'Oh my – she's twerking it!"
Douglas Coupland is outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, watching as people interact with his playful work Gumhead – a large-scale sculptural self-portrait to which the public has been invited to contribute by sticking a piece of chewed gum onto it. It's been a summer-long project, and Mr. Coupland has watched – at times in person and also by following the many photos posted on social media – as the seven-foot-high replica of his head has transformed over the long, hot summer.
Shortly before that twerk up against Gumhead's mouth Thursday afternoon, a different woman gave Gumhead a bindi. Another group prayed to it. People posed for photos, or snapped selfies.
"We didn't know what it was going to look like," says Mr. Coupland, who himself plopped a piece of Bubblicious onto Gumhead's nose during the visit.
"It's like relief, because it worked."
Gumhead was installed at the end of May outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition Douglas Coupland: everything is anywhere is anything is everything.
"With each participant's addition, the artist is increasingly effaced, his identity gradually obliterated until he is no longer recognizable," VAG assistant curator Emmy Lee Wall writes in a catalogue essay. "While the work begins as a self-portrait of the artist, over time it becomes a representation of its numerous contributors, reflecting the social construction and elastic nature of identity."
In less fancy terms, Mr. Coupland recounts Gumhead's summer-long evolution: "People went directly to snot. They tried big earrings but they would fall off. During the last month, we've had the Ebola outbreak so everyone started doing hemorrhagic bleed-out from the eyelids."
A favourite intervention was a blown-up pink balloon someone managed to stick to Gumhead's mouth. "That was genius," he says.
During our interview, he conducts a gum count of one square-foot section of work, makes some calculations and figures there are probably more than half a million pieces of chewing gum stuck to the thing.
The sculpture, which was commissioned by the VAG, had been scheduled to come down Sept. 1 – the last day of the Coupland exhibition. But Gumhead has been given a month-long reprieve, and will now stick around until Oct. 2. When it comes down, the gum will be power-washed off.
It's unclear where it will go next. The exhibition travels to Toronto in January – a joint presentation of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Royal Ontario Museum. But whether Gumhead will accompany the exhibition remains up in the air. And the artist – who is also a bestselling author – pours cold water over the idea of it remaining installed somewhere permanently.
"There's some degree of maintenance involved which is a very, very long-term commitment. I think that gets in the way of a permanent thing," says Mr. Coupland, who was heading to Brazil to install a version of Gumhead concurrent with the biennial in Sao Paulo.
He talks about making a cast of the work and recreating the many-coloured gum splotches, piece by piece. Or chopping off the steel and barging it up to Haida Gwaii where it can sit on a beach "and erode slowly over time," calling that "the most poetic ending if it doesn't go anywhere."
(Mr. Coupland, who does not always enjoy having his photograph taken, also jokes that he may respond to future book-jacket photo requests by submitting a picture of Gumhead.)
The work has produced some less-than-pleasant surprises – bees, wasps and hornets are attracted to the thing; and then there's the smell. Gumhead can get pretty fragrant, especially on a hot day.
But the high level of interaction has given Mr. Coupland a lot to chew on, and he is pleased with the outcome.
"There were so many worse-case scenarios for this: It will disintegrate, it won't stick, it will cause a plague. And in the end it causes a lot of joy."