Plastic is choking our world, and Douglas Coupland's unprecedented new installation shows how

Step into Coupland's Vortex, which is taking over the Vancouver Aquarium for the next year.

Step into Coupland's Vortex, which is taking over the Vancouver Aquarium for the next year

Douglas Coupland's Vortex. (Vancouver Aquarium)

The looming threat of the giant distant garbage vortex swirling around the Pacific Ocean is a haunting notion, but not necessarily a tangible one. Visualizing the nature and scale of the patch, and its horrific impact on marine wildlife and ultimately the health of our planet, is difficult to grasp. And it's perhaps that disconnect from the actuality of the problem posed by plastic waste that contributes to an insufficiency of public pushback against governments and corporations to reduce and ban single-use plastics from our world.

Enter artist Douglas Coupland and the Vancouver Aquarium, which aim to fill in the blanks with an unprecedented exhibition, marrying the emotional potential of art with the unique resources and scientific expertise of the Aquarium. While it may seem like an unusual turn for Coupland, whose artistic practice has until now never really veered into activist territory, he's actually uniquely suited to the task. For as long as I've known him (we met in 2004 and I've made several video projects about and in collaboration with him over the years), he's been travelling periodically to the remote Pacific islands of B.C.'s Haida Gwaii to collect interesting marine garbage — in particular, colourful commercial fishing floats that wash up on its shores. I've seen them displayed artfully around his house and studio for years and often wondered if they would drift together into something more focused.

Douglas Coupland's Vortex. (Sarah Keenlyside)

The Vortex project, which came together in the miraculously short timeframe (at least by major art installation standards) of just 14 months from idea to execution, was the result of a serendipitous cold call by Coupland to Aquarium director John Nightingale. Coupland had initially imagined developing and installing the work in an art museum, but realized that the unusual — and expensive — resources necessary to stage such a production, such as a 10,000 litre water-filled tank, was out of the question for most art institutions. So he called the Aquarium on a whim and they immediately embraced the idea, much to his amazement.

The result is a fascinating hybrid of science and art. Staged in a large tank formerly inhabited by manta rays; the main work in the exhibition consists of a small Japanese fishing vessel bobbing up and down in plastic debris-choked water. The boat installation is surrounded by smaller exhibits inside fish tanks, as well as three huge shelves displaying a mind-boggling collection of plastic junk.

After visiting the exhibition, I met with Coupland at his home in West Vancouver to discuss his process, the meaning of the work and its curious origins — which began with a Japanese soap bottle washing up at his feet on a Haida Gwaii beach.

Douglas Coupland's Vortex. (Vancouver Aquarium)

Why Haida Gwaii and what inspired those collecting trips in the first place?

It would have to go back to Tokyo 1999. I was in a department store in Nakameguro, and I had a shopping cart, and I went down the cleaning products aisle. And there were hundreds of brightly candy-coloured plastic containers filled with drain cleaner, rug shampoo — all that kind of stuff, with this beautiful katakana type on the labels, and ah! My head exploded and I bought about 125 of them. And then I took them back to the hotel where I drained them down the toilet. And I can hear you silently judging me — and do let me ask you this: if I had taken those same chemicals and added some dead skin or poop into it, would that make it environmentally okay? If I hadn't been talking about this would that even have entered your brain?

So, I had all those bottles and they went into a piece called Tokyo Harbour, which has been to quite a few museums now — and that was the exact time when I started going up to Haida Gwaii two, three times a year.

It's just this incredible sense of pure life. It largely escaped the ice ages, so it has a different sort of landscape you find nowhere else in can tell from the way I'm talking, it's my sacred space.- Douglas Coupland

It's a very, very difficult place to get to — it takes time and money and work, and once you're there, there's nowhere else to go, so it's the end of the line. But the sense of life there is just so shocking. I mean, you've got these trees that were there before Leonardo Da Vinci was born, and this moss that's five feet deep. It's just this incredible sense of pure life. It largely escaped the ice ages, so it has a different sort of landscape you find nowhere else in can tell from the way I'm talking, it's my sacred space.

I was there in the summer of 2013 — I was up at Rose Spit, on the very North coast of the East end just staring out in the sun, and feeling really good about the cosmos and the world in general, and I look down and literally at my feet is one of those plastic bottles I'd been buying in Tokyo in 1999. And I was like, "Holy, what?" I mean, this is beyond a coincidence; this has to mean something else. It was really chilling — I say that it was like I was on the weird receiving end of a parable or a curse or something. And that was when I became sort of ecologically evangelized in a way that you see in the show at the Aquarium in Vancouver. It was no longer possible for me to be detached, or to pretend things weren't happening.

