Gen X author and capital-A artist Douglas Coupland confesses to his undying love of Lego
Douglas Coupland lives at the very other edge of the country, obscured by trees in a glass 1960 post-and-beam "matchbox bungalow" designed by the architect Ron Thom. He’s notoriously private, a Canadian icon ensconced in a physical manifestation of iconic Canadiana – not exactly inaccessible, but, let’s say, not totally easy to find.
Coupland’s West Vancouver lair, at the end of an ordinary cul-de-sac in the hills above this country’s most expensive strip of waterfront real estate, looks like a photo from a ’60s-era Architectural Digest spread until, peering in the window of the front entranceway, I see a wall of shelves containing an extensive collection of fluorescently repainted spray bottles of household cleaning products. As Coupland opens the door and shakes my hand, I almost trip over a life-sized Canada goose with two heads. Along the foyer floor, a few dark-grey rocks are scattered.
"Pick one up," he says excitedly, and I do. It is at least eight times heavier than it looks. "It’s a meteorite. It’s fucking amazing, isn’t it?" he says. I notice that Coupland’s meteorite collection is artfully interspersed with rectangles of dried Ramen noodles, like Hansel-and-Gretel crumbs leading into the living room. "I’m casting the Ramen in bronze next weekend," he says, by way of explanation. "It’s for another project."
Super City of glass
Coupland, at the moment, is winding up Super City, an installation at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in which he has built an imaginary urban landscape of known buildings – the Seagram Tower, the World Trade Center, Toronto’s CN Tower, segments of the American Interstate Highway System – out of children’s building toys from the 1960s, including Lego, Tinkertoy, TOG’L, Matador, Meccano and the lesser-known Super City, a "modular" building kit that fell into obscurity in the shadow of Lego’s mega-popularity.
"It’s funny that you should come today," he says, bringing coffee into his recessed living room, where a gas fireplace whispers cosily around fake logs. "The last four years began with one eBay purchase, and this room was filled with more kits than you can imagine, and now all of a sudden they’re wrapped, shipped and gone. I’m having empty-nest syndrome or something."
Coupland HQ, by the way, is by no means empty. The gas fire and low West Coast afternoon light reveal an insane art collection he notoriously won’t discuss or allow to be photographed. My urge to ask about every piece is distracting, but Coupland’s privacy is understandable.
Besides being the author of nine novels, including Hey Nostradamus!, Microserfs, and Generation X, the book that launched a generation’s self-defining catchphrase, he has lately become something of a coffee-table book cottage industry. A few years ago he produced City of Glass (2000, Douglas & McIntyre), the definitive millennial book about his hometown, in which he explains the secrets of Vancouver in a series of photo collages and essays about disparate city-specific phenomena, including Japanese slacker exchange students, fleecies, the number 8, Wreck Beach, the colour of the sky and trees, the Lions Gate Bridge, and, yes, glass. The book, which is sold in tourist kiosks across the city alongside totem-pole keychains and shrink-wrapped smoked salmon, is both a souvenir object and an art project. Coupland explained the city better than anyone ever has via what has now become a signature technique: bright, hyperreal photographs accompanied by large, easy-to-read Helvetica headlines and descriptive text that place these objects in a Couplandesque emotional/intellectual context.
In 2002 and 2004 respectively, Coupland produced Souvenir of Canada and Souvenir of Canada 2, different permutations of the coffee-table tome (the cover of Souvenir of Canada 2 is a photo of the two-headed Canada goose I met on my way in). This year, he goes further into our national psyche with Terry, a book that memorializes 25 years since Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope by retelling Fox’s story through a series of found snapshots and close-ups of Fox fetish objects, including, remarkably, the dirty, decimated "lucky sock" he wore on his prosthetic leg. The impact of that photograph and others in the book is remarkable, especially for a generation accustomed to the one iconic shot of Fox running along the highway. It is, in a sense, the culmination of Coupland’s rare ability to combine a writer’s sensibility with his artist’s understanding of objects of contemplation.
"I think it’s possible for objects to convey one person’s experience in a way that other people can tap into it," he says, mildly summing up his part in what is, to some, a radical reorientation of one of our most treasured Canadian narratives. "There is a way for objects to be the [touchstones] of shared experiences."
Pop goes the po-mo
Coupland is an object of collective contemplation in his own right. As a writer, he is sometimes viewed more as a purveyor of pop-lit rather than serious literature, and yet he is better known – and certainly better read – abroad than many of our other, more "literary" writers.
A recent London Guardian profile of Coupland called him an "accomplished lifestyle taxonomist," referring to his habit, in novels, of contextualizing the action in particular historical moments, peppering his story with specific references to the macro and the micro: product names, world events, a specific mall in a specific town on a specific week in, say, 1995.
It’s easy to ascribe Coupland’s mass-market appeal, in part, to his habit of name-checking the detritus of our everyday experience. And yet Super City is not pop art per se – it’s a gallery installation featuring Coupland’s toy reconstructions in a 12′x12′x12′ display, all painted white. The eureka moment for Super City happened a few years ago, when the architect Arthur Erickson brought CCA founder Phyllis Lambert to visit Coupland’s house ("She likes to tour modernist houses where people actually live," he explains). During the tour, she saw a bunch of kits in boxes in his garage.
"From far away, it will look like cubes of sugar, and when you approach, as you get closer and closer, you will see that it is something else," says Coupland about the installation. "I want it to fuck with perspective, so that you’re not sure where toys end and architecture begins."
At this early date, he eschews the theoretical scaffold of Super City – he is, after all, interested in objects, and it’s the details of objects that get him excited.
"Thing is, we all played with Lego…. There just comes a time when you don’t go into that box anymore, and then for the next 30 years Lego’s been playing with me. Messing with my mind and my way of looking at things. I’ve [been wondering] all this time, where do I end and toys begin?"
"I am in a sort of stacking phase, as you can tell," he says, looking around at the room. "I’m almost through it now, but it’s been a long one. Plastic tubs, toilet paper, steel wool, they’re all over the place. I’ve got this fascination with modularity. Where does that come from? Lego!"
By way of illustration, Coupland shows me the prototype for the Super City "zine" – a gorgeous, limited edition, full-colour catalogue (complete with Helvetica-printed paragraphs and crisp, colourful art photos) of, among other things, his actual childhood Lego box (a Cutty Sark box with the top sawed off) and the architectural marvels he has reproduced. "Only at the CCA could a full-colour art book like this be called a zine," he says, chuckling.
Still, Coupland effortlessly switches between contexts – the same artist who makes coffee-table books for tourists and novels for everyone is excited by the prospect of making something for the viewership at the CCA.
"Art is different that way, capital-A art, and the nice thing about working with the CCA is that you can make a lot of assumptions about the viewers’ points of reference. They know who Wallace K. Harrison or Craig Elwood is."
Still, Coupland’s "capital-A art" shares with his other work the ability to bring people together in the collectivity of object fetishization.
"I wouldn’t call [the building of] Super City work, exactly," he says.
"It was play in the sense that you can get really lost in it… For [the zine], I had to build the Cape Cod house with two dormer windows, and my God! My fingers still had that weird Lego tingling feeling. I was still hunting down in the bottom of the box for that one piece. That sound? You remember that sound? Of stirring around in the bottom of a box of Lego? When I’m building things in my mind, I call it ‘shapehead.’ When I’ve got shapehead, I can’t sleep, I might as well just keep on building and building, and [projecting the world in 3-D]. All I can hope is that Super City gives other people shapehead."
At the Canadian Centre for Architecture, June 8 to Nov. 6