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The National Portrait and a New Age for Art

26 June 2018

In just a few days, Douglas Coupland, the renowned Canadian author and visual artist, will unveil his 3D portrait of Canadians in the 21st century at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Entitled The National Portrait, this impressive large-scale installation is the final phase of the artist's crowd-sourced art project, 3DCanada. The piece is constructed from a thousand 3D-printed portraits of members of the public that Coupland captured during his visits to Halifax, Yellowknife, and Simons stores across the country from 2015 to 2017. 

Simons is extremely proud to have been a part of this exceptional work of art that gives us a glimpse of where technology will take us next. We recently got the chance to ask the artist a bit more about the project's origins, how the piece's final form took shape, and what he hopes viewers will take away from the installation. Read on to find out what he had to say.

Douglas, what interested you in pairing with Simons for this project?
I liked Peter Simons' curiosity. He was doing a studio visit and saw my 3D printer, and on his face I could see his universe expanding. We were both turning on to 3D printing as an art form at the same time.

How did the idea for 3DCanada and The National Portrait originate?
During that same visit, we discussed how democratically priced 3D printers were going to change portraiture and sculpture… the way photography changed painting. It's an interesting moment in the art world. My father was in the RCAF and I grew up with military portraiture everywhere. The idea suggested itself organically. It was kind of magic.

Why did you choose to use 3D printers to create the piece?
Because they've become relatively inexpensive the way fax machines did in the 1990s. So… because we can! For the first time in history we can be relatively promiscuous with busts.

We noticed that the heads are distorted using the technique of anamorphosis. Is there a reason behind this choice?
As you walk around the piece it’s constantly changing, with heads going in and out of resolution. It’s impossible to "get" the experience just from a photo. You need to be moving in relationship to it.

How did you decide on the final shape for The National Portrait?  Does it have a special significance?
I wouldn't say it's 100% finished yet. We have plans to experiment with it down the road before it ends up in its final home. This first staging at the OAG uses the garden metaphor with all faces facing the direction of the sun.

Could you tell us a bit about how the piece was assembled?  Did you face any challenges during the assembly?
Printouts take ages to do. Printing time is the one factor that hasn't improved a bit in the past decade. The big heads are sloooowwwwww to do.

In what way was producing crowd-sourced portraiture different from other works of art you’ve created?
It was an intensely social project that proved that my memory for people and faces is much better than I’d have guessed. A small group of us that did the project and years later, we all remember pretty much everyone who came through to be scanned — not their names — but their aura and personality. I think scanning is very different this way from photography. With 3D scanning and 3D printing, memory goes into a more reliable slot in the brain. I think it’s a very real aspect of it.

What do you hope people take away from the piece?
People are really beautiful! Every single person we scanned understood that they were becoming part of a new way of humans looking at the world. Every single person posed with grace and care. It really shines through.

How do you think this piece will speak to Canadians?
Well, Canada being Canada, I imagine they'll start making mental lists to see that everyone's included, and then I hope they'll enjoy the physicality and emotion of the work.

Don't miss your chance to see The National Portrait on exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery this summer from June 29 to August 19!  And stay tuned to see which one of our stores will be the piece's final home.