A retrospective of an artist's work gives the viewer insight into their creative process over an extended period of time. In some cases, a retrospective seems to allow access into the artist's mind.
Canadian artist and writer Douglas Coupland adopted this stance more literally by creating a room filled with 5,000 objects he collected over 20 years and carefully arranged in a masterwork called The Brain. Coupland is best known (to Americans at least) as the author of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, but his prolific artistic output “over the past 12 years addresses the singularity of Canadian culture, the power of language, as well as the ever-pervasive presence of technology in everyday life.”
everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything
May 31 — Sept 1, 2014
NOTE: the artist encouraged photography and tagging of his work.
This exhibition brings together works made since the early 2000s as well as major new installations created specifically for this presentation. It sheds light on subjects as varied as the distinct nature of Canadian identity, the rise of utopian ideas, the power of words, the ubiquitous presence of digital technologies, the emerging culture of fear and the unshakeable nature of one’s own constitution—ideas that Coupland examines with both optimism and some trepidation.
The retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery is divided into six parts, culminating in The Brain. Its impact as a work of art is more effective in the context of what came before it, including a meditation on the distinctiveness of Canadian Identity. Another section examined youth and the optimism of an earlier era: Growing Up Utopian as depicted in Lego blocks.
The highlight of Words Into Objects is a room of slogans and aphorisms on colorful posters, reminiscent of Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger but with a distinctive focus on the internet and technology.
Returning to The Brain, the massive collection of objects from thrift stores, garage sales, and eBay appeared mighty close to hoarding, in my view. But where is the border between collecting and hoarding objects (e.g., televisions)? Is there a difference if you're hoarding for artistic purposes?
Materials used in the The Brain, 2000–2014, mixed-media installation with readymade objects [NOTE: prior to arrangement]. Courtesy of the Artist and Daniel Faria Gallery. Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery.
These questions were quite salient for me because I attended another exhibition at the same gallery in 2010, called Waste Not (by artist Song Dong). This one examined hoarding overtly in the context of culture, scarcity, and loss:
Waste Not—or wu jin qi gong in Chinese—describes the philosophy of life for a generation of people in China, of which Song Dong’s mother was a part, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution with the experience of displacement, poverty and the constant shortage of goods. The installation stands as a record of his mother’s life, as well as a tribute to his father’s death.
After the artist's father died, his mother's compulsive hoarding intensified, which is not uncommon. Over 10,000 objects were on display. The exhibit was quite moving and sad:
...Carefully sorted, arranged, and displayed in the gallery, along with the wooden frame of one of the rooms of her house, these objects include everything from cracked wash basins, chipped tea cups, old radiators, and burnt-out light bulbs to flattened toothpaste tubes, yellowing newspapers, ripped nylon stockings, and empty containers of every description. And all in startling multiples.
The purpose and impact of The Brain was quite different, however. Much of the collection was whimsical and idiosyncratic, with the metaphorical layout designed to represent the contents and organization of Coupland's physical brain, incomprehensible to all but the artist. Without reading the gallery notes, the viewer struggles to find meaning in the chaos, and would miss out on pieces like the amusing Seat of Consciousness (“the elusive site of self-reflexive awareness that scientists have yet to pinpoint”).
The “corpus callosum” divides the installation into left and right hemispheres, which is clearly an overarching metaphor not intended to be accurate [presumably].1 So we can excuse the artist for placing Language in the Right Brain, because his purpose here isn't a veridical (or even stylized) rendition of the brain destined to win the Brain Art Competition 2014. It's more like the struggle for an external representation of memories, an exploration of why he is who he is. And for this reason it's deeply personal, and at the same time a reflection of a specific culture and era.
COLOUR MEMORY BANK: “a visual representation of the artist's recollections, attractions, and repulsions.”
This is not a pipe or a road sign in Chinese or a bunch of old cans...
WHITE MEMORY BANK: “This white structure, built in a Brutalist style, is an archival collection of white objects, including scale models of seminal 20th and 21st century buildings, as well as numerous corporate mascots painted white. ... The fact that the objects are white also tinkers with the brain's need to classify and make sense of structure, the need to interpolate a narrative, not unlike looking for shapes in clouds.”
In total, the effect on the viewer is overwhelming and disorienting, and yet exhilarating (particularly in hindsight).
Objects from Coupland's memory bank here bleed into the signage structures, awaiting information as to where they will be routed. The overall effect is surrealistic and can be interpreted as a snapshot of Coupland's thinking.
Coupland asks, “What is consciousness? Is it a park [sic] that dances through the brain at any given time? A spark that, while it exists, can never be visualized on its own?”
And here he captures the challenge of the “hard problem” of consciousness that has confounded scientists and philosophers alike.
1 It's possible that Coupland is left handed and had a Wada test to demonstrate right hemisphere dominance for language, but this is highly unlikely.
Douglas Coupland, Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014) at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
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