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Douglas Coupland: I wait for God to appear

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 12, 2021

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Douglas Coupland: I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear

Waiting for the Lord

by Mary McCampbell

More than anything else, Douglas Coupland is a sojourner. The author and artist’s name is frequently associated with his generation-defining first novel, cult classic Generation X (1990), a story about postmodern pilgrims seeking to find an identity on the outside of consumerism. Since Gen X, Coupland has written more than twenty-five books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as countless articles and book introductions. He is the perceptive voice of the ever-changing times, even though his generation’s heyday has long come and gone. Although most know Coupland as an author, his deepest love is the creation of visual art. His training and primary focus are means to the real-world end of seeing his ideas, his perceptions of beauty, and his ongoing search for meaning materialize in the real world of space and time.

In a conversation I had with the author several years ago, he emphasized that the search for God, for transcendence, and for meaning is at the center of everything he does, both written and visual. Since then, his views have perhaps shifted a bit, seeking beauty and truth in more immanent realms, but always searching—both delighting and lamenting along the way. Coupland’s core lament, as characterized by his 1991 book of short stories, Life After God, is a result of being “raised without religion” in the affluent secular paradise of West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Like his characters, he doubts the very doubts that he has inherited, suspicious that there is, there must be, something more.

In I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear (2011), the artist has painted a colorful QR (Quick Response) code, defamiliarizing a familiar symbol of daily life. Coupland is a great lover of nature, but this painting is anything but organic. Unlike the large sculpture of a Digital Orca, located outside of the Vancouver Convention Center, there is no tension between technology and nature. In this case, technology has won, creating a mysterious, yet all too recognizable reality. Like most QR codes, if a viewer holds up her camera to the graphic images, a message is decoded via smart phone. A contrast to the hard geometric edges of the painting, the message that magically appears is soft and human: “I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear.” The artist repeats the word “I” three times, emphasizing the deeply personal nature of this heart-search. Importantly, the word “God” is capitalized. This is not Nietzsche’s “god,” an abstract idea with no embodied or spiritual reality. This is the “God” whose name must be capitalized. But where is He? Just as the viewer decodes the QR code’s message with an interpretative tool (a phone), so the artist longs for a tool that will enable a message from God, THE God, to appear.

The painting reflects a longing for the real God to manifest himself, no longer merely an idea, a doctrine, a rhetorical position. Where is God in the intricate, detailed, yet seemingly random pattern of life? How can we discern WHO He is? In his 1996 experimental film Close Personal Friend, a svelte, suited and booted young Coupland ponders the notion of randomness, ultimately determining that reality is not random. Rather, we are standing too close to a very complex pattern, so close that we cannot see the larger picture.

Like Claire in Coupland’s Generation X, the creator of this QR code – a complex pattern itself – is not satisfied with living a life full of “isolated little cool moments,” fragments of an existence that don’t connect to form a discernible, larger reality. At the center of many of Coupland’s novels lies a desire to feel like a part of a story, to be able to connect the disparate dots of daily life. In All Families are Psychotic (2001), for instance, Janet Drummond finally manages to do so: “Two days ago, it had felt like merely a game of connect the dots—a few random dots, spaced widely apart, which produced a picture of scribbles. But now? Her life was now a story. Farewell, random scribbles.” In I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear all we see are random scribbles, yet we know there is a message to be discerned, perhaps even a story to unearth.

The advances in technology that have led to the production of QR codes are themselves a kind of magic, created and controlled by a seemingly unseen hand. Yet they have an earthly end. Coupland’s QR code, a high-tech gateway to the desires of the heart, is not in itself an ultimate end. It is a symbol of the act of waiting for truth to be revealed, for reality to break through. This atypical reminder to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14) discloses the curious, humble faith of a non-believer, one hoping and waiting for eyes to see the “appearance” of the Lord. This seemingly depersonalized, cold, industrial code is a reminder that “God has set eternity” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) in all human hearts. We all desire to be part of the story that makes us whole and to, ultimately, commune with its Author.

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Douglas Coupland: I wait and I wait and I wait for God to appear, 2011, acrylic and latex on canvas, 182.9 x 182.9 cm. Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. This work can be scanned and read using a free downloadable app called Optiscan.

