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.
On his artistic relationship with plastic
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 okay?” 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, 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?”