Douglas Coupland, installation view of “Vortex,” 2018. Photo: Courtesy Ocean Wise

Douglas Coupland


Vancouver Aquarium

Douglas Coupland’s “Vortex” exhibition, on view through April 30, 2019, offers a weighty meditation on one of the worst ecological tragedies of our time. Composed of debris retrieved from the once pristine shores of British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii, the installation tackles the complex contextualizing of the nebulous Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of several floating plastic garbage gyres around the world and a sprawling, slimy mass of filth. Using flotsam as his primary material (including debris that traveled from the catastrophic 2011 Japanese tsunami), Coupland untangles this mess and rearranges it into a socio-ecological narrative that interrogates a worldwide crisis point in plastics consumption.

More than 46 percent of the trash gyre’s content is identified as “ghost gear,” the entangled remains of the global fishing industry. In the aquarium’s foyer, Coupland transforms this statistic into colorful stacks of buoys, tires, netting, and gasoline containers to create the orderly cargo of a ghost boat. The boat that he uses is one of two found off Haida Gwaii that can be traced back to Japan. A spectral captain navigates from the bow, while an oversize frame with outstretched arms of hairy ropes conjures the likeness of the mythical Bigfoot, or in Coupland’s identification, a Yeti, Bigfoot’s Japanese brother.

In We’re All in the Same Boat, the central installation, a second salvaged Japanese fishing boat is populated with a life-size crew of Andy Warhol (with his camera ready), an African migrant wearing a life jacket, and plastic figures of a boy and a girl, all piloting their way through a sea of garbage. Surrounding works, including installations in nearby aquatic tanks, a videoscape of Haida Gwaii, and a showcase of salvaged marine debris, provide a context for this cartoon-like image. The wall-length display of junk includes such finds as toothbrushes, razors, tampon applicators, a promotional pen (number still visible), flip-flops, and a dustpan brush, as well as innumerable straws. Carefully arranged, this collection takes on the aura of a museum display, forming a stark contrast to the nearby showcases of living marine life.

In an accompanying tank, Coupland also repurposes materials, using LEGO towers from a 2013 exhibition to build a playful reef for freshwater cichlids. Though LEGO is arguably one of our finer plastic toys, it is still nearly indestructible, destined to occupy the ecosystem for almost eternity (upwards of 90 percent of manufactured toys cannot be recycled). This troublesome dichotomy of good and bad extends to a second tank, where a mesmerizing display of plastic water bottles floats among undulating blue blubber jellyfish. It is hard to imagine that these delicate creatures are the same invaders that have overrun tropical beaches in recent years due to rising sea temperatures. The same can be said of the innocuous water bottle, which is one of the greatest single-use plastic offenders.

One of Coupland’s strengths is his ability to make sense of the dizzying effects and contradictions that plague modern life. The Brain (2013), another massive collection of junk (this time from thrift stores, garage sales, and eBay), adeptly conflates a range of incongruous concepts and human behaviors. The works in “Vortex” continue to rely on his visual propensity for categorizing and breathing new meaning into cast-offs. They may be Pop and easily digestible—particularly We’re All in the Same Boat—but the playfulness effectively communicates serious concerns. One can only hope that the epiphanies produced by “Vortex” will turn the tide.