Ten years ago, a friend and I scoped out maps of the British Columbia coastline to find the best possible place to go beachcombing. We settled on a northwest-facing beach on the incredibly remote and difficult-to-access north island of Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). The beach had a reef in front of it and would only be accessible with an inflatable at high tide. The swells in that part of the Pacific are enormous, so we’d also have to get a rare calm day. We lucked out, getting three August hours of the most beautiful collecting experience ever: mostly floats and glass balls and a sense of deep peace. The sand was also covered in bear shit, so there was a cool whiff of menace to the day. Here’s a beachcombing hint: the best place to find things is above the beach, just behind logs where the storms wash them, and then they’re stuck there.
When we got back to the dock in Queen Charlotte City, there were some hippies who looked at all of my pickings and said, “Wow, cleaning up mother nature on your own dime. That’s really cool.”
But wait, thinks I — this stuff is treasure.
Which is to say, there are many ways of defining value.
In 2000, I was in Tokyo in a Daiei department store and I had a similar moment of plastic beauty in the laundry detergents aisle. Japan is the land of the brightly coloured plastic bottle, and all of these bottles with their katakana labels screaming at me created a wonderful sensation in my brain — a sort of perfect halfway point between words and objects, if there can be such a thing. I immediately filled two shopping carts with one of everything and hauled it back to the hotel room, where I flushed the contents down the toilet, rinsed out the bottles and brought them home with me. As a group they go on a shelf and collectively they become an artwork titled “Tokyo Harbour”, as that’s where their contents ended up. You’re quite possibly saying, what an ecological travesty, but read on.
This week I’m in New York, and last night at the CVS pharmacy I noticed that manufacturers are using all sorts of new plastics in new colours and shapes for the lids of cleaning and grooming products. I immediately bought a shopping cart full of the products and took them back to my hotel room, where, 15 years on, my decanting process was repeated. I won’t be keeping the bottles but I will be keeping the lids, stacking them in some way, making totem-like forms for a work titled “Hudson River”. Again, you’re possibly saying, what an ecological travesty, but then let me ask you this: “It’s a crime to pour this stuff down the drain on its own but if you mix some dirt or shit or grease with it and then pour it down the drain, then that’s OK?” And if I hadn’t ever asked you this question, would it have occurred to you on its own? There’s something about ecology in westernised cultures that brings out a sense of double and triple standards.
In recent years, I’ve been reading up as much as I can on the Great Pacific garbage patch (aka The North Pacific Gyre), which is in some senses the eighth continent of the world. Yet we know almost nothing about it, and very few people have been there to document it up close. As a memento of my thinking, I took a collection of vintage globes and dripped latex paints on them over the garbage patch, creating very Pop and seemingly optimistic-looking sculptures but, as with anything to do with plastics, the shiny surface conceals toxic cargo. After Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the plant life was wiped out, not from drowning but rather from all of the contents of what people stored in their garages and under their kitchen sinks: pesticides, fertilisers and cleaning products. My seminal post-Katrina image is that of a dead oak tree covered with hundreds of shiny bead strands, like a Christmas tree of death.
For the past decade, I’ve been going up to Haida Gwaii every summer for a week of beachcombing and meditation. But January is also a fascinating time to visit because the winter storms cough up wonderful natural sponge forms and, depending on which beach you go to, the storms and local geological conditions deposit thousands of miniature stone Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth sculptures on the beach — free beauty is everywhere.
Two summers back, I was up there again, but something was different: Japanese tsunami debris was now reaching BC’s coast, and not just bits and pieces but debris for miles and miles. What was once contemplation became ecotourism and, with some friends, we gathered the debris into piles for later removal. But halfway through the process, I found a bottle of Japanese detergent that had made its way to me across the Pacific all on its own. I had to sit on a log and digest the moment. I felt like I was on the receiving end of a cosmic fable of the 21st century — a fable that tells us nobody lives in isolation any more, a fable that warns us about the perils of assuming we all live in bubbles, a fable that wants us to study the eighth continent of the world.
Douglas Coupland is currently artist in residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris.
Photographs: Trevor Mills/Vancouver Art Gallery; Rachel Topham/Vancouver Art Gallery; Douglas Coupland