Q&A: Douglas Coupland on the Realities of Ocean Plastic Pollution

We chat with the artist about the inspiration behind his new Vortex exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium.

May 31, 2018

By Laryssa Vachon

Internationally renowned artist and author, Douglas Coupland, has officially opened his Vortex exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium to highlight the plastic pollution crisis that’s slowly destroying our oceans.To continue this important conversation, and get to know the man who has made plastic a part of his creative process for decades, we sat down with Coupland next to his year-long installation.

A boat, decorated with items found in the ocean, welcomes guests in the plaza at the Aquarium.

Q: When was the moment that your relationship with plastic changed?

A: I go up to Haida Gwaii [an archipelago off British Columbia’s west coast] about two or three times a year just for beach swimming, nature and recharging batteries, so this place is my sanctuary. And in 2013, this bottle I used to buy in Tokyo was suddenly washing up on shore and it broke something in me. I thought, “Ok, this has to mean something. This is beyond a coincidence, so what is it?”

I became logically radicalized by that experience. I felt like I was a part of something that’s either a blessing or a curse. And then I began really watching tsunami debris come over in massive ways. The next trip up there [Haida Gwaii] I found a family’s fridge and it still had food in it. And I was like “Oh…it’s not just cool stuff. It’s someone’s life,” and it just sort of expanded.

Q: Why the Vancouver Aquarium?

A: Because of the 50 thousand litres of water [involved in the exhibit], this is not something you can do in a museum. So 14 months ago, I was living in Berlin, I called the aquarium and threw the idea out. There was silence on the other end of the phone and I was like, “Okay, thanks for listening,” and then they said, “No, no, we love it!” So we went from this thing in my head to this whole production in 14 months, which is kind of, by institutional standards, quite amazing.

In the ‘Vortex,’ various plastics float on thousands of litres of water.

Q: Have you changed your plastic habits since doing this project?

A: As much as it’s changeable. When you buy something on eBay and it arrives at the house, it’s got all this packing tape, it’s got bubble wrap, it’s got Styrofoam peanuts and so this stuff is in your life and it comes to you no matter what.

I think right now, the next three or four years is for everybody to have a grand reassessment on what is changeable and then what isn’t. Because I think there’s good plastic and bad plastic.

[Coupland points to the wall in Vortex that displays rows of miscellaneous items]. That comes from the great Canadian shoreline clean up and it’s all from tidewater beaches in British Columbia. It’s the “boring” stuff, and it comes in these big ugly buckets of used tennis balls and used tooth brushes and you put it up there and you’re like, “Oh, I see.” Those are probably the things that are changeable up there. I’m amazed at how plastic is hurled at you from all directions in society.

Items collected by Coupland and his team from the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup.

Q: If there was one thing you wish people knew more about the ocean, what would that be?

A: That the ocean is not infinite. People are like, “Oh, we’ll just throw this trash away.” So what do you mean by “away”? Well, they mean away from me.

“Away” means it’s going somewhere else. When you say you’re throwing something away, you’re actually throwing it in the ocean. So, you have to redefine your notion of what “away” is. Everything you do now has some sort of global ramification.

Characters that represent the past, present and future of our relationship with plastic.

Q: Can you describe what each character of the exhibit represents?

A: It’s the past, present and the future of our relationship with plastic, which was only invented about a hundred years ago. You have Andy Warhol, he’s a very important artist to myself and most people in the art world. He sort of embodies the 20th century’s uncritical happiness of plastics and how other people saw it could solve all the problems.

Then we have the woman there in life preservers, an African migrant, trying to go from Tunisia into Sicily. She also embodies the complexity of the 21st century because there’s not just some magic button you can push to fix things. It’s so complex and it sort of boils down to that on a day-to-day level there’s only so much we can do, which is great, but then how do we think strategically and more long-term about what we use to make it.

The bobble heads are a plastic boy and plastic girl, and they are the future. It’s some sort of social activism that maybe they’ll figure out what the next step is going to be.


Vortex by Douglas Coupland

Open daily (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Vancouver Aquarium, 845 Avison Way
General Admission Prices Apply

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