a car in Sudbury, his taxidermist brother, his doctor father, and are shown a photograph of his mother, wearing the dress she wore to Expo ’67. We also see Mom’s well-organized kitchen cupboards, featuring the usual Janus-faced Canadian brands such as Canada Corn Starch/Fecule de maÔs and Blue Ribbon pure marjoram/marjolaine.
Coupland is 42 now, but he is still close to his family, both emotionally and physically; the Ron Thom-designed house he bought himself in North Vancouver is a short walk from the home of his uncomprehending parents.
“When my father comes over, the only thing he recognizes is the television set,” he says, referring to his high-concept modernist furnishings.
In Toronto last week, Coupland took part in a panel on creativity at the Design Exchange, and explained that his art projects are often sparked by finding some telling or bizarre object on a beach, a back alley or in a dumpster. “You have a nugget or kernel of something strange ó let’s see where it goes, let’s develop it,” he explained. “I refuse to be bored.”
His collections fill his studio at 1000 Parker St. in Vancouver, a sort of art factory where he works with the assistance of a half-dozen friends from his days at Emily Carr College of Art and Design.
In Souvenir Of Canada 2, he devotes 27 pages to Canada House, an installation of Canadian objects he set up in an about-to-be demolished house in Vancouver, having spray painted the interior white.
It displays, too, his unique furniture-with-a-message. “The Treaty Couch,” for example, has two seating portions, a broad one upholstered in tartan (a reference to the United Kingdom), another extremely narrow with upholstery made from a Cowichan Indian sweater.
Only a few people ever saw the original Canada House, which was created for the book.
The public will get a chance to see Canada House at the Design Exchange, where the piece has been recreated (admission is free on Canada Day).
Souvenir Of Canada 2 oscillates between the frivolous and the serious. The pages on Coupland’s visit to the Terry Fox museum in Port Coquitlam, B.C., are serious and moving. His photograph of the dead runner’s shredded sock is presented as though it were the Shroud of Turin.
Coupland has lately been working in the Star library collecting material for a photo book on Terry Fox, to be published next spring by Douglas & McIntyre.
“I can only look at this stuff for about 20 minutes at a time before losing it,” he said, when I found him in the Star’s library last week, after his talk at the Design Exchange. “These images never lose their initial impact.”
He currently has a little essay on Amazon.ca about Canadian stamps and has written a one-man play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, which he will perform at Stratford-upon-Avon in October. “It’s called September 10, 2001 and it’s about the day before the world changed,” he says.
In November, his new novel Eleanor Rigby will be out from Random House. “Eleanor Rigby is the loneliest woman in the world ó then she gets a phone call,” he says when asked about the novel’s subject.
Two of his eight novels are in film development and he is preparing to have art exhibitions in New York, London and at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
When asked about how he maintains his astonishing productivity, he shakes his head: “I’m as lazy as dirt. I like to sleep as much as possible.”
Of course, being self-deprecating is so Canadian.
Douglas Coupland solves our image problem