Monday, 27 May 2024

Douglas Coupland

This generous 10-page reportage hears from a Canadian whose ability to define modern times is just baffling

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The predictions in his best-selling novels invariably turn out to be correct, as if Douglas Coupland were in possession of some secret time machine. He even advises Hollywood honcho Steven Spielberg on what the future should look like on film. In the following encounter, the author of ‘Generation X’ and ‘Shampoo Planet’ acts as a tour guide through his hometown and his spectacular debut solo show in the esteemed Vancouver Art Gallery. He loves talking, but not necessarily about himself. Mr. Coupland drives an Audi, devours his sushi cone with a knife and fork and is 52 years of age.

From Fantastic Man n° 20 — 2014
Photography by DANIEL SHEA

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Through a very Canadian crowd – skaters, college students, shoppers, stoners, construction workers, moms, men in fanny packs, buskers – I see Douglas Coupland.

Well, I see his head. Rising above the rest, bigger than anyone else’s.

Not his real head, but a seven-foot-tall steel sculpture of Coupland’s head, on an oval of lawn outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. From a distance it doesn’t look like a sculpture. It looks pointillist – a bunch of dots. I’ve just walked down Robson Street, which is a hilarious street to walk down if you’re looking for a giant head, because it’s all shops with decapitated mannequins: five headless figures in the window at Armani Exchange, eleven at J.Crew, twenty at Banana Republic, twenty-four at Canada’s own Roots (including two toddlers – yikes!). I hadn’t really noticed until I was specifically looking for Mr. Coupland’s head just how headless most enticements to shop are. Only the ones at Forever 21 have heads.

The moment I catch sight of Coupland’s head, I hear a busker saying to a random smattering of people ambling by, none of whom are paying attention to him, “Well thank you guys for coming to my show. I didn’t know if you would actually come out for a Facebook event. But this is great.” I so wish Coupland were here to hear this, because it’s exactly the kind of thing he loves – the flash of the present, the statement that would not have made sense a decade ago. As if anyone stops to listen to a busker because he has a good Facebook page. The only people who seem to be listening to him are a couple on a park bench, and they get up immediately.

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Douglas poses in downtown’s Harbour Green Park, with North Vancouver as his backdrop.

On second thought, the Coupland head doesn’t look pointillist, because the dots don’t create an impression of depth. They’re just random. That’s because they’re just chewed gum, pulled out of people’s mouths and pressed onto it. A little kid in an Angry Birds T-shirt runs up to it – the sculpture is called ‘Gumhead’ – and starts pressing the blobs of gum like they’re buttons. Then he starts scraping his shoes against it. I think this little guy is determined to get some gum onto his shoe. “No, he wanted that,” I overhear a guy explaining to his girlfriend who’s upset about the face’s defacement.

He’s right – Coupland wants this.

People “are encouraged to apply their own chewed gum to this sculpture so that over the course of time it will be transformed, eventually obscuring the artist’s face,” the sign says.

It also says that ‘Gumhead’ shows the artist “playfully refusing to heed any divisions between museums and mass culture regarding the materials he works with or the subject matter he addresses.”

Of course I’d already seen hundreds of photos of #gumhead on Instagram. A lot of funny ones involving kids, and one where someone’s stuck a pink balloon in the mouth like it’s bubble gum. There’s even a photo of a man kissing his gum directly onto Coupland’s big cheek. Which is crazy; the cooties must be crazy.

My thing was I wanted to put blue in Coupland’s eyes. One of the things that stayed with me after reading Coupland’s 1991 novel ‘Generation X’ is the story of the guy who gets the blues of his eyes pecked out by hummingbirds. He’s a pretty minor character – that one woman’s ex-lover’s late best friend – but he’s unforgettable, and in honour of him I’ve purchased some blue Trident at the store. There’s a case to be made for melon-flavoured Bubblicious, which the main character in Coupland’s 2007 novel ‘The Gum Thief’ steals from the Staples where he works, but I thought the blue-gum idea was cleverer. Imagine my sadness opening the blue, glowy Trident packaging (“original flavor”) to find white gum inside – what the?! Where’s mass-market-product food coloring when you need it? So I contribute to the whites of his eyes instead. The eyes are always the creepiest part of a sculpture; they ask for the most help, the most depth.

