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The Strange Pull of Gen-X Nostalgia

How the primacy of youth fuels art, decades later.

Dorothy Woodend 13 Apr

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

How much nostalgia is too much nostalgia?

The thought occurred to me in the middle of Richard Linklater’s new film Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood. Linklater has made a career of looking back, sometimes for good (Dazed and Confused) and other times for bad (Everybody Wants Some!!). His new work falls somewhere in between these two polarities.

Born in Texas, Linklater came of age in the golden age of American exceptionalism. His earlier films explored the experiences of young people before heading off into more esoteric territory with films like Waking Life. Much of his work deals with romantic yearning, suburban existence and the relationships between parents and children as time moves irrevocably forward. A signature wash of nostalgia that refers directly to his own youth, as well as operating as a stand-in for a collectively dreamed-for past, colours and softens these stories.

The bulk of Apollo 10 ½ was inspired by the director’s childhood growing up in Houston, Texas, as the U.S. space race gained speed. It’s a meandering, occasionally over-cute, look back at yesteryear Americana, narrated by Jack Black and featuring a pop-coloured palette of rotoscoped animation. It’s a kind of charming, ridiculously self-indulgent and deeply uncritical child’s eye view of the age, peppered with arcana and fuelled by the hit tunes of the era, including everything from the Monkees to Vanilla Fudge.

As it happens, the first image that appears in Vancouver artist Douglas Coupland’s new local photo-based installation Rabbit Lane is a cutout of a 1960s astronaut in a vintage kitchen.

Born in 1960, Linklater shares some of the same generational territory with Coupland, who was born a year later in 1961. Both are members of generation X, a term that Coupland coined with his landmark 1991 book of the same title. Although separated by nationality, culture and métier, both artists share a common interest in worlds passing on, if not entirely vanished. Both have returned to the landscape of childhood to make new work. But here is where the parallels part ways.

There is little darkness in Linklater’s sunny memorializing, but the opposite is true of Coupland’s Rabbit Lane, where an apocalyptic unease hangs over everything like a damp coastal fog.

At the West Vancouver Arts Museum, curator Hilary Letwin explains that the origins of the show germinated out of many conversations and walks she took with Coupland. The idea to restage pivotal moments from Coupland’s 1998 novel Girlfriend in a Coma, set in West Vancouver, culminated in a series of large-scale photographs that offer a roughly chronological retelling of the story.

The novel was written in a particularly dark period in Coupland’s life, after a European book tour left him burnt out and deeply depressed. In his mid-30s, he returned to the landscape of his youth and the tract-style houses from the era, built on $5 plans that could be purchased at the local hardware store, and constructed quickly and cheaply. Coupland describes his old stomping grounds as “a place that time forgot,” but in Rabbit Lane, different histories come together, generating a strange kind of friction.

A young woman is on her knees on the floor of a suburban home. To her left is a French door. To her right is a white vanity on which several vases of flowers are arranged in front of the mirror. The woman is wearing a tank dress. Her blond hair and body are covered in baked beans with tomato sauce, which also cover the floor. The word ‘DOOM’ has been written by sweeping a hand through the beans to expose the white linoleum floor.
Douglas Coupland’s Rabbit Lane sets his signature exploration of angst, anomie and nostalgia against the cheery backdrop of real-life West Vancouver homes that could have just as plausibly appeared on The Brady Bunch. Douglas Coupland, Doom, 2021, giclée on Dibond, 47.2 x 66”. Courtesy of the artist and the Daniel Faria Gallery.

Sandwiched between the Capilano Canyon and the Capilano Golf and Country Club, Rabbit Lane is currently home to some of the most expensive real estate in the Lower Mainland. But in the early ‘60s, it was an ordinary neighbourhood. As Coupland describes it in an essay that accompanies the show: “I grew up in a small cul-de-sac with 19 children split among six houses. It was mayhem and a great place to grow up, as we had not only suburbia within which to spread our wings, but also the adjacent mountain and watershed forests. It was a true and real community.”

In support of the project, a public call was issued for people to volunteer their time, their bodies and their houses to bring the novel to pictorial life. The houses are truly the stars of the show. Deeply familiar to many folks who came of age in Vancouver environs, they retain the weird mixture of Brady Bunch décor set against the brooding darkness of coastal mountains. In this interstitial zone, chiaroscuro shades of light and dark bump up against each other, one bleeding into the other. Different periods of time run together, too: the peppy optimism of the early ‘60s curdling into the cynicism of the ‘70s and then even further the nihilism of the ‘80s and ‘90s. That was then, and this is now, and what the hell happens next fuels Coupland’s novel Girlfriend in a Coma.

In the novel, a young woman named Karen Ann McNeil has sex for the first time with her high school boyfriend Richard. She gets pregnant and falls into a coma. The year is 1979. Eighteen years later in 1997, she comes to just in time for the world to end. In the decades of her long sleep, Karen gives birth to a daughter Megan, who is also pregnant when her mother reawakens. Meanwhile, the circle of Karen’s high school friends has puddled away their lives, doing shit jobs, taking lots of drugs and in some cases, working for a crappy TV show (a thinly disguised version of The X-Files).

As Letwin explains, part of the selection of staging for the Rabbit Lane photographs was arranged around the houses that were still standing. And, in the case of the very first photo (astronaut in the kitchen), a house that was just about to be renovated into oblivion.

