Deflated basketballs, a lone abandoned sandal, a broken millennial-pink cooler, and piles and piles of crumpled plastic water bottles: these are just some of the discarded products you’ll find in Douglas Coupland’s Vortex, a wide-spanning exhibit at the Vancouver Aquarium that tackles the global plastic-pollution crisis through the locally based artist’s imaginative lens.
A creative interpretation of the Great Pacific garbage patch or Pacific trash vortex—a gyre of plastic and other floating debris in the Pacific Ocean that, as of March, is estimated to be three times the size of France—Vortex is anchored by a 50,000-litre water installation comprised of a Japanese day-fishing boat that was recovered on the shores of Haida Gwaii last year.
The vessel floats atop a swathe of disposable bottles, car tires, jugs, and other nonbiodegradable waste—all also collected from Haida Gwaii waters by Coupland and his team—as four dummies portraying Andy Warhol, an African migrant, and two cartoonish children look on from the boat. A fine mist that mimics the atmosphere of Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago that the Canadian figure calls the “most beautiful place in the world”, hovers ominously over the sea of rubbish.
According to Coupland, the Warhol character, which is depicted snapping Polaroid images of the trash, represents the introduction of plastic a century ago, when the material was embraced and even perceived as “glamorous” by the public. The African migrant can be viewed as a refugee who embodies the sticky web of plastics, politics, and power that pervades our current climate and has led to an estimated 80 percent of ocean plastics coming from land sources, while Plastic Girl and Plastic Boy—a pair of fantastical tots documenting their surroundings with smartphones—signify hope and action for cleaner waterways.
“Plastic is only 100 years old, and in my lifetime, there’s been this massive change in the way we look at it,” Coupland tells the Straight during an interview at the Vancouver Aquarium. “Even in the ’70s, plastics were still seen as…benevolent, and that obviously has changed in recent years.”
Presented as part of a new initiative from Ocean Wise, Vortex also involves three “living displays” that will juxtapose what the artist and writer defines as “good” and “bad” plastics. The good sees Red zebra cichlids and Golden mbuna cichlids swimming among a series of colourful Lego towers taken from Coupland’s 2013 solo exhibition, Anywhere is Everywhere is Anything is Everything. In contrast, the bad has Blue blubber jellies and Golden mbuna cichlids sharing tanks with plastic crates and bottles.
Nearby, a gallery wall showcases the debris most commonly found by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup: plastic pens, empty lighters, tampon applicators, and so on. Outside the Vancouver Aquarium, visitors will find another Japanese day-fishing boat, this one home to stacks of plastic jugs, buoys, and a large mass of frayed rope resembling what Coupland describes as a yeti. Elsewhere throughout the aquarium, there are interactive elements that highlight the negative impact of disposable plastics and what people can do to help reduce them.
By confronting viewers with tangible waste that is polluting our oceans, and offering an image of what the Pacific garbage patch may look like, Coupland hopes that guests will be able to better visualize how single-use items—and our convenience-driven habits—are affecting the Earth. “If nothing else, it’s about getting us to that critical mass. This will all look very obvious 30 years from now,” he adds, comparing our consumption of plastic to once-accepted practices like littering and smoking in restaurants. “These are not fads; these are behaviour changes rooted in something deeper.”
A renowned artist who has employed plastic generously in his past sculptural works, Coupland admits that he finds it difficult to see the material the same way after working on Vortex. He wants visitors to leave the exhibit with similarly conflicted feelings. “Now I look at plastic and it’s like someone put a hex on it,” he says. “There’s something wrong with it; it’s radioactive. I can’t think of it uncritically anymore.”
Vortex is at the Vancouver Aquarium from Friday (May 18) to spring 2019. For details, see event listing.