On Instagram, ‘Gumhead’ looks huge, because it’s taller than anyone’s entire body, but in reality there happens to be a major construction project directly across the street, and the siding for a many-storied brand-new office building is just now being lifted into the air by a crane, dramatically influencing perspective. Four construction workers in hard hats, evidently on break, turn their gaze on ‘Gumhead’. Then one of them leaps forward, his cheeks bulging, and clears the red-wire construction fence. He has on bright-orange overalls and a black hard hat, and he steps up to ‘Gumhead’ with a mission… involving a mass of yellow gum he’s been chewing. It’s huge. He slaps the wad onto the tip of Coupland’s nose, and has to pat it with his whole hand to get it to stay. It’s, like, a pound of gum.

FANTASTIC MAN - A pristine ‘Gumhead’ was installed outside the Vancouver Art Gallery on Thursday, 15 May 2014 and may well be an amorphous blob by now.

Coupland’s most recent novel, ‘Worst. Person. Ever.’, is not like his other novels – it’s a scathing, disgusting, hilarious, oversexed satire narrated by a reality TV show cameraman – but it does have some gum in it, too. The narrator mentions having been in Singapore during the 2004 gum ban revision to get arrest footage for the BBC, and a little Wikipedia-like entry pops up in the text on the Singapore gum-ban, which is a real thing that happened after “chewing gum was causing serious maintenance problems in high-rise public housing” in the 1980s, with vandals “disposing of spent gum in mailboxes, inside keyholes and on elevator buttons,” and in the doors of a new $5 billion metro system, causing malfunction. The legislation “really does ban the import and sale of chewing gum. The offense is punishable by caning.”

The construction worker with the yellow gum backs away from his nose augmentation, proud of his work. I run after him as he disappears back into the construction zone to ask: “How many sticks of gum was that?”

He turns, excited to be asked, and says: “Four packs of Juicy Fruit.”

What does he think of the art?

But he’s gone.

Coupland shows up a few minutes later, with a head exactly like the seven-foot-tall one, except smaller. And not covered in gum. He sees me before I see him.

You’d almost expect a man like Coupland – someone who’s been at the forefront for a long time, who’s been making art since the early ’80s, who’s written 14 novels and several nonfiction books, the conscience of a culture, the coiner of a generation, a man who’s been paid by Steven Spielberg to consult on what the future will look like – you’d almost expect him to show up looking at least slightly snazzy, but he’s not snazzy at all. He looks like a high school PE coach. I would say he’s dressed to blend in, but he’s not wearing anything anyone else is wearing: he’s in synthetic black workout clothes. Black shirt, black shorts, black sneakers and white tube socks pulled high. I only realise he’s there in the crowd and taking pictures of me taking pictures of his oversized head when I overhear a woman say to him: “We’ve been watching your head get covered and it’s cracking me up.”

And there he is.

The woman asks Coupland if he’ll pose for a picture standing next to his head, and Coupland encourages her to make it a selfie, and yes, sure, he would be happy to be in it, too, but she doesn’t seem to think she has the long arms for that. So she asks me to take it.

Next, Coupland and I are inside the art museum, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and I’m getting a personal tour of his show. Coupland went to art school in Canada and Japan, but only now is he getting his first major-museum solo retrospective. Another ‘Gumhead’ is being fabricated for the São Paulo Biennial. Meanwhile, the museum has granted him 24-hour access to the museum; the guards all know him.

