I would advise any patriotic Canadian to take a few hours out of their day, head to the local library (or favourite torrent site), and get their hands on Douglas Coupland’s 2005 film Souvenir of Canada. Douglas Coupland is best known as the witty author of Shampoo Planet (1992) and Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991), two of his thirteen novels which explore modern society, consumerism and materialism. These themes shine through also in Souvenir of Canada, a film which relates Coupland’s personal search for the “Canadian identity” by way of his 2005 art installation “Canada House.”
The film is sweet, accompanied by an often insightful narrative by Coupland himself, and it manages to capture some of the quintessential markers of the patriotic self-identity held by most Canadians. The search for a “Canadian Identity” seems to be an ongoing challenge, permanently riddled with confusion, multiplicity, and clichés (although I do love my hockey sticks, Mounties, and maple leaves). Yet Coupland manages to approach the topic in a manner which captures something of both his personal, and the universal, Canadian experience.
Humour is key to this film’s poignancy – Coupland recalls learning about the “Ookpik” in elementary school, and tells us about the ambitious cross-Canada road trip he undertook in his twenties with his then-best-friend, with one lone audio-tape (the rest forgotten at home). Over the course of the trip, both the friendship and the audio tape suffer, the audio tape eventually winding up trashed on the side of the road, having been flung from the car in a moment of desperation following thirty hours of playing on repeat.
Coupland’s construction of Canada House is what makes the video most fascinating, and since the installation no longer stands today, Souvenir of Canada is its last remaining remnant. Coupland begins his project by searching out what he considers the perfectly Canadian house – one which reminds him of the house he grew up in as a child, shown to us in snippets of his old family videos. After settling upon a Vancouver CMHC house which had been slated for demolition, he empties it of all its contents, and paints every surface bright white – because what is more Canadian than snow, after all?
Coupland then proceeds to assemble a collection of material items – empty Kraft Dinner boxes and jerry cans, vintage Canadian beer cans, old Canadian hunting magazines, convincingly realistic sculptures of Canadian geese, and plaid-upholstered couches – which he, from his own personal experience, relates to Canada. He goes further than simply collecting items – he creates some.
A hand-made drawing of Terry Fox’s leg hangs in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and the garage is filled with imitation electrical towers constructed from old hockey sticks. Another room is filled with tall lamps, built from stacks of discarded buoys found on the shores of Georgian Bay. One small wall is dedicated to a kindergarten-esque draw-your-own-maple-leaf exercise in which all Canada House guests were encouraged to participate.
With Canada House, Coupland undertakes a very successful exploration of how personal and national identities are formed and intertwined – where our sense of Canadian identity stems from, and how we can reference it. He focuses upon the material object as a means of constructing and/or accessing identity, and illuminates the private relationships that individuals may have to these objects – which we can call cultural consumer objects.
Items like Tim Hortons cups, Kokanee and Moosehead beer cans, Windsor salt boxes, and so on connect upon an individual, nostalgic level to personal experiences and childhood memories that are unique to each person – memories of Tim Hortons after hockey practice, or drinking a beer with dad. They become inexorably entwined with habit and memory, arguably two of the core anchors of an individual’s self-identity. And yet, the very fact of their commodified, mass-produced presence in Canada allows for very similar ties to be formulated simultaneously by any number of Canadian citizens who also encounter these objects and images in their lives, allowing for shared facets of experience and self-identity. These cultural consumer objects thereby inadvertently acquire a value which makes them akin to national Canadian symbols such as the beaver or the maple leaf, and thus worthy of appearance in the quintessentially “Canadian” art of Douglas Coupland’s Canada House.