November 8, 2010 / Art
In 1980 the young artist Jeff Koons presented his first major solo exhibition, a window …
March 5, 2020
A few years ago, I moved across the continent from small-town Tennessee to cosmopolitan Vancouver, British Columbia, for a six-month academic sabbatical. As a scholar-in-residence at Regent College, I spent time researching the theological aspects of Vancouverite Douglas Coupland’s fiction and art. I was drawn to Vancouver by Coupland’s own lifelong residency there and the fact that his sculptures are placed all around the city, reflecting both the glossy newness of the city as well as its natural surroundings. At the end of a stretch of rainy days spent researching and writing, I attended the opening of Coupland’s long-running Vortex exhibit in the unlikeliest of places, the bottom floor of the Vancouver Aquarium. And only after this visit did I begin to make connections between Coupland’s work and my own developing theology of place and creation care.
Coupland is mainly known for his books, including Generation X and Life After God, which reflect the spiritual landscape of contemporary cosmopolitan and suburban spaces. Although I had spent years reading and writing on Coupland, I didn’t begin to see the richness and tension in his consideration of environment, both artificial and natural, until I visited Vancouver, a city of blue glass skyscrapers designed to enhance rather than contrast the ocean and mountains that cradle it.
Coupland’s own house is an inviting mid-century modern space filled with pop art and postmodern totem poles made up of the relics of his Canadian childhood. Set back from the road, it is surrounded by woods and a small stream. A large wall-sized window in his living room makes it impossible to forget the lush natural world while inside, sitting upon chic modern furniture next to collectible Lego sets. In July 2016, on my first visit to interview Coupland in his home, he took me outside to meet the wild animals that he had named and fed peanuts to on a daily basis. I was struck by his love of nature and the ease with which postmodern artifice and ageless nature complemented, rather than conflicted, one another.
When I moved to Vancouver for my 2018 sabbatical, I was once again immersed in these two contradictory yet complementary worlds—the urban and the natural. I had not lived in a big, cosmopolitan city for almost nine years. I teach at a private Christian college in a small Tennessee town near the Great Smoky Mountains and the Ocoee River, a town surrounded by natural beauty. But I rarely allow myself to see these things.
I did not think too much about nature unless I was visited by bugs or disturbed by heat, grass allergies, and so on. As a university professor, I have enjoyed teaching William Wordsworth, but I always remind my students that “Tintern Abbey” is not about nature as much as it is about human perception and the power of memory: “of all the mighty world / Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create, / And what perceive.”1 I love art that is centered on humans rather than on the natural world. Forget landscape paintings and poems about daffodils; I want to read about existential crises in the context of a gritty urban space.
This explains my attraction to Coupland’s novels that depict urbanites searching for truth amid highly commodified spaces. I longed to be a city dweller, a lover of spaces that teem with human activity and foster culture making. Only after spending more time in Vancouver did I recognize that I had been blind to many aspects of Coupland’s work, namely his relationship with nature.
At first, my transition to Vancouver was a smooth one. I rented a small, hobbit hole of a laneway house that was in the center of the city’s action, while at the same time, remarkably comfortable. But like all Vancouver residents, I was forced to recycle. Never in my American life or my six years studying in the United Kingdom had I been told that I had to recycle. And this was not just any recycling process: I had to divide my garbage (which I was told was not garbage) into four different containers, and I was told that if it were done incorrectly, it would not be picked up again. I panicked. The sorting was tedious. And gross. The recycling process was so centralized that the actual garbage was only picked up every other week—and I was sharing a bin with two other people. I was stressed and frustrated. How dare they make me do this? I was so used to ease and convenience. I am an American, for goodness sake!
After this rude awakening, I began to suspect that my own inattentiveness to the wonders of the natural world was connected to a general apathy toward the environmental damages created by the very centers of culture that I love. For instance, in my small town, there is not a curb recycling service. There is a local recycling center that will accept items for recycling three days a week, but I had never even sought it out.
As I got used to these new recycling rhythms, I started to change my thinking. I now lived in Vancouver, an international city surrounded by beaches, mountains, rainforests, and the wildlife that inhabit those luscious spaces. This was the best of both worlds, and I was forced to think about the connections between these two worlds, including the often invisible patterns of destruction. I therefore came to see that the invisible authorities who were watching over this whole process, forcing me to care and conserve, were not my enemies.
In the midst of these minor epiphanies, I was invited to attend the opening of Coupland’s Vortex art installation at the Vancouver Aquarium, a seemingly unlikely space for a Coupland show.
