The renowned Cana­dian artist Dou­glas Cou­p­land dis­cusses how his love of plas­tic mor­phed into an art ex­hibit about ocean pol­lu­tion

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Jensen Ed­wards

The renowned Cana­dian artist Dou­glas Cou­p­land dis­cusses how his love of plas­tic mor­phed into an art ex­hibit about ocean pol­lu­tion

THE BOLD COLOURS and flaw­less tex­tures of plas­tics have been long­time sources of artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion for Dou­glas Cou­p­land, one of Canada’s best-known artists and writ­ers. But after con­fronting his own re­la­tion­ship with plas­tic on the north­ern coast of Haida Gwaii, B.C., Cou­p­land saw the ma­te­rial melt from an in­spired art form into a tan­gi­ble con­cern. Now, he’s swirled to­gether cig­a­rette butts, wa­ter bot­tles, flip-flops, a pic­nic cooler, jerry cans and other pieces of trash from the Pa­cific Ocean in a 50,000-litre tank at the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium to cre­ate Vor­tex, an ex­hibit that con­fronts vis­i­tors with tanks of used garbage placed among scenes and sounds of Haida Gwaii, where much of the ma­te­rial was found. Here, Cou­p­land speaks about the ex­hibit, his own re­la­tion­ship with plas­tics and cre­at­ing art to in­spire change.


In 1983, I went to art school in Ja­pan and I re­ally bonded with the Ja­panese in­dus­trial colour pal­ette of plas­tics. It’s a very ortho­dox set of red, blue, yel­low, pink, turquoise, black and white, and I thought it was very cheer­ful. Then I was in a Tokyo depart­ment store in 1999 or 2000 and had this magic mo­ment when all these clean­ing prod­ucts in the aisle started speak­ing to me. I bought about 150 bot­tles — bleach, fab­ric soft­ener, et cetera — and then, back in my ho­tel room, emp­tied it all down the toi­let. It sort of freaks peo­ple out, but then I say, “Let me get this straight. You add dead skin flakes to it, then that would have been OK?” And sud­denly ev­ery­one re­al­izes that they’re just as com­plicit. I came back home and racked the bot­tles up sort of dead­pan, as a col­lec­tion; I just liked the way they looked. In 2013, two years after the 2011 Ja­panese tsunami, I was up on Rose Spit on the north­ern­most coast of Haida Gwaii. I was just stand­ing there and one of the bot­tles, the type I bought in Tokyo, washed up at my feet. Not even be­side me, but right in front of me. It was a shock­ing thing. It felt re­ally su­per­nat­u­ral, cos­mic, di­vine; it made me think, “What’s go­ing on here with this stuff?”


I think the thing with art and ocean plas­tics right now is that it’s like, “Oh, it’s a whale made out of Ga­torade bot­tles,” or “Oh, it’s a dol­phin made out of flip-flops,” or “It’s a mam­mal made out of blank.” That’s kind of like bulk art, and I didn’t want to go in that di­rec­tion — I wanted some­thing that had a mem­o­rable im­pact. For me it’s al­ways been, “What does this vor­tex look like in real life?” In real life, all the dam­age is be­ing done un­der wa­ter with mi­cropar­ti­cles of plas­tic. But then you have places like Malaysia or Thai­land or the Do­mini­can Repub­lic where it’s just end­less and thick. I wanted to cre­ate an im­age to show what that might look like. And then there had to be some sort of ves­sel in­side it with myth­i­cal fig­ures be­cause oth­er­wise it’s just a tank filled with plas­tic. I was in Ber­lin, and I just cold-called the aquar­ium and ex­plained it. After I ex­plained it there was si­lence on the line, so I said, “Well, thanks, I un­der­stand,” and they said, “No, no it’s great — let’s do it!” I was talk­ing with John Nightin­gale, the CEO of Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium, be­fore I be­gan this in earnest. We were on the way up to Haida Gwaii with our team and I said, “What if it freaks out kids?” and he said, “Great, let them be freaked out. It’ll make it an emo­tional is­sue for them.”


