The National Portrait: Canadians in the 21st century

Photo credit: Lawrence Cook

Celebrated Canadian novelist and artist, Douglas Coupland, will unveil his latest work – The National Portrait – at the Ottawa Art Gallery on June 29, 2018. In partnership with Canadian fashion retailer Simons, Copeland's ambitious large-scale installation is composed of hundreds of 3D-printed portraits scanned voluntarily from members of the public at Simon store locations across the country.

From July 2015 until August 2017, Copeland traveled to nine different cities in order to complete this crowd-sourced artistic initiative. A diverse group of Canadians were scanned for the project: toddlers and kids, teens and young adults, moms and dads and many seniors. “That’s humanity: we all fit into ten folders. That’s kind of humbling,” says Coupland.

3DCanada was conceived while Coupland was working on an art commission for Simons’ West Vancouver location. During a visit to Coupland’s studio, Peter Simons, Co-owner and President of Simons, saw 3D printers at work creating miniature busts. The conversation turned to the evolution of portraiture and what a 3D portrait of the nation could look like. “For the first time in history we can be carefree with human busts in the same way photography allowed us to be carefree with flat portraiture,” said Coupland

3DCanada began as a nod to Simons’ expansion across Canada and and their continued commitment to arts and culture by supporting local artists and art institutions. Over the two years that the tour ran, Coupland stopped in nine cities: Quebec City, Montreal, Edmonton, Vancouver, Mississauga, Ottawa, Calgary, Yellowknife and Halifax. Each participant received their own 3D printed bust which was about 2” (5 cm) tall.

Coupland played with the size and scale of the heads; each one manipulated in some way, some subtle, some more obvious, whether they were twisted, stretched or distorted. The 3D printed busts were then arranged into a garden-like formation, with all faces looking forward toward both the sun and the future. The National Portrait includes roughly 1,000 printed heads and 70 Kilometers of biodegradable plastic filament. Each printed head ranges from 2” to 38” (5- 96 cm) tall. Gold and silver gilding adds richness to the sculpture’s components which sit atop risers, “Hijacking the aesthetics of retail display,” as Coupland says.

The overall tone is of explosive optimism, a hyper-shopping experience that is at once both seductive and engaging, and which allows the viewer to rediscover the human face and the convention of individual and group portraiture.

“3DCanada is much more than a Simons project. As we traveled from city to city, it quickly became a national piece of art using technology that people were fascinated to experience as they watched their own 3D portraits being printed,” said President Peter Simons. “Unveiling The National Portrait in the nation’s capital is quite fitting.”

While 3D technology evolved over the two years of the project, the 3DCanada team continued to use the original software and equipment throughout. “It’s going to look like a time capsule – Canada at a certain point in time” Coupland added. “In the future, people are going to say: Isn’t that sweet? They were printing out heads and each one took several hours.”

“Although a lot of people are using and experimenting with 3D printing, I don’t think many people have used it for art the way we have,” said Coupland. “Each printout is like a brush stroke. We’ve included the glitches. We hope there will be a roughness to it.”

The Ottawa Art Gallery will feature The National Portrait from June 29 until August 19, 2018 as part of the gallery’s inaugural program in its new state-of-the-art facility. The sculpture will be refined after the initial presentation and the final version will have a home in a future Simons store. This is one exhibit you won't want to miss!