I had been to the Vancouver Aquarium weeks before the Coupland exhibit opened, and I remember that a local friend forewarned me that I would not be allowed to bring in a plastic water bottle as we visited the fish. Of course, this was his rule, not the official aquarium code, and it kind of annoyed me, but I went along with it and bought a reusable water bottle, regardless. I ended up using that water bottle for the rest of my time in Vancouver.
I was beginning to wake up to both the beauty of nature and our need for a daily relationship with it, but it was not until my second visit to the Vancouver Aquarium, this time for Vortex,that I came to a deeper understanding of how my thinking was changing. Vortex was an ominous visual representation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, eerily beautiful and downright disturbing. I had never known Coupland to be an “environmental” artist, and in multiple interviews, he admitted that his making environmentally conscious art surprised him. In fact, he has long been known as a lover of plastic.2 For over twenty-five years, he has collected plastic in order to make nouveau pop art that both celebrates and critiques the cultural landscape we also encounter in his novels.
If you are familiar with the writing and art of Douglas Coupland, you will know that the author of the 1991 best-selling novel Generation X is a connoisseur of pop culture, often prophetically reading its patterns and importance. Not surprisingly, the visual artist most formative in Coupland’s aesthetic development was Andy Warhol, a pioneer in developing an artistic reverence of glossy, manufactured, throwaway surfaces. Coupland himself has often incorporated single-use plastic containers—shampoo bottles, soap containers, water bottles—in his art; he sees the beauty in these disposable, everyday objects. At the same time, a wariness of their larger story and sinister impact is not something completely new to his art and writing.
The tension between culture, technology (with which Coupland is fascinated), and nature (which Coupland loves) is continually examined in Coupland’s writing and visual art. His first solo show, Spike, featured supersized replicas of detergent bottles alongside human-sized plastic toy soldiers with missing limbs or oddly formed body parts. At that show, Coupland told Phil Patton of the New York Times that “any passion to collect has some meaning behind it.” Patton explains that Coupland intended to connect lost limbs and the chemicals contained within these “beautiful” plastic bottles, perhaps the chemicals used in manufacturing the bottles themselves. Just recently, one of Coupland’s nieces had been born without a hand. Ironically, one of Coupland’s friends pointed out that the featured bottles were, as Patton notes, “shaped to attract a hand—and . . . contained chemicals that might cause birth defects.”3
Similarly, Coupland’s novel Generation A examines the more sinister impact of Western luxury as it imagines a world in which bees are extinct. In his dystopian novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, one of the main characters falls into a coma after seeing a prophetic vision of the spiritual damage done to humanity as a result, in part, of its dependence on machines. Ironically, the comatose prophetess is kept alive by machines until she once again, miraculously, wakes up. And Coupland’s Digital Orca, one of the public art centerpieces of downtown Vancouver that I observed during my sabbatical, is a pixelated, Lego-like twenty-five-foot sculpture of an orca whale. Once again, Coupland envisions a pairing of nature and technology: standing on one side of the sculpture, we see the lush North Shore mountains whereas facing the other side we see the blue skyscrapers of Vancouver, what Coupland calls a “city of glass,” reflecting the ocean.4
Coupland has always been an author and artist occupying an uncomfortable liminal space between the popular and the academic, between nature and technology, between the secular and the sacred. He has sometimes been pigeonholed as the voice of his generation, a label he has always resisted. But his Vancouver Aquarium exhibit both moves beyond that label and further enforces it. The hipster irony of Generation X and Shampoo Planet was not so much a gimmick but a tool used to wedge open a pure space in which to encounter nature, relationships, and transcendence. And in Vortex, Coupland is confessing that some of the very tools of his trade are polluting (both literally and metaphorically) this desired space.