It’s frankly a relief that Coupland is dressed the way he’s dressed, and it only occurs to me later that possibly he’s done it for my benefit, to drain potential pretentiousness from the interview process. “To me, interviews are mostly about trying not to make the interviewer think I’m too much of an asshole,” he wrote in ‘The Guardian’ in 2006, when the newspaper sent him to Europe to interview Morrissey. “I don’t much believe in interviews,” he explained in that piece, and added: “Fuck interviews.” If he’s dressed how he’s dressed to ratchet down any sense of self-importance, well, mission accomplished. It’s impossible to feel intimidated by someone wearing workout clothes.

We sit in the lobby of the museum for a second and talk about ‘Gumhead’ while he drinks a fruity beverage from the museum café. In some ways it’s a strange gesture for a man who’s never written a book about himself to take a 3D scan of his own head, make a mould of it, and fabricate a phantom-large reproduction of it. It’s strange because, for all that he’s published, he’s yet to do a book that’s, like, “Hi, I’m Doug, and here’s my life.”

Why not?

“I don’t know if my life is interesting enough for that,” he says. He’s never written anything like Dave Eggers’ ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’, or Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ or ‘The White Album’, even though he loves those books. (When ‘Heartbreaking’ comes up in conversation, he says: “It’s like ‘Pulp Fiction’, you can’t not like it.”) And yet you could argue ‘Gumhead’ has a literary dimension, because reading almost any Coupland novel makes you think: “Jesus, how many heads does he have inside his head?” A typical Coupland novel is narrated by a bunch of different characters, taking turns; stories within stories within stories.

For what it’s worth, Coupland talks about ‘Gumhead’ as purely an art thing. It’s about trying to do something new with public art – a form most people feel alienated from. And of course the more people interact with it, the more it changes and morphs. “It’s time-based art, it’s sculpture, it’s landscape, it’s still life, it’s portraiture, it’s self-portraiture, it’s community engagement…” There are a few other things he says that won’t be recorded here due to my inability to take notes more quickly, and to his feeling that tape recorders in interviews are torture. (For more on this, please google that Morrissey piece.)

“It’s new media,” I say, referring to #gumhead on Instagram.

“I can’t believe the filters people use on there,” he says.

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The first two rooms of his retrospective are basically inside-handshake references to Canada. “If I’ve done my job right, everything here should alienate you,” he says, laughing. (I grew up in California, and my ignorance of hockey is total.) Then there’s two LEGO installations, and pieces consisting of children’s blocks spelling out negative euphemisms associated with talent agencies, such as “WE’LL PASS”, and walls of found cigarette and detergent packaging from Asia (the text/design combo reminds him of his own place “halfway between visual art and literature”), and then we’re in a room called ‘Slogans for the Early Twenty-First Century’. There are dozens of slogans on every wall, on colours reminiscent of corporate memos. The typeface is Eurostile Condensed Bold, or sometimes Eurostile Condensed Dark, and they say things like:








You can’t look at them and not think of the word-art slogans in the extra-wide margins of ‘Generation X’ almost 30 years ago: little boxes of text Coupland photocopied over and over again to create visual imperfections – a process he now describes as “not really ontologically different from Instagram.” Just like the slogans in ‘Generation X’ were to the early 1990s, these 21st-century slogans are about: “How do you articulate the absolute right now?” as Coupland puts it. “What can you say that wouldn’t have made sense to someone ten years ago?”

This impulse toward sloganeering might’ve started out of a love for Jenny Holzer’s ‘Truisms’, or it might’ve been born from his summer job printing T-shirts in a merchandise booth at the Pacific National Exhibition. Now Coupland’s slogans feel most at home on Twitter, which is where a lot of them have appeared lately. (No surprise, he’s good at Twitter. See @DougCoupland.)

“Pop art is technically exactly 50 years old,” Coupland says as we walk into the next room. “When I was nine, I was introduced to pop art, and I was, like: ‘Yes!’ I’ve been into it since.” Pieces of his in the pop art vein include a painting of a gigantic Post-it note with nothing on it, rendered in yellow dots, à la Roy Lichtenstein, and several large-scale paintings of QR codes. “They’re like mandalas,” Coupland says. “Even if you didn’t know what they were, you would know they were saying something.” Blown up this big, and with tons of colours in among the black-and-white static, they look like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or Lichtenstein’s dot paintings, except super pixelated.

