When you open the blacked out doors you are faced with multiple shelves of objects that remind me of my little brothers 1950s fake wood tool set that he inherited and Lego pieces that he grew an obsession for. They are perfectly and undoubtedly systematically placed beside each other, creating a great deal of curiosity. As a creature conditioned by gallery formalities I turn left without considering going straight. I feel like I am in a Canadian laboratory as a curious child learning about my heritage for the first time. I am now standing in front of a low rectangular, very record player like furniture piece that reminds me of my Canadian friends grandmothers house. They are constructed immaculately out of plywood but have hints of dishevelment to them. A miniature sized CN Tower molded out of what appears to be clay lays on one of the cabinets like a fallen monument. To the right, photographs styled like Dutch still life paintings hang perfectly in black frames with historical cues about life and death and reference to our current Canadian consumer culture. Two people stand beside me and talk about consciousness and documenting everything for the purpose of research. I start to question the motive of the show and wonder how successful it is in inspiring me to question contemporary issues and suggesting new ways of seeing our Canadian world.
I walk towards two handcrafted couches that are fabricated in varying colours of plaid material. I want to sit down but there is this clear plastic barrier that forbids me. A little coffee table is placed between the two facing couches. I stare for a moment and realize that I don’t feel much. I turn around to a large ice machine. You know, the one with the big red writing and light blue graphic of ice? The door of the machine is silver and the overall colour of the machine is white? That one. To the right of the foot of the machine I notice fake blood on the ground and start to create a story in my mind that references Hollywood horror films.
On the back wall of the gallery eight shelves that are made out of the same material as the cabinets and couches hang. Each object is placed with the meticulous purpose to illustrate our Canadian identity. I stood in front of the shelves and for some reason was compelled to write down every object. As it now stands I have written out this list of objects twice - once in the gallery and again at my computer. When I read the list aloud, I realized that it becomes obsessively repetitive. It is as though Coupland is saying that these objects are who we are as Canadians while also saying that there is not much else for us to attach to our identity. I walked away a little drained and somewhat quizzical about myself in relation to these inanimate objects. This feeling was quickly forgotten as I stepped into Coupland’s Lego sculptural world. I become completely mesmerized by the detail and colours and as I watched others looking at the piece I could see the same awe. The phallic symbolism, masked by the obvious skyscraper intent, made me giggle and reminded me of Douglas speaking years back. His sexual innuendos and phallic subconsciousness comes through in most of his pieces but is rarely ever talked about.
As I moved on from this idea, I saw another sculpture that mimicked a little suburb that you could find anywhere outside of Toronto’s city limits. It gave me so much anxiety about my teenage years that I had to continue walking. Through another doorway the room was filled with about four large geometric abstract pigment paintings and a large metal geometric dinosaur-like sculpture. The text that accompanied the room reads: SECRET HANDSHAKE Capturing Canadian identity also means grappling with its darker side. Referencing iconic paintings by Emily Carr, the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson who depicted the wondrous and often harsh Canadian landscape, Coupland activates the collective memory of a nation to ask whether this country must still be defined by its relationship to an “unpopulated” wilderness. He also references the ice storms that crippled the east coast of the country in 1998, questioning the sustainability of the social and physical networks that unite a country as vast as Canada. By using imagery and objects laden with symbolic meaning for Canadians, Coupland has created a “secret handshake” not easily understood by others.
It is true that Canadians tend to reference their identity with, as he puts it, “unpopulated” landscape. Coupland is not doing much in the way of changing the persona that we have accepted for ourselves. His reinterpretations of the Group of Seven paintings reinforce our looking towards the past for answers. The shelves full of products and artifacts that remain inherently Canadian - the plaid, goalie masks, fur, tin lunch boxes do not necessarily create a unified nation with a secret handshake. Rather they remind us of how our identity is so ambiguous that we have resorted to isolating these objects in large museum institutions across the city of Toronto to attempt to suggest a new way of seeing our world. I am sorry Mr. Coupland but it seems that your intent, while well received, does not change or even begin to question the fact that our nation is one with no clear identity.
p.s. Mr. Coupland in true Canadian fashion I’m sorry.