The bold colours and flawless textures of plastics were, for a longtime, sources of artistic inspiration for Douglas Coupland, one of Canada’s best-known artists and writers. But after confronting the impact of discarded plastics on the northern coast of Haida Gwaii, Coupland has changed his perspective on using plastics in the context of art. As Marshal Macluhan so aptly put it in the mid-sixties, "the medium is the message". And the message of plastic is ominously more than just "plastic is useful". More importantly, we're beginning to understand that "plastic is EVERYWHERE". It's in our water, in the air we breathe, and in much of our food.
Coupland's Artistic Relationship with Plastic
In the early 80's, Coupland attended art school in Japan. "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." Coupland goes on to say how, some years later, while shopping in a Tokyo department store, he was dazzled by the sheer number of plastic cleaning products, and purchased about 150 plastic bottles and containers. Some years later, after the 2011 Japanese Tsunami, he was visiting the northern coast of Haida Gwaii. Says Coupland, "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, and it made me think... What’s going on here with this stuff?”
The Vortex Exhibit
To make his point (which is, of course, exactly what we artists try to do with our art) Coupland recently put on an exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium. He swirled together cigarette butts, water bottles, flip-flops, and a variety of cans, plastic fragments, and other pieces of trash retrieved from the Pacific Ocean. In his exhibit, called Vortex, it was all displayed in a 50,000-litre tank at the Vancouver Aquarium. Visitors to the aquarium were confronted with tanks of used garbage placed among the scenes and sounds of Haida Gwaii, where much of the material was found.
In places like Malaysia or Thailand or the Dominican Republic, the floating plastic debris is seemingly endless and thick. But, in spite of these obvious pieces of 'ocean surface garbage', the real damage is being done below the surface, where the microparticles of plastics are being ingested by fish and crustaceans, from the bottom to the top of the food chain.
The Haida Gwaii Connection
The Japan Earthquake Authority and people up in Haida Gwaii picked up much of the big stuff when it started coming over, following the Japanese tsunami. The largest pieces came over first. Coupland says "chunks of Styrofoam the size of your living room were just washing up everywhere. We also found two boats." One of the boats was traced back to the village of Ishinomaki in Japan.
Coupland remarked how, in the 20th century, plastic was viewed as the vehicle for "a better tomorrow,” and was even glamorized by artists of the day, such as Andy Warhol. But now, in the 21st century, we're witnessing the dark side of oil-based products such as plastics... environmental degradation, climate change, and massive buildups of slowly degrading plastic garbage.
The Meaning of 'Vortex'
"I want people to have that sort of 'holy shit' moment. It’s this sort of impossible thing and yet it exists. I think that’s number one for me. And then number two is... What the hell is it? Why is it made? What’s going on here?”
Though his exhibit has closed, Coupland's message is critically important. Art can sometimes have a kind of 'perverse' beauty. You don't necessarily have to like the art. But, in the end, an artist hopes you'll get the message. Happy viewing!