The real mind-blower is in the next room: a piece called ‘Silver Boogeyman’, composed of black dots on aluminium, embellished with plastic googly dolls’ eyes. You can’t quite place what it adds up to until you stand back and hold your smartphone up and take a picture of the work. It’s Osama bin Laden.

“It’s amazing that it works,” says a woman with her smartphone out. She’s pushing a man in a wheelchair who also has his smartphone out.

Next, we’re looking at ‘The Poet’, another work that uses this technological conceit to depict two people who’ve just jumped out of the World Trade Center. They’re falling through the air against the grid of one of the towers.

“You know what you never see in 9/11 footage?” Coupland asks. “This.” He takes his own smartphone from his pocket and lifts it into the air.

“It was the last undocumented mega event in human history. Can you imagine if 9/11 happened today? The amount of data alone…”

When you ask Coupland about Coupland, he demurs along the lines of “I don’t know if my life is interesting…” After about 45 minutes of standing in this museum talking about his art, he says something like: “I can’t believe I’ve been standing here talking about myself for the last 45 minutes.” He seems allergic to focusing on himself, his career, his life. He’s an expert in deflection. In America, the cult of careerism is everything, and in everything Coupland writes you can tell he hates that about America. You could tell that all the way back in ‘Generation X’. He is lit up by other people’s qualities, by nature’s qualities, which is what makes him a good artist. The closest thing he has to an autobiography is ‘City of Glass’, which is not an autobiography at all but a guidebook to Vancouver, broken up by subject, and even there, he only rarely inserts himself into the writing – a description of Doug doing a thing. Here’s what it’s like when he does: in a chapter on salmon, he mentions having once gone for a swim in a river near a salmon hatchery and standing in his underwear among a thousand salmon swimming “all clustered together in the shape of a brain, stable, swimming in one place. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen… I tried to imagine what it is they could be thinking – some message so old and so basic that earthly newcomers like humans would never get it.”

One of the last things we look at before leaving the gallery is an installation called ‘The World’, which is an urban landscape tricked out with technology and interrupted with piles of dead bees. (“I got them from an apiarist in the Fraser Valley,” he says.) This is not really a surprise, as dead bees were a major theme in his 2009 novel ‘Generation A’, and almost everything Coupland makes deals with the places where nature and technology kiss. But now, Coupland clearly wants to get dinner, and soon we’re in his black Audi, driving over the Lions Gate Bridge, a structure that prompts a theme song of sorts from the driver’s seat.

He points to Mount Baker in the distance and mentions that it set the all-time planetary record for most snow ever to fall in one year (summer 1998 to summer 1999). On the other side of the bridge is North Vancouver and West Vancouver, where ‘Hey Nostradamus!’ is set – his 2003 novel about violence and spirituality, centred around a school shooting. It is one of the great works of our time.

Meanwhile, Coupland needs to change his clothes.

We start talking about clothes before we get to the house. “I have a strange relationship with my body,” he says. “I’m like cardboard cut-out shapes.” He hates shopping. He hates sartorial transitions. He’d had an appointment with his trainer earlier in the day, and even though his trainer ended up flaking on him, he didn’t want to change clothes again. But now he does.

FANTASTIC MAN - A COUPLANDIAN blend of nature and technology, Vancouver Harbour accommodates both killer whales and seaplanes.

We get to his house and he disappears to change while I gawk at his fantastic collection of art and books, and stacked objects like stalagmites, and the tiny red desk where he writes. Every window looks into thick trees – nothing but green. “I like being surrounded by trees,” he explains, now wearing a vertically striped black-and-blue linen dress shirt and cream-coloured linen pants. “I hate views.”

At the restaurant, Coupland announces that he’s not going to let me look at the sheet of questions I’ve prepared, and also that he’s going to ask me more questions than I ask him, and although he doesn’t succeed at the latter, he does succeed at the former.

