"We Really Have Our Sh*t Together": Artist and Author Douglas Coupland on Canada's Place in the Art World

"We Really Have Our Sh*t Together": Artist and Author Douglas Coupland on Canada's Place in the Art World
(Douglas Coupland, Canada Pictures, 2000)

Between scheduled appearances at art fairs in New York and Dubai, iconic Canadian author and artist Douglas Coupland made time to discuss Canadian art and identity with ARTINFO Canada.

In your recent visual art productions (“Canada Pictures,” “Permanent Press Landscape,” “Group Portrait 1957”), you tread a fine line between parodic and considered — even esoteric — portraits of Canadian culture and its art history. How would you describe your “Canada Pictures” — where did these come out of, for you?

Mostly the items come from my own memory bank and are images and situations I’d never before seen addressed in art. There’s an obvious indexical side to the photos. You have to remember how utterly unexplored Canadian identity was in 2000. There was nothing. And when I did these and put them out there, I wasn’t expecting people to say, “Wow, that’s me, too.” As with most things, I didn’t expect any response. I was surprised at how synchronized my own memories were with so many other people. That was nice.

With the “Permanent Press Landscape” and the “Group Portraits” series, your referents (the Group of Seven) are distilled and at a remove.

Somewhat, yes. They’re like a set of tribe-specific sacred images that really don’t go far at all outside of our own tribe. I also use the term, "secret handshake" when describing the Group of Seven to non-Canadians. Outsiders just don’t get them. With my mode of stylization, I like pushing them further so that even insiders have to work a little bit to get them. That’s what makes it so satisfying for viewers... they had to work a little bit to get the work, and once they do get it, they realize that there is this wonderful collective bond of landscape.

Do you feel you have a distance from Canadian culture such that you can observe its character?

Quite the opposite: intimacy.

How would you describe its current cultural profile?

Canadian culture? Strong and confident... maybe overconfident. But compared to most other countries our cultural production per capita is massive.

Can you expand on what you mean by “overconfident”?

Pride cometh before a fall. Sometimes I think we get a bit too high on ourselves, which is fine. But eternal vigilance is the price of democracy and eternal vigilance is the price of making sure that arts funding mechanisms are kept in place. A culture without consistent and proper arts funding is merely a parking lot. There’s a bit too much slashing going on right now.

Do you perceive a frustrated ambivalence towards Canadian identity?

Compared to, say 1990 or 1980, Canada seems very unambivalent about itself. I mentioned in the New York talk [at the Armory Show] that during the Mulroney years Canada felt one lapdance away from being absorbed into the United States. Those days are long gone. I think we really have our shit together these days.

What do you think of "Oh, Canada" (opening May 27), the forthcoming Mass MoCA endeavor to survey an entire country’s art practice?

It comes at a good time. I have this feeling that certain strains of thinking and working have reached endpoints, and I’m curious to see multiple new points of view.

Is this kind of curatorial conceit still relevant, or useful?

If the show is done properly, it will find pockets of genuine relevance and foreground them. It depends on the curator’s vision. So we’ll see.

What do you think it will do for Canadian culture — both abroad, and with regards to its self-perception?

Well, I’m in Dubai right now at the Dubai Art Fair and when I say I’m from Canada or Vancouver, even the most obscure people smile and then give me lists of Canadian artists they know or know of — and I usually know all of them, and many of them personally. The art universe is highly aware of Canada and I don’t think they’ll see the show as an exercise in “What’s this quirky country up to?” They’ll be more interested to see what comes after all the other things they know of.

You diagnosed a generational zeitgeist with "Generation X" and have followed it with another epochal reflection in "Generation A." But do you think generations maintain themselves — do they grow up, evolve, and shape-shift as a unit, or do they come apart?

I don’t know if I agree with the assumption that generations even really exist. When I wrote "Generation X" I thought there were maybe twelve people I went to high school with who might get it. And 20 years later I’m amazed that people still think it was an exercise in demographics.

Are you pessimistic?

I have a dark sense of humor but that doesn’t mean pessimism. I think people are more good than they are bad — but only just.

A version of this story originally appeared on ARTINFO Canada.