As a time-capsule of a specific time, place and people, the characters in the photos re-enact not only the events taking place in the novel, but also speak to the current state of disappearance taking place in West Vancouver, as older neighbourhoods vanish and the people who used to live there also take leave. As Coupland indicates, part of the project was an attempt to preserve these places as this erasure continues: “These days most of my old neighbourhood housing has been replaced by bizarre enormous empty houses, many owned by anonymous numbered companies. Owing to lax government regulations, these homes regularly flip for surrealistically large prices and have priced human beings out of any suggestion of creating a community.”

There are echoes of boom and bust and beyond. The people who currently make up the population of Rabbit Lane are still people, just probably not the same demographic with whom Coupland came of age. But the lens of the past, embedded with personal experience, has a way of colouring what is conceived to be authentic or not. As a child of an era when the nuclear family was still the predominant paradigm, housing was cheap as chips, and West Vancouver still a puddling little backwater, the artist himself is also a creation of a certain time. It is hard to escape the notion that what you’ve lived is the truest version of a place, even as subsequent generations are having their own experiences.

A young woman with long curly brown hair, black lipstick, a black dress and black boots sits in an empty suburban living room. She glares at the camera and rests one arm on a black boombox. The concrete floor is littered with Hawkins Cheezies. To the right, three stuffed animals with blue and pink tape over their faces line the wall. The woman is sitting in front of a handwritten message in Black Sharpie that reads: ‘You’ll soon be seeing us walking down your street, our backs held proud, our eyes dilated with truth and power. We might look like you but you should know better. We will draw our line in the sand and force the world to cross our line. Every cell in our bodies explores with the truth. We will be kneeling in front of the Safeway, atop out of date textbooks whose pages we have chewed out. We’ll be begging passersby to see the need to question question and question and never stop questioning until the world stops spinning. We’ll be adults who smash the tired exhausted system and will crawl and chew our way into a radical new world. We’ll change minds and souls from stone + plastic into linen and gold. This is what I believe. This is what I know.’ Behind her above a staircase, the words ‘THE END’ are written in black marker.
Writes Coupland of his characters: 'After passing through a form of apocalypse, they enter a new and different kind of end-of-history.' Douglas Coupland, The End, 2021, giclée on Dibond, 50 x 46.7”. Courtesy of the artist and the Daniel Faria Gallery.

The general air of angst and ennui that permeates a lot of Coupland’s literary works is peppered throughout the images, whether it’s a young woman carving the word “Doom” into a layer of baked beans that coats some kitchen linoleum or two tuxedoed dudes, either hysterically drunk or high on something illicit, menaced by a dark figure, seemingly constructed out of loops of black video tape.

Each image is accompanied by the chapter title and section of the book from which it is drawn. The captions offer up some context, but because so much of the connective tissue is missing, each episode hangs in mid-air, suspended and isolated. Like much of Coupland’s visual work, it’s interesting, but also feels slightly hollow, a joke that lands but immediately dissipates on impact. In reading or perhaps, rereading the work, I went back to the original reviews of the novel.

When the book was launched into the world in the late ‘90s, critics of the time pronounced it a turning point in Coupland’s development as a writer. But 1998 itself, like the time periods referenced in the book, also seems like a bygone era. In this way, the novel, as well as the story it contains, feels like an artefact from an earlier age. So too does the methodology at work. The staged images of Rabbit Lane recall the photo-conceptualism of the Vancouver School and artists like Ian Wallace, Ken Lum, Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham. This era of image-making also feels somewhat relegated to the past, and perhaps that’s the point.

Still, there is something in the show that speaks strangely to the present moment. The darkness replete throughout the story — a global pandemic and a little blood and gore — are hinted at in the photos that feature the group of characters variously involved in a séance, a spectral visitation from a long-dead classmate and a sacrifice of sorts. As the author writes of his characters: “After passing through a form of apocalypse, they enter a new and different kind of end-of-history. It is an atemporal world where consequences don’t exist and there is nobody left to write about who won or who lost. There is only Time.”

The thorny intersection of art and time is not a new idea, but there is something curious about a work of art folding in on itself in this way. If artists use their mediums in some sense to fix or stop time, then Rabbit Lane aims to resurrect it. But does it work? The answer depends on your tolerance for nostalgia, self-referentiality and creative cannibalism (by which I mean the artist eats himself).

To his credit, Coupland doesn’t flatten the past to a cartoon version like Linklater does in Apollo 10 ½. Still, in Coupland’s attempts to recapture the feeling of an earlier time, something gets stuck, permanently locked in amber. Time cannibalism is a concept that the artist has returned to time and time again and it is implicit in Rabbit Lane.

The primacy of early experience is difficult for any artist to escape. Marcel Proust may have been the ultimate author of memory, but the stuff is catnip to many creative folks. The appeal of the past is immediate and obvious: it returns us to a place of comfort, security and understanding.

But the world keeps moving on. The centrality of the largely white, largely middle-class culture depicted in Rabbit Lane isn’t the representative baseline that it once was. And the return to this type of simulacrum of the past feels strangely regressive. It pulls us towards a remembered history that is less than communal, leaving out the experiences of the people who came afterwards. The idea that art can somehow standoff time, as old as the hills itself, still has immense power. But the remembered past, resurrected in the bright glare of the present, feels weird, like something is missing. Or perhaps lost forever.

'Rabbit Lane' is on view at the West Vancouver Art Museum until May 28.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art, Media

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