On Sunday, March 13, 2016, Nina and I spent much of the afternoon touring a new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Titled Mashup: the Birth of Modern Culture, it is the largest single exhibition ever presented at the Gallery filling the display spaces on all four floors. The production presents 371 works of art by 156 artists from Pablo Picasso to Quentin Tarantino, from John Cage to DJ Spooky, from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons. “Mashup,” as I learned during the afternoon, is a creative process where disparate parts of an art form or culture are combined to form a new creation that ideally comments on the art form or the culture. The earliest items in the show were collages by Picasso and Georges Braque followed by German anti-Nazi Dada and on to T.S. Eliot and William S. Burroughs and past Warhol’s Marilyns and Kennedys and Maos to Frank Gehry and other architects, and up to the present with street culture, hacking and copyright infringement as artistic statements, with musical compositions composed entirely of other musical compositions and a video of cats walking about on piano keys.
A lot of women artists are represented from the earliest periods up to the present: Barbara Kruger’s 2016 site-specific black and white installation that fills the entire first floor entrance is a highlight. Canadian artists are, of course, well represented. My personal favorite is Brian Jungen, a Vancouver artist with First Nations’ ancestry who makes delightful masks and sculptures from Nike shoes and other products. (We once saw a full-sized black tepee that he had constructed from the coverings of leather couches.)
As a whole, though, the experience was both jarring and numbing with clashing sounds, flickering screens, fractured narratives and discordant images all bouncing off one another. Ideally one might visit the exhibition over four days, devoting one day to each floor followed by lunch at the ever-pleasant in-house cafeteria.
Everything we saw was clever, most of it ironic, some of it funny. But rarely was an object beautiful or life-affirming or profound. We found ourselves asking what in all of this will be of interest a century from now. Many of the artists who sought to critique the dominant culture ended up becoming part of it, looking somewhat smarmy in their outsider’s pose as they milked the culture to their advantage. Even those whose works were designed to illustrate the co-opting nature of culture were themselves, it seems, co-opted. We were left with questions. What is the effect on a work of art when the motivation to create is a reaction to something else? Does the wish to make a critical cultural statement through a work of art somehow diminish the work itself? Does an overriding intent to critique a culture, bind the artist to the culture in a way that is corrupting?
The show, which runs through June 12, is certainly worth seeing. Here is a link to the Art Gallery’s website://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/the_exhibitions/exhibit_mashup.html