Douglas Coupland's Vortex. (Vancouver Aquarium)

So how did the collecting morph into something more succinct, this art installation?

I had been collecting things like floats — just because I thought they were beautifully designed objects — because they're so purely functional. Most things that are functional look good except for cellphone towers and satellite dishes. So I'd been collecting these things as objects, thinking that they were design objects, and suddenly I had to look at them as, "Are they litter? But it's beautiful. It's treasure, but it's litter. What is this stuff?" And I began hearing about the great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the trash gyres, or the trash vortex in the Pacific.

So I went on Google Images and couldn't find anything really. It's strange how there are no pictures of this thing that pretty much all of us have talked about or thought about in the last year or two or three. And I thought, what would it look like? What could it look like?

Can you walk me through the exhibition and what each element means to you?

If you walk in the door, you see what appears to be a semi-bashed up Japanese fish boat, with this raft of characters on the top — and it actually is a Japanese fish boat that washed up from the [2011 Tōhuku] tsunami. And the boat is in this larger-than-a-swimming-pool sized tank, filled to the brim with marine debris...and the way the boat is moving, you can see this sort of sheet of plastic, undulating in the waves. At first, you get a bit seasick; you get dizzy like you're on a dock, but then you get used to it.

On top of the boat you have four characters, who in my mind represent the past, present and future of plastics, which were only invented in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite. For most of the 20th century, there was this uncritical acceptance of plastics as this miracle substance that would make our lives better. So I embodied that with this really beautiful, pore-perfect, replication of Andy Warhol taking Polaroids of plastic in the ocean.

It is an experience. I don't think that you can look at a photo [of the garbage vortex] and say to yourself, 'I think I get it.' I think you really have to be there. It's like watching stills from a movie — you get an idea but not the whole idea.- Douglas Coupland, artist

And now we have the present, where we're very, very conflicted. Plastics have entered their next stage, and they're a bit of a time bomb. They're a slow motion oil spill; we need to rethink how we use them, etc. And I [created] a character that embodies that current complexity; it's a female African refugee that's going from Tunisia to Sicily. She's the ultimate fallout of politics, oil politics, environmental degradation, enforced migration — you name it.

And then for the future, I've got these two very "Japan from the 1960s or 1970s" bobblehead figures who are holding exaggeratedly large iPhones. Are they documenting the trash around them? Are they going to become activists? I'm not quite sure. They're bobbleheads because I knew the boat was going to bob up and down — it's just that subtle little bit of motion. Oh, and there's a mist machine.

It is an experience. I don't think that you can look at a photo [of the garbage vortex] and say to yourself, "I think I get it." I think you really have to be there. It's like watching stills from a movie — you get an idea but not the whole idea.

Douglas Coupland's Vortex. (Sarah Keenlyside)

What was the experience like working with a non-art institution? Not just in terms of the resources they were able to offer, but also bringing depth of meaning to the project?

There was this wonderful experience I had with Peter Ross, who's the world's leading expert with microfibre. I asked Peter, "Do you have a quick fact you can give us, like the percentage of plastics we ingest?" And he emails us this Excel spreadsheet with nanoparticle contents per cubic whatever, and I realized, "You are working with a scientific institution." And John Nightingale, who is the director — his father was an artist and also taught art in schools. So John [is] a scientist, but he grew up knowing that sometimes you have to involve emotion when trying to convey an idea. And I told John, "It might be kind of dark — it might scare some kids." And he was like, "Let them be scared and have an emotional experience there in the show, so when they look at the scientific stuff it's imprinted, and it sticks."

I mean, by any stretch of the imagination, it's a very, very weird show, and I think the staff there have been wonderfully un-judgmental. And maybe in some way it fulfills their expectation of what a weird artist show should be like...

Whenever I say to myself, 'Somebody should fix this thing,' it's like, 'Oh, you're actually now the somebody. You're the one who has to fix it. It's not mom, it's not dad — it's you.'- Douglas Coupland

Unlike art museums, kids make up a huge percentage of the Aquarium audience, so a lot of kids will likely see this installation. What do you hope it will mean to them?

One of the things I started learning lately — whenever I say to myself, "Somebody should fix this thing," it's like, "Oh, you're actually now the somebody. You're the one who has to fix it. It's not mom, it's not dad — it's you." And I'm kinda shocked that didn't kick in earlier in my life. But now it's here, and I think for the younger people that go through, they're still at an age when it's mom and dad who fix things. But pretty soon, they're going to be the ones that do it. And this will just be, I hope, an incentive and an accelerator, and help speed things up.

Vortex. By Douglas Coupland. To April 30, 2019. Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver.


Sarah Keenlyside is an associate producer for CBC Arts.


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