Should We Care About Douglas Coupland?
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Should We Care About Douglas Coupland?

The Canadian artist-novelist came up with his best ideas 20 years ago. Here's why we're still paying attention.

For the past few weeks, Douglas Coupland has left his mark scattered around the city. But it might be difficult to understand why he seems to be everywhere, or to get a sense of how the Vancouver artist isn’t just yesterday’s news. 

Coupland is best known for his iconic novels like Generation X (1991), which coined the term that defined 1990s youth culture, but before all that he started off as a formally trained visual artist and designer. Taking place at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, the pop art–inspired whimsical exhibition everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything is where his work as a novelist and visual artist clearly intersect.

In one section we are shown his novels Girlfriend in a Coma and Generation X—only, Coupland has lovingly chewed them up into pulpy hornets’ nests. The nests were so convincingly crafted, they were hard to tell apart from the real nests he left atop the display.

Then there’s a section called “The Brain” that takes up a large chunk of the exhibition, which displays various knickknacks collected over a decade and divided into three hemispheres that hint at the brain’s bilateral symmetry. The piece itself is remarkable, made up of thousands of objects, including street signs and miniature kitchen furniture, all representing different experiences in the artist’s life—from being born on a Canadian military base in West Germany to growing up in middle-class Vancouver.

Spending a few minutes in the exhibit, you quickly realize why its title is so broad—Coupland’s work is anything and everything. It’s also for anyone, with many pieces appealing to the general audiences. This feels a bit too safe, but the exhibit’s accessibility makes sense: Coupland’s status as a national treasure is something that couldn’t have been achieved without catering to a wide audience. In a culture of hot takes and unpopular opinions, his pieces feel somewhat refreshing; Coupland isn’t trying to be the first to make a statement, but instead focuses on interpreting major 21st-century events. This message was amplified by paintings about 9/11 that were created so to only be properly seen through the lens of a smartphone camera (which didn’t exist in 2001).

Coupland’s work is rooted in technology, something he wrote about quite extensively in books and essays. If you didn’t know, Coupland created the concept of word clouds in his novel Microserfs—as his exhibit reminds us multiple times. There’s a small space dedicated to word clouds from his time at Wired magazine that serves no purpose but to remind us of his impact on how we view technology. It’s not clear as to whether or not including word clouds implies a grasping onto the past or simply an homage to his iconic creation. 

The exhibit’s largest piece was “Slogans for the 21st Century,” a text-based work consisting of self-described “thought-provoking” statements that have been boldly printed onto coloured backgrounds in the shapes of standard sheets of paper. Phrases like, “O RLY” and “EPIC FAIL” are meant to be provocative, but come off as something out-of-touch parents thinks navel-gazing young people tweet about. A similar example of questionable tech commentary was a Mondrian-style painting created in 2011 set to look like a QR code—an online entity that became irrelevant almost as soon as it was created.

Whether or not you agree that he’s a relevant cultural commentator, Coupland creates art that is memorable and easily digestible. The exhibit was full on a Tuesday afternoon and all patrons seemed delighted and genuinely interested in what they were being shown. It was unpretentious and created for mass consumption, making it clear, even to Coupland’s harshest critics, that he’s still iconic, 25 years after making his name—and that he knows it.

everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything runs at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art until April 19 and the Royal Ontario Museum until April 26.