Secret Handshake

Through a wide range of media Coupland has persistently investigated Canadian cultural identity, both benign and menacing.  Using imagery and objects latent with symbolic meaning for Canadians, he delineates what it means to be Canadian, offering a “secret handshake” not easily understood by others.

What makes Canadians uniquely Canadian? In a world madeincreasingly accessible and porous through travel and the internet, cultural identity is a concept that is more difficult to define than ever, but one that Coupland has investigated for years in his work. In November 2003 Coupland created what he called a “uniquely Canadian environment” in a suburban Vancouver house slated for demolition. Aptly titled Canada House, it comprised objects and images he had made and collected over many years. This section of the exhibition continues Coupland’s investigation utilizing such cultural triggers as images of hockey star Bobby Hull, landscape prints from the 1940s and a narwhal tusk.

The walls of the room are covered with plywood to invoke both the forestry industry and an unfinished basement, shelving is laden with everyday items such as imported canned fruits that are representative of the multicultural makeup of today’s population, and quilts equally suggestive of female domesticity and First Nations cultures hang on the walls.

These elements of Canadiana are amplified by the artist’s Canada Pictures,a series of photographic still lifes populated with such items as deer antlers tangled with 8‑track tape, an inuksuk made of Styrofoam debris and a slashed bag of Robin Hood flour. As the artist has stated, “I wanted to create images understandable only to Canadians. Americans should look at these photos and think, ‘Everything looks familiar, and yet nothing is familiar.’”

Capturing Canadian identity also means grappling with its darker side. He 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. 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 still must be defined by its relationship to an unpopulated wilderness.

Thomson Campfire, 2013, acrylic on canvas, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Purchased with funds from The Jean MacMillan Southam Art Acquisition Endowment Fund
Canada Picture No. 6 (skull and fish), 2001, ink jet print, Collection of J.B. Sugar