Canadian writer and artist Douglas Coupland defined a demographic with his 1991 novel Generation X, the groundbreaking tale of twentysomethings gone astray. He's also a playwright and a sculptor. A show opening this week at Montreal's Canadian Centre for Architec-ture offers the keys to his mental city-scape. In it, pretty much everything is plastic. "Super City -- An Installation by Douglas Coupland: Building Kits and the Modern Imagination," opening June 9, explores the nostalgic power of building toys.
The installation measures 12-by-12 feet. It portrays the CN Tower, segments of the U.S. Interstate highway system, typical American water towers, and the World Trade Center towers. The whole thing is constructed with parts from Super City, Tinkertoy, Jumbo Lego, Meccano, Tog'L and Matador building kits.
"From a distance," Coupland says in a phone interview from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, "you'll look at it and it will resemble a city of some sort, though I can't imagine it would be one that exists in the real world. Then as you get closer, it will resolve into an iconic arts fixture that informed my interior life when I was playing with Legos back in the late '60s and early '70s. You'll begin to notice the scale is off -- and wait, wait, it's Lego, but it's doing something unusual. Hopefully you'll just get mesmerized by it. And your brain won't know where the kits end and the buildings begin."
The "Super City" installation got its start when Coupland, a self-proclaimed "Legoholic," retrieved a cache of the plastic construction pieces from his parents' basement. "It's been there for 30 years," he says. "It was like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown -- full of dirt and fungus and spider cocoons. I put them in the sun on a blanket to give them an exorcism."
The next step was a no-brainer: Play, and relish the memories summoned by the experience. "I made a house model," Coupland reveals. "I needed a roof tile. My hand was in the box and digging away and it takes you right back to the same exact feeling in your brain which you thought you could never feel again. It was wonderful."
The transition from that nostalgic moment to the installation "came about very serendipitously," Coupland says. CCA founder Phyllis Lambert and former director Nicolas Olsberg happened to be in Vancouver. A visit to Coupland's home led to a peek in his garage, where his Super City stash had been stored.
"I had a big stack in the garage and Nicolas and Phyllis said, 'What's that?' Within half a sentence there was a show. It was really that quick. Life's kind of like that."
But life lived in real time is very different from how it's remembered. The Legos Coupland had found came in the traditional red, yellow, blue, white, black and gray. But in the "Super City" installation, they -- and all the other components -- will be painted a uniform white. As his press release explains, this monochromatic approach is meant to convey his childhood perception that "everything in the Lego universe is perfect and crisp and anti-death ... Lego was the future. White. Clean. Plastic."
While Legos play an important role in both the installation and Coupland's childhood, it was Super City, marketed by Ideal Toys for a very brief period from 1967 to 1968, that really infatuated him as a youngster. "Super City was the kit that the cool kids had," Coupland says. Was he a cool kid? "Nooooo."
But he managed to get his hands on a set nonetheless. Coupland calls Super City the best building kit ever made -- possibly even better than Lego. "The thing about Super City is that it always looked like something intrinsically modernistic," he explains. "You couldn't make a church or a shack. No matter how you used the kit, it always looked futuristic."
Other assorted stimuli that inform Coupland's art: ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, and 1970s disaster movies. Both explore "the dynamics of assembly and disassembly in a real world where creation is haunted by its opposite, destruction," the press release claims. Coupland says his favorite disaster flick is the 1974 Earthquake, with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner. He saw it for the first time when he was 12. "Oh, man, I saw it by myself like four times," Coupland says. "I love that movie. For God's sake, who cares about Ava Gardner, just blow the place up."
In addition to Generation X, Coupland has also written several other novels and short-story collections, as well as nonfiction works on Canada and Canadian identity. He wrote and performed in September 10, 2001, a play that was inspired by the destruction of the Twin Towers and produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-on-Avon, England.
Coupland says his writing doesn't interfere with creating visual art, though. "There's a difference between installations and words. I really think it's a different part of the brain altogether. They don't seem to compete," he says. "I used to be superstitious that one excludes the other. Now they are completely separate realms. I like it much more that way."