Douglas Coupland (b. 1961, Baden-Söllingen, Germany) is a Canadian journalist and novelist best known for observations on modern-day American culture and for popularizing the term Generation X. Coupland was born on a Canadian military base in Germany. His family relocated to Canada in the mid-1960s and he grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1984 he went to art school to become a sculptor but then moved to Hawaii to study Japanese business science. After interning briefly at a company in Japan, he returned to Canada and began writing for a magazine based in Toronto. Deftly capturing the spirit of the age or, as the artist refers to it, “the 21st century condition,” Douglas Coupland’s ideas are often encountered on the written page. But the themes he explores in his writing have appeared in his artwork in which we encounter his incisive social analysis in a variety of forms including installation, painting, photography, prints, sculpture, quilts and wallpaper. His synthesis of contemporary events, popular culture, new technologies and art historical references―that range from the paintings of Emily Carr and the Group of Seven to the Pop sensibility of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein―resists an identifiable style. By incorporating everyday materials and objects and referencing images that have become culturally iconic, he probes the way that things, images and processes of contemporary life affect our understanding of the world around us. https://coupland.com/

Mary McCampbell is associate professor of humanities at Lee University (Cleveland, Tennessee, USA), where she regularly teaches courses on contemporary fiction, film, popular culture, and modernism. Her publications span the worlds of literature, film, and popular music, and this interdisciplinary focus is also present in her forthcoming book, Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy (Fortress Press: April, 2022). She was the 2014 Summer Writer-in-Residence at L’Abri Fellowship, Greatham, England, and the 2018 Winter/Spring Scholar-in-Residence at Regent College, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Please visit marywmccampbell.com to read more of her work.

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ART NEWS INTERNATIONAL

1. ARTWAY – Read about Canadian artists on ArtWay, click here

2. THE ROLE OF BEAUTY IN THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY - 21 September – 22 September, Concordia Seminary | 801 Seminary Place, Saint Louis, MO: Whatever is Lovely: The Role of Beauty in Theology and Ministry. The church has had a long and restless relationship with beauty and the arts. Sometimes the celebration of beauty has been eagerly embraced, and relics of this history surround us — soaring church arches, shining windows, carved figures, fugues, poetry of praise and piety. But beauty also has been deemed excessive, unnecessary and even idolatrous. How can we receive and encourage the place of beauty and the arts so that our preaching and piety more fully reflect the love and creativity of God? The 2021 Theological Symposium will explore the possibilities of beauty for the life of the church and its witness in a world that still groans for redemption. Plenaries and sectionals will offer various ways that the arts can enrich ministry, inspire hope and surprise with joy. https://www.csl.edu/resources/continuing-education/theological-symposium/

3. BEING STILL IN A NOISY WORLD – 22 September, 18.30 – 20.30 h, Central Commons, 4711 Westside, Dallas, TX: Being Still in a Noisy World: The Arts as Invitation to a Contemplative Life. A conversation with James K.A. Smith. We most powerfully encounter the infinite God when we turn to the depths of our interior life, as Augustine said. But our hurried lives distract us from the contemplative stillness required to confront ourselves and meet God. Thankfully, the arts come to us as a gift in the practice of contemplation; paintings and poems arrest us and ask us to attend to the world and ourselves in a different way. https://allevents.in/dallas/an-evening-with-james-ka-smith/10000168635963707

4. ENGLISH L’ABRI FRIDAY NIGHT LECTURES VIA ZOOM – Lectures are on Friday evenings at 8pm London Time. To join the lectures via zoom, follow the link below.  The password is Lecture. https://zoom.us/j/99712458019

  • 22nd of October – Why Ordinary Life is Worth Living Beautifully: Edith Schaeffer's Legacy of 'Hidden Art’. The Schaeffer's made significant contributions to the philosophy of art and art theory. Reviewing  "Art and the Bible" we will use their ideas as a lens to examine some artworks. By Emily Bowyer, former L’Abri worker.
  • 5th of November – The Great Dance: C S Lewis and the Discarded Image of Medieval Hierarchy. Our culture views power and authority with the greatest of suspicion. Exploring The Divine Comedy, Romance of the Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy by way of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, I look at how Lewis in The Discarded Image and the medieval tradition can help us not simply assert the truth of a Biblical view of authority, but see and live out its beauty and goodness. By Caleb Woodbridge, English Scholar and  InterVarsity Press Editor.
  • 26th of November – Imagining the New Creation. We will be looking at the visions of the new creation in art and literature as a way of helping us imagine the good life, both now and not yet. By Jim Paul, L’Abri Worker.
  • 3rd of December – Worldview and Culture: Rethinking our Categories. The concept of worldview has become widely used by many of us and certainly within L’Abri. In this lecture, we will be looking at the origins of this concept and some of the critiques of its uses, attempting to respond to them, reassessing how and why we employ this term, especially as we engage with culture. By Josué Reichow, L’Abri Worker.

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc., click here

ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.

ARTWAY: OPENING EYES, HEARTS AND MINDS


Other recent meditations:
- September 2021: Jan Toorop: Apostles Window
- September 2021: Baccio Baldini: The Holy Mountain of God
- August 2021: Josh Tiessen: Harbinger and Whale Hymn
- August 2021: Paul Hobbs: Unknown Martyrs

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists