MashUp charts modern culture's mad mixing

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s monumental new show links everyone from Picasso to Basquiat and Tarantino

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      There’s a provocative aspect to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s big, big, big new exhibition, MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture. It’s the most ambitious show ever produced by the VAG, entirely filling its four floors and featuring 371 works by 156 artists.

      The provocation comes in the form of questions such as, What does a 1912 Pablo Picasso collage have in common with a 2003 Quentin Tarantino film? And how does a Joseph Cornell box from the 1940s relate to DJ Spooky’s latest digitally compiled music? And what’s the connection between a T.S. Eliot poem, an Andy Warhol silkscreen, an addition to Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house, and a Cory Arcangel video featuring piano-playing cats downloaded from YouTube and synced to an Arnold Schoenberg composition?

      The answers are embedded in the show’s title: these widely various cultural forms all embody a mashup way of working. Speaking to the Straight from her office in the VAG annex, chief curator Daina Augaitis says, “Mashup is a methodology of putting one thing together with another to produce something else.”

      Over the past century, artists have employed this way of working to achieve a range of effects, from the aesthetic to the political and from the respectful to the critical. Since the advent of digital technologies, Augaitis adds, mashup techniques have become so ingrained and ubiquitous in our culture that we are often unaware of them.

      Bruce Grenville, the VAG senior curator who came up with the idea for the MashUp show—an idea that seems obvious but has never been done before—adds that the breakthrough mashup moment occurred with Picasso and Georges Braque in Paris between 1912 and 1914. Their seemingly simple process of adding a scrap of floral wallpaper, a headline from a Parisian newspaper, and a cut-paper form to a drawing or painting was actually a radical act.

      “It offered a mode of representation that did not exist before,” Grenville says, “and it initiated a fundamental shift in European art that continues to shape and define the production of visual culture.” Their collages led to other related modernist practices, including assemblage, photomontage, bricolage, and découpage. But more than that, as MashUp demonstrates, this way of working “shifted and mutated” through the 20th century and into the 21st, according to changes in technology and ideology.

      In creating MashUp, Grenville says, “It was possible to trace this path through, say, the postwar period of mass production, mass advertising—a huge leap in consumer goods and imaging those goods.” To reflect such changes, not to mention the multitude of cultural manifestations they generated, from pop-art quotations and postmodern appropriations on through vidding, dubbing, sampling, hacking, mixing, and remixing, the show has been organized into four sections, one on each floor of the VAG. Starting on the ground floor and working backwards chronologically, those sections represent the digital age, the late 20th century, the postwar period, and the early 20th century.

      Hannah Höch's Untitled (Large Hand Over Woman's Head).

      The list of visual artists, designers, architects, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and cultural theorists represented in MashUp is staggering. Past and present, young and old, near and far, they include Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Hoch, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Rauschenberg, William S. Burroughs, Nam June Paik, King Tubby, Joyce Wieland, Sherrie Levine, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vikky Alexander, Jeff Koons, Stan Douglas, Rachel Whiteread, Isa Genzken, Danger Mouse, and Xu Bing.

      The list of curators is also long and impressive, indicating an important collaborative approach to putting the show together. In addition to the VAG’s three organizing curators, Grenville, Augaitis, and Stephanie Rebick, 27 other local, national, and international writers, scholars, and curators were invited to participate. “We went to people who were experts in their particular field,” Grenville explains. “It’s such a diverse range of material.” These diverse materials and the ways they interact with and influence each other are demonstrated throughout the show—as is the impact of DIY and street culture.

      Rebick takes up the point as she previews some of the exhibition with the Straight. “We sort of crowd-sourced the different sections to get diverse voices to tell the story,” she says. On the second floor, she points out instances “where it’s not always professionals, where it’s often amateurs who are working with these (mashup) methodologies”.

      Considering three Keith Haring subway drawings and a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, she adds, “We’re looking at how graffiti and hip-hop really influenced their artistic production.” Both New York artists began their short, tragic careers on the street, achieving fame when they made the transition to the studio.

      A video still from Stan Douglas's Suspiria.

      Rebick pauses at a large photo-mural of graffiti-covered subway cars in New York City. “This is the kind of graffiti that was really dominant in New York in the 1970s and ’80s,” she says, then anticipates that viewers may wonder how graffiti fits into MashUp by adding, “We’re looking at the street itself as a readymade.”

      On the third floor, Rebick points out a series of works by the French mixed-media artist Jacques Villeglé. He began his career in the late 1940s by assembling found objects, then found his true expression in the 1950s, cutting out pieces of layered, weathered, torn, and graffiti-splattered advertising and movie posters that were mounted in the street and taking them back to his studio. He described his work as the product of the collec-tive artist. “Anonymous individuals who were making their mark in the street ended up in his work,” Rebick says.

      The impact of mashup methods on visual culture is also seen in the films on view in the show. Directors examined include Godard, “the grandfather of the jump cut”, Rebick says, and, yes, Tarantino, represented here by Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2. “In all of his films, he plunders the cinematic archives for everything from costume design and music to scene-by-scene recreations of fight scenes,” Rebick says. “He’s so inspired by a wide variety of films.…especially Asian films, old American films, spaghetti westerns, and things like that.

      “We worked with Lisa Coulthard, who’s a professor of film at UBC, and she decided on Kill Bill because she thought it really embodied his mashup methodology. And we’ll be showing the film along with monitors that play clips from the source material, so you’ll actually be able to see, ‘Oh, the yellow jumpsuit comes from that film, and this fight scene comes from that film.’ ” It will, she adds, “really drive home the message.”

      In building the MashUp message, Augaitis later recalls, the VAG curators borrowed works from some 75 public and private collections. That enterprise in itself was revealing. “Even as we went to museums and said, ‘Can we borrow this? We know you never lend it, but please?’ everyone got so excited. They went, ‘Wow, it’s completely logical; why has no one else ever done it? This is so exciting—and yes, we will.’ ”

      And they did.

      MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery on February 20 and runs through June 12.