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Internationally renowned for his work in contemporary thought, literature, visual and public art, Douglas Coupland can now add environmental art to his remarkable portfolio.

Vortex – the first-ever, full-scale artistic imagining of the Pacific Trash Vortex or Great Pacific Garbage Patch – opens May 18 at the Vancouver Aquarium®, an Ocean Wise® initiative.

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Presented by Layfield Group, Vortex explores the escalating global ocean plastic pollution crisis and the evolving human relationship with this ubiquitous material in an emotive, provocative and inspirational way.

We live in a disposable world and it’s having a grave impact on our ocean. Every day we use and throw away plastic cups, straws, bags, bottles, and other single-use items. More than 80 per cent of plastic waste in the ocean is coming from land-based sources and every one of us can and should play a role in reducing our plastic use and being more careful of how we dispose of it.” — Dr. John Nightingale, Ocean Wise president and CEO

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[Plastic barrel; photo by JL Gijssen]

Vortex’s focal point is a 50,000L water installation. A battered day-fishing boat from Japan, lost during the tsunami in 2011 and found on the shores of Haida Gwaii in 2017, sits at the center of the ocean. The crew, a collection of four realistic and fantastical characters, are adrift in a dense gyre of waves, mist and marine debris collected from British Columbia shorelines.

The installation’s historic roots lie partially in works that speak of characters being adrift on a raft: Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa as well as Bill Reid’s Spirit of Haida Gwaii.

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All in the same boat, the four characters represent the past, present and future of the human relationship with plastic. Artist Andy Warhol shoots Polaroid photos of marine debris — a snapshot from the first century of plastics when they were considered revolutionary, beneficial and even glamorous.

A woman in a life preserver, representing an African migrant fleeing the hardships of her home country, embodies the present and the complex global web of oil, plastics, politics, ecology, power, industry and migration.

Douglas Coupland Vortex

With plastic discovered in food and water, the line separating the synthetic and natural worlds is becoming increasingly blurred, but the future looks promising as dynamic Plastic Girl and Plastic Boy document their surroundings with their smart phones with the intention of changing it.

Plastics are everywhere: they can be a durable and an essential part of everyday life — or single-use and disposable. This exhibition features three living displays that explore the juxtaposition of good plastics vs. bad plastics.

Douglas Coupland Lego Towers

The Lego towers were a part of Coupland’s 2013 solo exhibition, Anywhere is Everywhere is Anything is Everything. In contrast, two displays of marine debris in situ evoke reflection on the imperiled state of aquatic life.

Transparent single-use plastic water bottles tumble with Blue blubber jellies (Catostylus mosaicus) in saltwater and Fancy guppies (Poecilia reticulata) swim amongst ocean-worn plastics in freshwater.

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Inspired by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s “dirty dozen”, the exhibition also features a gallery wall showcasing a curious collection of the most common marine debris found washed up on shorelines.

Through his imaginative interpretation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Coupland hopes to immerse visitors in the ocean plastic pollution problem, eliciting a visceral reaction and fostering change.

I’m just old enough to remember when people littered. But almost overnight, littering stopped. It’s a hard thing to believe but it happened because millions of forces around the world coalesced. If I can be part of this process with marine plastics, then great. Environmental art is not what I thought I’d be doing with my life at the age of 56, but I think a lifetime spent beside the Pacific inevitably had to assert its presence from my subconscious out into the conscious world. — Douglas Coupland

The installation will be complemented by interactive experiences throughout the Aquarium’s galleries that highlight the ways plastic has penetrated and impacted our oceans as well as forward-looking solutions that will help us create a more sustainable ocean.

Douglas Coupland

Ocean Wise would like to extend special gratitude to the Haida Nation, Parks Canada, BC Parks, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre, Highlander Marine Services, the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay and Ocean Legacy for on-the-ground project support.

Vortex is an activation by Ocean Wise to tackle the global ocean plastic pollution crisis. Learn more about its Plastic Wise initiative online. Vortex exhibition tickets are are available online.

Top photo by JL Gijssen; all others courtesy of Ocean Wise.

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