Mashups and the Birth of Modern Culture


Pablo Picasso, Nature morte, bouteille et verre (1913), collage, charcoal and oil on canvas. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Purchase 1965. © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016). Photo: Walter Klein, Düsseldorf

This spring, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is hosting a bash celebrating the Birth of the Modern. From Marcel Duchamp to Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Rauschenberg to John Cage, and Joyce Wieland to Jeff Koons, MashUp features the work of over 150 creators in various disciplines, documenting the evolution of what has now become the dominant form of cultural production.

Presenting a dizzying array of ideas, mediums and influences from the early 20th century on, MashUp explores how recombinant technologies influenced the evolution of still and moving images, text and music, leading to the development of entirely new artistic processes and methodologies. Conceived and organized by the VAG’s Chief Curator/Associate Director Daina Augaitis, Senior Curator Bruce Grenville, and Assistant Curator Stephanie Rebick, MashUp was a full three years in the making. “It is the largest exhibition we’ve ever done,” said Bruce Grenville in an interview with NGC Magazine. “It covers over 40,000 sq ft. — basically the entire gallery.” 


Robert Rauschenberg, Revolver II (1967), silkscreen ink on five rotating Plexiglas discs in metal base with electric motors and control box. Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation / SODRAC, Montreal / VAGA, New York (2016)

Defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a mixture or fusion of disparate elements, “mashups” are most commonly associated with music and the meshing of two different styles into one song. Creative mashups, however, date back more than 100 years, to artistic experimentation by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who added rectangles of wallpaper and newspaper cuttings to their work. The exhibition’s curators begin their look at mashup culture with those seminal works, expanding to explore a century’s worth of artistic innovation and invention through four periods: the early twentieth century, the post-war period, the late twentieth century and the digital age.

The works on view are drawn from public and private collections, as well as large institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). As the first exhibition to approach this subject in such a comprehensive manner, MashUp includes a broad range of media, including photography, video, architecture, film, sculpture, graphic design, industrial design, drawing, painting, animation, digital media, illustration and fashion design.


John Baldessari, Pelicans Staring at Woman with Nose Bleeding (1984), black-and-white photographs and oil tint. Collection of Wendy and Robert Brandow, Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy of John Baldessari

In keeping with the collaborative nature of the project, the VAG invited a diverse range of curators, scholars, artists, designers and architects to contribute to the exhibition. In other words, they crowd-sourced the concept then combined it into a form that essentially reflects mashup culture in action.

The choice of work and the ideas presented are varied. For Bruce Grenville, Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) is a key example of mashup art, and ultimately changed the nature of art itself. Readymades — a term coined by Duchamp — are everyday objects selected, modified, repositioned and treated as art. Duchamp was their originator, but many other artists, including Picasso, produced their own readymades. “[Duchamps’ Bicycle Wheel] is one of the most important works produced in the 20th century,” says Grenville. “Duchamp’s thinking and making was so strong that we’ve wrestled with it ever since.” Bicycle Wheel, 1913, 6th Version (1964) — a bicycle fork with wheel mounted on painted wooden stool — was borrowed from the NGC for MashUp. Another of Duchamp’s tongue-in-cheek readymades — Fountain, 1917, 5th Version (1964), also on loan from the National Gallery of Canada — is a urinal.


Hannah Höch, Untitled (Large Hand Over Woman’s Head), 1930, photomontage. Collection Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Purchase 2012. © Estate of Hannah Höch / SODRAC (2016)

The art in the exhibition is wide-ranging and the artists are many. Among others, MashUp visitors will encounter works such as the National Gallery’s Kurt Schwitters collage Mz 426Figures (1922), Barbara Kruger’s stunning site-specific installation Untitled (SmashUp) (2016), the vaguely disturbing photomontage Untitled (Large Hand Over Woman’s Head) (1930) by Hannah Höch, and a host of works by artists that include Juan Gris, Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Nam June Paik, Frank Gehry, Dara Birnbaum, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, John Baldessari, Sherrie Levine, Pierre Huyghe, Mike Kelley, Christian Marclay, Gu Wenda and Hito Steyerl. Some of the Canadian highlights are Stan Douglas, Brian Jungen, Tobias Wong and filmmaker Arthur Lipsett.


Stan Douglas, Suspiria (video still), 2003, single-channel video projection. Courtesy of the Artist, David Zwirner, New York/London, and Victoria Miro, London

MashUp is the first exhibition in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s history to take over all four floors of the building. In all, it features approximately 315 works by more than 150 artists. From Picasso and Braque to Basquiat and Tarantino, Mashup not only celebrates the birth of modern art and culture, but also showcases the ingenious ways in which disparate elements can be recombined to create something utterly new.

Although mashup culture began more than 100 years ago, instigated by artists keen to expand the definition of art, it has become a matter of course among today’s creative artists. “It is now so ubiquitous and integrated into the cultural production,” says Grenville, “that it is too large to see.”

MashUp is on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 12, 2016. For more work by one of the originators of mashup culture, the National Gallery’s new exhibition, Picasso: Man and Beast. The Vollard Suite of Prints will be on view from April 29 to September 5, 2016.

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