Ini­tially I thought, “Oh, I’ll just get some plas­tics,” but oh my God, it was so much work! It was so po­lit­i­cal and we had to work with all of these en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, the Ja­pan Earth­quake Author­ity and peo­ple up in Haida Gwaii who picked up the big stuff when it started com­ing over. The largest pieces came over first. Coun­ter­in­tu­itively, they were also the light­est. These chunks of Sty­ro­foam the size of your liv­ing room were just wash­ing up ev­ery­where. We also

found two boats, and I had to go to Ja­pan to get per­mis­sion from the guy who owned one of them. He was like, “Oh my God, that thing’s bad luck, keep it away from me.” So I got to use it with his bless­ing.


There’s a lot to look at, but def­i­nitely the piece in the mid­dle is the one you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to have a scary dream about the next night. The boat it­self came from the vil­lage of Ishi­no­maki in Ja­pan and was found up north on Haida Gwaii. Most of the big plas­tic comes from the shore on Haida Gwaii. I would say there’s a 25 per cent chance that it’s ac­tu­ally tsunami de­bris. You can’t just go through each piece and say what is and isn’t. In the boat there’s the past, the present and the fu­ture of plas­tic, which was only in­vented in 1907. The 20th-cen­tury view of plas­tics was like, “Yay, happy en­vi­ron­ment, bet­ter to­mor­row!” and rep­re­sent­ing that cen­tury is Andy Warhol, doc­u­ment­ing the plas­tics and glam­our­iz­ing them. In the 21st cen­tury, you’ve got a fe­male char­ac­ter who is an African refugee en route to Europe, show­ing the dark side of oil: en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, cli­mate change and ev­ery­thing that goes with it. Rep­re­sent­ing the fu­ture are plas­tic boy and plas­tic girl. They’re these great big bob­ble­head dolls pho­tograph­ing what they see around them.


I think it takes it out of the realm of go­ing on a very wor­thy field trip or some­thing and then it re­lo­cates it in some more com­pelling place in­side your heart or soul, or brain or what­ever you want to call it. No mat­ter how much you de­scribe it, when you walk in, it’s still not go­ing to be like what you thought it was. It has the power to shock and sur­prise, and I like that.


For me, the most psy­cho­log­i­cally weird mo­ment was near the end, when we had to fix a few things that were my call, so I put on hip waders. I was walk­ing through the trash and the wa­ter in the big tank hadn’t warmed up yet. It was su­per cold and there was a mist on it, too. So I was walk­ing through the mist star­ing down at the wa­ter and the trash was fill­ing up my en­tire field of vi­sion, and I got this sort of weird chill — kind of like see­ing a car crash and then hav­ing it play back in slow mo­tion. My brain went into that mode and I’m still go­ing back to it.

Vor­tex will be on dis­play at the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium un­til April 30, 2019.

‘ There’s a lot to look at, but def­i­nitely the piece in the mid­dle is the one you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to have a scary dream about the next night.’

Read an ex­tended ver­sion of this in­ter­view at can­­p­land.

Jensen Ed­wards (@jens­enedw) was an ed­i­to­rial in­tern at Cana­dian Geo­graphic when he con­ducted this in­ter­view. He’s cur­rently study­ing for his mas­ter of jour­nal­ism de­gree at Car­leton Uni­ver­sity in Ot­tawa.

Clock­wise from above: Cich­lids swim among tow­ers made of LEGO in Cou­p­land’s Vor­tex ex­hibit at the Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium; Cou­p­land — com­plete with hip waders — stands in the main in­stal­la­tion of Vor­tex; ex­hibit vis­i­tors look at an as­sort­ment of plas­tic col­lected from the shore­lines of Bri­tish Columbia. pre­vi­ous page: Cou­p­land stands in front of the LEGO tow­ers.

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