Science Meets Art Meets Ocean: Douglas Coupland’s Vortex Opens At The Vancouver Aquarium® On May 18

Vancouver, B.C. – Internationally renowned for his work in contemporary thought, literature, visual, and public art, Douglas Coupland now adds environmental art to his remarkable portfolio. Vortex – the first-ever full-scale artistic imagining of the Pacific Trash Vortex or Great Pacific Garbage Patch – opens May 18, 2018 at the Vancouver Aquarium®, an Ocean Wise® initiative. Vortex, presented by Layfield Group, is exploration of the escalating global ocean plastic pollution crisis and the evolving human relationship with this ubiquitous material in an emotive, provocative, and inspirational way.

“We live in a disposable world and it’s having a grave impact on our ocean. Every day we use and throw away plastic cups, straws, bags, bottles, and other single-use items. More than 80 per cent of plastic waste in the ocean is coming from land-based sources and every one of us can and should play a role in reducing our plastic use and being more careful of how we dispose of it.” said Dr. John Nightingale, Ocean Wise president and CEO. “We’re honoured to work with Douglas Coupland on Vortex. His art installation will connect people to the issue in ways that only an artist of his vision and insight can. Seeing the Pacific Trash Vortex though his creative lens will inspire reflection, contemplation, and – as we hope and anticipate – foster change in human use and disposal of single-use plastic materials. This collaboration has been an exciting journey; we’re looking forward to sharing Vortex with the world.”

The focal point of Vortex is a 50,000L water installation. A battered day-fishing boat from Japan, lost during the tsunami in 2011 and found on the shores of Haida Gwaii in 2017, sits at the centre of the ocean. The crew, a collection of four realistic and fantastical characters, are adrift in a dense gyre of waves, mist, and marine debris collected from British Columbia shorelines. The historical roots of the installation lie partially in works that speak of characters being adrift on a raft: Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa as well as Bill Reid’s Spirit of Haida Gwaii.

All in the same boat, the four characters represent the past, present, and future of the human relationship with plastic. American artist Andy Warhol takes Polaroid photos of the marine debris — a snapshot from the first century of plastics when they were seen as revolutionary, beneficial, and glamorous. A woman in a life preserver, representing an African migrant fleeing the hardships of her home country, embodies the present and the complex global web of oil, plastics, politics, ecology, power, industry, and migration. With plastic discovered in food and water, the line separating the synthetic and natural worlds is becoming increasingly blurred. But the future looks promising as dynamic Plastic Girl and Plastic Boy document their surroundings with their smart phones with the intention of changing it.

Plastics are everywhere and can be a durable and an essential part of everyday life or single-use and disposable. The exhibition features three living displays that explore the juxtaposition of good plastics verses bad plastics. The first display is a colourful Lego tower reef inhabited by Red zebra cichlids (Maylandia estherae) and Golden mbuna cichlids (Melanochromis auratus). The Lego towers were a part of Coupland’s 2013 solo exhibition, Anywhere is Everywhere is Anything is Everything. In contrast, two displays of marine debris in situ evoke reflection on the imperiled state of aquatic life. Transparent single-use plastic water bottles tumble with Blue blubber jellies (Catostylus mosaicus) in saltwater and Fancy guppies (Poecilia reticulata) swim amongst ocean-worn plastics in freshwater.

Inspired by the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup’s “dirty dozen”, the exhibition also features a gallery wall showcasing a curious collection of the most common marine debris found washed up on shorelines.

Coupland hopes his imaginative interpretation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will immerse visitors in the ocean plastic pollution problem, eliciting a visceral reaction, and fostering change. “I’m just old enough to remember when people littered. But almost overnight, littering stopped. It’s a hard thing to believe but it happened because millions of forces around the world coalesced,” says Coupland. “If I can be part of this process with marine plastics, then great. Environmental art is not what I thought I’d be doing with my life at the age of 56, but I think a lifetime spent beside the Pacific inevitably had to assert its presence from my subconscious out into the conscious world.”

Vortex opens at the Vancouver Aquarium on May 18; tickets are available at: The installation will be complemented by interactive experiences throughout the Aquarium’s galleries that highlight the ways plastic has penetrated and impacted our oceans as well as forward-looking solutions that will help us create a more sustainable ocean.

Ocean Wise would like to extend special gratitude to the Haida Nation, Parks Canada, BC Parks, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre, Highlander Marine Services, the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay, and Ocean Legacy for on-the-ground project support. Ocean Wise would also like to thank Layfield Group, the Lagniappe Foundation, Eric Savics and Kim Spencer-Nairn, the Armstrong Family Foundation, Charles and Dale Young as well as Niels and Nancy Bendtsen for their support of this exhibition.

Vortex is an activation by Ocean Wise to tackle the global ocean plastic pollution crisis. Learn more about its Plastic Wise initiative at

Ocean Wise®
Ocean Wise is a not-for-profit organization whose vision is a world in which oceans are healthy and flourishing.

Vancouver Aquarium®
Vancouver Aquarium, an Ocean Wise initiative, is one of the world’s leading accredited aquariums, dedicated to the conservation of aquatic life.

Media Contact

April Penney
Ocean Wise