Facial recognition: Douglas Coupland offers a 3D National Portrait

Detail from Douglas Coupland's National Portrait. The work of art is being used to symbolize the effort to build a new portrait gallery called the Gallery of National Identity. Photo: Lawrence Cook

The 1,000-odd faces in The National Portrait, Douglas Coupland’s new installation at the Ottawa Art Gallery, were photographed across Canada in a project supported by Simons fashion stores. Having walked through Simons and felt old and frumpy, I wondered if the portrait would skew toward that part of the nation that is younger, and keen for relatively affordable style. But to wonder that, I realized upon seeing the piece, was to miss the point.

The National Portrait is a 20-by-20 foot square arrangement of Canadian faces, photographed and collected by Coupland on a cross-country tour, then fabricated on 3D printers and, in most cases, distorted and painted. They are, literally, every colour of the rainbow and beyond. Some are squat, some elongated, and all are layered, stacked or juxtaposed.

The result, with its many peaks and valleys, is mountainous, and as much landscape as portrait. To put it another way, it’s more a portrait of the nation’s landscape than of its people. It’s a topographical portrait built on faces, rendered in plastic and based on photographs.

“It’s a landscape, it’s a still life, it’s a group portrait, it’s anthropology,” Coupland said in an interview at the OAG.

So, in a way the portrait is, like the portraitist, an amalgam of things. A quick tour through Coupland’s website finds links to his fiction (including the epochal novel Generation X), his columns and essays, his film and TV work, his public speaking and public installations, and a lot of other visual art.

There’s always been an undercurrent of advocacy in Coupland’s work. (I intended to ask him if he considers himself a social advocate, but I forgot. I blame the painkillers, which leave me a tad unfocused and, er, giggly. Sigh.) I suspect that if I had asked he’d have answered obliquely, like he did when asked, what are people seeing when they look at this work?

“The landscape,” he said, circuitously, “just establishes itself by the people that are printed out. It’s important that these be arranged like this because you have to walk around it, to figure out what’s going on.”

As with the nation itself, only moving around the portrait can reveal its nature — its surfaces, its variations, its nuances. At the front are a small stand of faces so vertically stretched that they look like the lonely, hardy, majestic and slightly surreal trees of a Lawren Harris painting. With that impression seeded, the landscape of the portrait can be seen not as mountainous but as a vast and ancient forest, perhaps the rain forest, complete with towering stacks of faces that echo the totem poles of indigenous people of the Pacific northwest.

Moving around to the sides of the installation reveals a different action. Many of the faces and heads are stretched horizontally, flared, and they create a sense of hyper-fast movement, like in science fiction when a ship goes into warp speed. The feeling is of hurtling not just through time, but through a time of inexorable technological change.

“What I like about this is that it couldn’t have happened at any other moment in history but right now,” said Coupland, who spoke of the “democratization of 3D printing,” and how the cost of the cheapest printers has during the three-year life of the project dropped from $2,000 to barely $200. “Ten years ago it would have been too complex, too expensive, too slow,” he said. “Five years ago it was just too expensive, and just now it’s in the realm of the fully possible.”

He’s using cutting-edge technology to right a … well, if not a wrong of technological advancement, then at least a wistful consequence of it. He hopes the project will “make things tangible again,” after years in which photographs have come to exist only digitally.

“There’s no real materiality to the world anymore, so it’s nice to make these things that are there, that are touchable, that are real.”

At a media preview on Thursday, and later at an invitation-only reception, he had three 3D printers on site to create miniature busts of anyone willing to sit and be scanned. I sat down and his assistant circled around me with an iPad that had been accessorized with a scanning doohickey. Then I watched, fascinated, as one of the printers, its movements seemingly frenetic but unerringly precise, built a mini me out of plastic.

Plastic is a frequent topic of Coupland’s visual art; his current exhibit Vortex, at the Vancouver aquarium, is a contemplation of oceans polluted by plastic. He wants to bring more attention to plastics and the environmental and human costs of its ubiquity.

The plastic he used for National Portrait, and for the tiny busts made at the preview and reception, is biodegradable and made of corn starch, and will disappear naturally over time if put in moisture.

For example, I imagined later in a moment of painkiller whimsy, I could use the miniature me to thicken a stew. (Do not try this at home. But do try to reduce the plastic you use.)

The National Portrait, created in co-operation with Simons, is at the Ottawa Art Gallery to Aug. 19.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.