MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture
Where to start? The current exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), running until June 12, 2016, is unlike any I have visited. The scope is vast – The Birth of Modern Culture – the range of artists and creative styles covered are varied and numerous, and the documentation is substantial (the exhibition catalogue runs to 350 plus pages). The overarching objective of the project is to show a history of collage and assemblage and with it, to document how artists have moved from using traditional techniques and materials to incorporating everyday “found” material and new technologies in the creation of their work. The timeframe is the late 1870s to the present day.
The term MashUp, as explained by the VAG’s Chief Curator/Associate Director, Daina Augaitis, in an interview with the Georgia Straight, “…is a methodology of putting one thing together with another to produce something else”. [Full disclosure: Daina Augaitis is my sister-in-law.]
Upon entering the first gallery, on the top floor of the VAG, you learn that the leisure activity of some aristocratic women in the late 1870s started off the entire mash-up approach when they began the practice of cutting and pasting photos onto still pictures – an example is shown below. However, the most frequently cited references for the start of this new direction in modern artistic expression are the collages of Pablo Picasso and George Braque. It was between 1912 and 1914 when these artists began to cut and paste newspaper clippings, wallpaper, wine labels and other materials incorporating them into their paintings.
Marcel Duchamp took things one step further with his “readymades” that marked the beginning of a new field of discovery with the incorporation of everyday objects in artistic expression. In 1917 Duchamp submitted for an exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York a white-glazed, ceramic urinal, signed “R. Mutt” and titled the Fountain. Duchamp maintained that by his actions he had created a new “thought for that object”, a move that he claimed would take artistic expression away from the mechanics of representation to an interpretation of the object. The profound impact and legacy of Duchamp is evident to this day and you will see more than one urinal in this exhibition.
The period after the Second World War witnessed the expansion of mass marketing and availability of consumer products, inexpensive printing processes and the advent of television. The directions which artists followed in response to these new developments are well documented in the exhibition. Andy Warhol established his Factory where he produced assembly-line multiples and the new possibilities in visual and sound recording led to multi and cross-media collaborations that later ushered in the phenomenon of digital technology.
I was particularly struck by the music and video creations of Brian Eno and David Byrne (Mea Culpa, 1981; America is Watching, 1981), the cut and paste of movie images in the work of Christian Marclay; and the animations in the digital work of the French design collective H5.
For anyone interested, as I am, in the work of Christian Marclay, who received international acclaim at the 54th Venice Biennale for The Clock, 2010, I recommend that you check out an earlier work of his that is featured in this exhibition, Telephones, 1995. As in The Clock he uses extracted clips from Hollywood films, but this time featuring telephones, that he weaves into a seemingly continuous conversation of seven and a half minutes. The point to be noted is that he created this piece before the development of video-editing technology which would have been a very arduous process. To view on the internet search for: Telephones, 1995 – Christian Marclay – YouTube.
The second work that I recommend viewing online is by H5 (Francois Alaux, Herve de Crecy and Ludovic Houplain). Logorama, 2009 won the 2010 Academy Awards for Animated Short Film. Over two thousand commercial logos are woven together along a 16 minute storyline based on Hollywood genre action movies with stereotypical characters and dialogue. To view online search for: Logorama –Short film by H5 – YouTube.
I spent over four hours wandering, back-tracking and becoming immersed in the sensory overload that is MashUp. It is not possible to comment on the work of each of the 156 artists represented or the 371 works on exhibit. I was however able, for the first time, to appreciate the interconnectedness, the collaboration and the borrowing that took place between the various forms of artistic expression (painting, photography, performance, film, sound, digital recording, design, writing) as they have evolved together over the past 150 years. Now that is a mash-up!