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Coupland, Douglas - VM - Mary McCampbell

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 appear2011, 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.

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 12, 2021