For Vortex, Coupland created an interactive installation that is perhaps the way forward in environmental activism, as it renarrates our relationship with both the ocean and the plastics that we know and love. The installation is disorienting, and in our disorientation, we experience a “contemplative” rude awakening, an emotional connection and intellectual shift that may echo Coupland’s own.5
Vortex opened at the Vancouver Aquarium in May 2018 and was shown until October 2019. In an article that he wrote for the Guardian, Coupland explains his inspiration for creating this exhibit focusing on plastic pollution, for which he partnered with the aquarium and Ocean Wise, a Canadian environmental group. The story goes back to 1999 when he was traveling in Japan and fell in love with the many brightly colored plastic bottles that lined the shelves in the drugstores there. Years later, he was beachcombing on the shores of Haida Gwaii, a lush, remote archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, and a place that Coupland has visited many times over the years because of the solace of its unspoiled jungles and beaches. On that 2013 beachcombing trip, he watched as a wave washed a bottle up on shore. It looked exactly like one of the Japanese shampoo bottles he had brought home fourteen years before. And, as Coupland explains, “Soon the wave became an avalanche, and quickly all I could see was the alien plastic marine debris that inundated my most sacred place on the planet.”6
This experience, which resulted from the 2011 tsunami, led to a dramatic paradigm shift in Coupland’s thinking, perhaps a distillation of some of the themes he had more indirectly dealt with in his earlier work. The tsunami was a harrowing reminder of the price we pay for what Coupland often depicts as a “shiny” life, an “earthly paradise . . . that rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless.” But in Coupland’s work there has long been a more subtle connection between unspoiled nature and the “sacred.”7
Outside the inner entrance to the Vancouver Aquarium, a dilapidated boat with Japanese script across the side was filled with totems made of tires, wound pieces of thick rope, and brightly colored buoys. I learned that this boat, along with another boat inside the exhibit, was found by Coupland on the coast of Haida Gwaii in 2017. Following the 2011 tsunami, the boats had made their way from the Japanese island of Honshu to the shores of this remote island in British Columbia. Coupland was able to locate the boat’s owner, a seventy-seven-year-old fisherman, Nobufusa Okajima, from the town Ishinomaki and obtain Okajima’s permission to use his boats in the art work.
In seeing this piece for the first time, I was struck by how it looked both out of place and at home. The worn plastics looked only natural alongside the escaped boat. All of these pieces were constructed by human hands, whether humble (the wooden boat) or sophisticated (the tires). All had become a part of the sea. How was I supposed to feel about this?
The rest of the Vortex exhibit filled a large area on the aquarium’s bottom floor, including a pool area that was previously occupied by stingrays. The centerpiece of this exhibit, the pool was filled with fifty thousand liters of water, the other washed-up Japanese boat, and countless pieces of plastic debris that had also arrived at the shores of Haida Gwaii. An otherworldly mist rose from the trash-filled tank, as if to visually signal the mixing of sacred and profane or, as Wendell Berry might put it, the sacred and the desecrated: “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”8
On the surface of the desecrated pool was the second boat, which carried four large figures: Andy Warhol, an African migrant woman, and a plastic boy and girl who looked like postmodern anime Kewpie dolls. The Warhol figure leaned over, taking Polaroid photos of the floating plastics. In one of his artist statements about Vortex, Coupland explains that Warhol represents “the past: plastics at their start were seen as revolutionary and beneficial, and almost universally praised and glamorized.” Warhol was also Coupland’s earliest artistic influence—as a nine-year-old, Coupland read Warhol’s diary, and it validated the aesthetic rubric through which he was experiencing the world; it changed his life. Both Warhol and Coupland have focused on the mysterious beauty of our seemingly depthless, heavily commodified reality—often decontextualizing everyday objects, including plastics, to call our attention to something beautiful. Perhaps Coupland’s inclusion of Warhol in this ominous installation, surrounded by the very plastics that are killing wildlife and polluting the oceans, indicates his own rethinking of the ways in which he has defined decontextualized beauty.
The Warhol figure was placed across the boat from an African migrant woman wearing a life jacket. Her face was forlorn, with dark rings under her downcast eyes as she focused on her own feet. In his artist’s statement, Coupland explains that she represents the present, someone whose boat capsized this morning as she made her way from Tunisia to Italy. She was rescued by smugglers, and her fate is unknown, just as the intentions of her smugglers are unknown. As Coupland continues, he emphasizes her connections to the larger, aching world: “She’s but one character in an astonishingly complex global drama involving oil, plastics, politics, power, industry, and migration. Together these relationships have marooned all our planet’s citizens in a metaphorical dead-end gyre of plastic oceanic trash. We’re all now in the same boat.”9
Coupland ultimately argues that the damage from our daily disregard for the environment has real consequences—the kinds of items I once bristled at sorting for my recycling collection would, if not recycled, float en masse to what have been called garbage patches or vortexes, where they become part of vast whirlpools that directly harm marine wildlife. And then, with Yeatsian apocalyptic exponentiation, this harm indirectly extends beyond sea life to beach shorelines, to the woman in Coupland’s boat. With the figure of the refugee, Coupland reminds us that human lives are at stake and that it is the humans with the least economic power who bear the brunt of this complex, unethical equation, beginning with our own casual relationship with trash.
This sense is amplified by the juxtaposition of the glamorous Warhol figure and the nameless, destitute refugee, especially when we realize that Warhol’s love for artifice may have indirectly led to her dire situation. In this sense, Warhol is not a villain but a stand-in for all of us in the West who relish pleasure, ease, and artificial beauty. We may not share the Warhol figure’s enthusiasm for the aesthetics of plastic, but we passively and collectively agree to pretend that the harm of our consumption and disposal is invisible. These plastic products rotate in a world of their own as long as we agree to an invisible and silent out-of-sight-out-of-mind mantra.
In spite of this, Coupland claims there is hope in the forms of the plastic boy and girl, ironically made of the very material that contributed both to Warhol’s pop aesthetic and the tragic story of the unnamed migrant. Each plastic child is holding up an iPhone, looking forward to the future, not down at the polluting plastic debris or their own feet. Yes, they themselves are made of plastic—as Coupland notes, “It’s now becoming harder to distinguish where our bodies end and where the synthetic world begins”—but he believes that these figures are full of hope as they “document” what they are seeing, perhaps changing it even through social-media activism. Their future reality lies outside of the boat.10
To me, this part of the exhibit was somewhat puzzling. I understand that we can responsibly use technology as a tool, even as a means to communicate messages about our environment’s needs. At the same time, I am reminded of the breaking news I heard last week that revealed how child laborers—actually, child slaves—in Madagascar have been forced to mine for mica, a mineral that is sent to Western countries, particularly for the manufacturing of cell phones.11 Of course, I read this piece of news on my smartphone, so perhaps the presence of iPhone-wielding plastic children on Coupland’s boat is actually a poignant reminder of this tension.
On both the hull and stern of the boat in the middle of the exhibit’s pool, there were stuffed birds, the contribution of Coupland’s taxidermist brother. These birds are beautiful, appearing alive while we know they are dead. They are on the edge of the boat, and their fate is in our hands, those of us who Coupland says are metaphorically in the boat.
The walls of the large room in which the exhibit is held were also part of Coupland’s Vortex exhibit. On one wall, a film of the sights and sounds of a Haida Gwaii beach was projected upon the blank space. On another wall, there were rows of hundreds of small plastic items that were collected from the sea. Straws, tampons, toothbrushes, lighters—the many things that we don’t think about as they graft themselves into our daily routines. These items were gathered during one of the many ocean cleanups that were orchestrated by Ocean Wise. Coupland explains that when looking at them in a bucket, he was disgusted, but when he placed them in an orderly fashion on the wall, he found them strangely beautiful.
It was only on my second visit to the exhibit, when I was accompanied by a friend and his five-year-old son, that I was really able to see this wall of trash. On that second visit, I was able to follow the child and see things through his eyes. He was wide-eyed with wonder over this wall of decontextualized pieces of plastic as he looked carefully and for a long time. But when he turned to see the large, polluted pool in the middle, he became much more antsy. I then realized that I should become more antsy as I allowed myself to truly feel the tension between the beauty and efficiency of these singular objects and their destructive power when clumped together in the sea. In the tank, there was no separation between pieces; there was only a large blanket of plastic that suffocated life, violently covering up beauty.
I was reminded of the lost beauty of life that was being smothered as I walked across the room to find glass tanks full of plastic bottles that floated gracefully among even more graceful jellyfish. And in yet another large tank, Coupland’s famous Lego Towers, shown several years ago at the Armory Show, were immersed in the water, a plastic city of smooth color for the fish to swim around.
In an interview with Canadian Geographic, Coupland explains that he hopes that experiencing this exhibit and seeing a visual representation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will shock visitors: “It takes it out of the realm of going on a very worthy field trip or something and then it relocates it in some more compelling place inside your heart or soul. . . . No matter how much you describe it, when you walk in, it’s still not going to be like what you thought it was. It has the power to shock and surprise.”12
And indeed, despite my years of closely studying Coupland’s work, the exhibit surprised me and stayed with me. Coupland’s Vortex helped connect the dots between my new practices of recycling and what I believe about the theological significance of that act. These two experiences in Vancouver—the mundane act of recycling and the profound encounter of Coupland’s installation—have left me wondering what the practice of the Christian faith should look like in the context of environmental stewardship and how the shape of our faith may be influenced by authority.
The initial act of recycling was forced upon me by an invisible hand, the hand of a benevolent government. Yet many of us, particularly in the United States, fear government infringement. We idolize our rights, and we rarely look beyond our own noses, beyond our own right to be comfortable. Even if we attend to the welfare of our immediate neighbors—as I sought to do for my students back in Tennessee even while contributing to landfills and sea vortexes—or people we see who are in desperate need, we rarely think about how we have gained our comforts or about the network of people, land, and animals beyond us. We have embraced the freedom to be ignorant.
Coupland’s work problematizes and exposes the price we pay for comfortable ignorance. And this work was part of the process of waking me up, of reminding me that I was ignoring so much of the glory around me and that my ignorance had costs. I know now that choosing ignorance is sin. It is squandering the good gifts of God and claiming the wrong kind of authority. Like the ancient mariner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, we can all easily ignore the sacredness of creation and then mercilessly kill it to exercise our own power, rights, or freedom. Or we can take another path, one that Berry describes as part of a truly lived, incarnate theology: “We have the world to live in and the use of it to live from on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it we have to know it and we have to know how to care of it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.”13
While in Vancouver, I realized how much I did not know the natural world. I had always seen this lack of attention to the earth as a choice, a preference based on environment and interests. Why did I need to know the natural world firsthand? I was interested in people. My theology told me that human beings are the pinnacle of God’s creation, so my interest in them was not unwarranted. But perhaps this was also a strange twist on some sort of cultural Christian thinking about the sacred/secular divide, an idea that only human lives are sacred. Saying this about the world and the nonhuman creatures in it had struck me as pagan. But Recycle BC’s collection services, Coupland’s Vortex exhibit, and even Reformed theology, in its many forms, have taught me that all of life is sacred, that there is not such a clear split between sacred and secular activities and interests. And if we really are at the pinnacle of creation, our place there comes with a great deal of responsibility—I had been ignoring both the responsibilities of the authority I had been given and the ultimate authority from which it had been bestowed.
In What Are People For?, Wendell Berry writes that “the ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because He wanted it made. He thinks the world is good, and He loves it. It is His world; He has never relinquished title to it. And He has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it.” It seems that I had forgotten that God had made the world out of love, that I had, like Mr. O’Brien in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, ignored the “glory” all around me. I saw the glory in other humans, but there was so much more to love, to enjoy, to take care of.14
As Claire Foster notes in the Church of England’s statement about ecological justice, our role in caring for creation is prescribed in the Noahic covenant, and we are reminded of this covenant between humanity and animals in Hosea 2:18: “And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground” (ESV). In an introduction to the same statement, Rowan Williams reminds us that being good stewards of creation is not just for creation’s benefit but for our benefit as well. He explains that “creation is an act of communication. It is God expressing his intelligence through every existing thing.”15 In knowing more about creation, we learn more about God’s creativity, intelligence, and love. As Williams points out, this is not to be understood as a collection of abstract concepts but part of Christian practice, a manifest reality:
The Christian reason for regarding ecology as a matter of justice, then, is that God’s self-sharing love is what animates every object and structure and situation in the world. Responses to the world that are unaware of this are neither truthful nor sustainable. To be aware of this is to enter into relationship, for the self-sharing love of God is not simply something we admire, but something in which we fully participate. We are not consumers of what God has made; we are in communion with it.16
Our call to care for creation—to know it, to listen to it—is not just a task or obligation. It is relational.
Back in small-town Tennessee, I struggle to remember these learned patterns of recycling and awareness. There is no local authority forcing me to do it. In fact, the rhythms of daily life in my community resist this inconvenience. But some days, I remember what I learned—I remember the authority who has given me authority, and I make my way to the local recycling center. This seems simple, mundane, even a nuisance. But if I stop for a moment, I can remember the poignant images that Coupland created, revealing the consequences of my apathy. And then I remember that this simple act of caring for creation is not just a trend or a means to rid myself of the guilt of my own apathy. It is one of many ways to love God.
Mary McCampbell is associate professor of humanities at Lee University. In addition to her academic publications, she has written for Image,Christianity Today, The Other Journal, Relevant, Relief, Christ and Pop Culture, and the Curator. She was the 2014 writer-in-residence at L’Abri Fellowship in the United Kingdom and a 2018 visiting scholar at Regent College in British Columbia. She is the author of the forthcoming Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy from Fortress Press. You can find her writing at marywmccampbell.com.