Across the room there’s a man who I think looks like Robert Frost, but who Coupland thinks looks exactly like his father, a former fighter pilot and surgeon, whom he admires tremendously. Every time I say something about Coupland’s amazing accomplishments, he mentions how they absolutely pale in comparison with his father’s accomplishments.

The TV show ‘Survivor’ comes up: “I’ve never in 27 seasons ever missed an episode. It’s all about the absolute shittiest side of human nature.” He admires ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’: “I think that’s an amazing show because they took this seemingly moribund art form and revitalised it and made it popular and important.” He says he’s currently reading Edith Wharton: “She’s kind of like the Joan Didion of 90 years ago.” When Jenny Holzer comes up again, he reminisces on a show at the Guggenheim in New York City in 1989, a show he still can’t stop thinking about: “About 45 minutes in, the whole world fell away and you were in a world made of words – it was the most astonishing experience; it was about time, it was about space, it was about light.”

He says: “Facebook is like Twitter with homework attached.” He’s so productive because “I’m not very good at leisure,” he says. “I’m terrible at leisure.” He sees no downside in including contemporary references within whatever he’s writing at any given moment because it gives the writing a time-capsule quality: “The only writing that comes out seeming dated is the writing that tries not to date itself. It comes out gauche and unwittingly dated.”

And then I throw in a personal question that involves his partner, David. His answer? “Oh my God is the economy doing well.” He’s pointing at a cargo ship gliding by on the smooth surface of the water outside the restaurant. “Look at all that crap going out there.”

An expert demurral.

So I steer it back to something neutral: what advice did he give to Steven Spielberg about what the future will look like for ‘Minority Report’ and ‘AI’? He laughs and says: “If you want to make anything look futuristic, make it light blue and glowy.” Then he suggests a game where we look around the room and try to find the thing in the room that would not have made sense to someone ten years ago. “The future’s a lot like right now, except every now and then there’s a weird comment. Like the first time you heard someone say, ‘I’m going to Shazam that.’ Or Angelina’s pre-emptive mastectomy. Just some very future thing that makes you go, whoa!” The future thing right now in restaurants, we agree, is people Instagramming their dinner. Which reminds me of another of his ‘Slogans for the Early Twenty-First Century’:


He eats decisively, taking something called a “tuna sushi cone” out of its wire spiral holder and placing it on a plate and slicing it in half, paper wrapper and all, and then eating each half with a fork. “When you have a beard,” he explains, “if you eat anything other than an M&M it just gets all caught up.”

After devouring a chicken, he asks when was the last time I had my body in the ocean, because we’re in a restaurant on the water, and my being unable to think of the last time seals my fate.

“You’re going to have your body in the ocean,” he says. “Just a toe.”

Twenty minutes later, we’ve finished dinner and we’re out on the beach walking to the waterline, and he says: “All you have to do is get it wet – you don’t have to keep it in.” A pause. “That sounds gross.”

I take off a shoe and dip one toe in, and in doing so manage to soak my entire other shoe. As we’re walking back to the parking lot, Coupland stops and excitedly points at some nubs in the grass. It looks like a patch of yellow-green pilled fleece. It looks like nothing. He picks some and says: “Rub it between your fingers.” I do as he says, thinking, “There’s no way this is going to smell like anything, he’s just messing with me… Oh wow, this is amazing… Smells like pineapple.”

“It’s called pineapple weed,” he says. He tells a story about a delicious salad he made with it once – pineapple weed and mushrooms. Then we pass a flowering yucca plant that he stops to smell. He clearly wants to end our adventure on something outside himself, and the white blossoms are amazing; they smell like liquorice.

“Ah!” he says, a few steps farther, reading into a bush. “Baby strawberries!”

“Parking lot strawberries,” I say, somewhat sceptical.
And Douglas Coupland gives me a look, like: “Are you kidding me?” He pops a baby strawberry in his mouth and says, smiling: “It’s a West Vancouver parking lot,” and does a look-around at all the greenery, like: “Are you seeing all of this?”