Vancouver Art Gallery’s “MashUp” Too Limited in its Understanding

The Vancouver Art Gallery’s survey exhibition MashUp is a missed opportunity. To be clear, that’s not because the artworks are “bad” (they’re not) or because the public isn’t lining up to see it (it is); rather, the execution doesn’t match the lofty curatorial ambitions crystallized in the exhibition’s sweeping subtitle, The Birth of Modern Culture. MashUp is conspicuously marketed on its XXL size, and indeed the stats on brightly colored banners across the VAG’s exterior are brag-worthy: “371 ARTWORKS, 156 ARTISTS, 30 CURATORS, 3 YEARS IN THE MAKING, OUR BIGGEST EXHIBITION YET.” But this bigger-is-better approach to producing the final word on mashup ultimately magnifies the gaps in the exhibition.

The recent term “mashup” is popularly used to signify the mixing of disparate elements, within a range of media from music to web design. It’s related to such theorized conceptual categories as hybridity, heteroglossia, palimpsest, creolization, postmodernism, appropriation (the list goes on). Evidently, mashup is a multilayered and malleable concept, and the curatorial argument that it underpins modern culture at first glance appears unobjectionable. The curators locate mashup historically as a creative strategy and mode of production that originated in the early 1900s, emerging with major shifts in various technologies and media (photography and other mechanical printing processes, mass-produced commodities, television, and the digital era), thus giving rise to cultural production as we know it today. The exhibition explores these shifts chronologically, focusing on such practices as collage, montage, quotation, the readymade, sampling, hacking, and remixing.

Featuring a vast selection of iconic artworks (from Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain and Sherry Levine’s one-upping bronze spinoff, to Warhol’s Mao and Jackie prints) exhibited with a huge amount of interpretive material, MashUp surprisingly manages not to feel overwhelming for the viewer. The curatorial and technical team use the VAG building’s layout to organize the exhibition in ways that succeed in guiding visitors seamlessly through the mass of featured material. Barbara Kruger’s in-situ installation of black-and-white slogans plastered across the VAG’s rotunda area provides an energetic entry point to the exhibition, and MashUp succeeds in maintaining this energy throughout its many rooms. Each section is installed differently, allowing for fresh views of iconic artworks; the early twentieth-century wall works, for instance, are displayed on a series of lightweight plywood wall structures making them appear “contemporary” rather than as faded “artefacts” to today’s viewers, while highlighting the rough “bricolage” aspect that many share (Picasso, Braque, et al). It’s also a pleasure to discover works by important international artists lesser known in Canada, like UJINO’s playful sound installation Plywood City (2008-16) composed of such makeshift musical “instruments” as a blender and vacuum cleaner, or Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy Classroom (1994-96) installation set up for the learning of an invented hybrid calligraphy that melds Chinese pictorial signs with the Roman alphabet.

MashUp becomes most interesting when it extends beyond the realm of art and art history and enters into areas of creative expression that intersect with specific communities or practices that emerged from the margins: collaging and scrapbooking by women in early nineteenth-century England; the Jamaican 1960s dub scene and its key players; the queer ballroom culture of the early 1980s; the practice of “vidding” from the age of videocassettes and VCRs to the pixelated present. Many of these forays into the scenes and subcultures outside the artworld lean heavily on various types of music – hip-hop, scratching, and sampling – but this feels appropriate given mashup’s musical antecedents. And it is in these forays that the exhibition’s interdisciplinary model – wherein guest curators with specific expertise diversify the curatorial range of the VAG’s team – really shines. It’s here that the exhibition comes closest to tracking the materialization of modern-day cultures.

However, the exhibition’s overarching premise that mashup is the defining modus operandi for artistic production since the beginning of the twentieth century seems to presuppose a prior purity of cultural expression. The history of empire-building refutes such a presupposition – even a cursory examination of various chapters of imperialism and colonialism reveals a plethora of significant resulting hybrid innovations. We can find mashup within the realms of arts and craft (for example, the use of glass beads in beadwork by women of Indigenous groups across North America in the post-contact era, the appropriation of Chinese blue and white porcelain ware by various European states); language (the emergence of patois vernaculars in Caribbean cultures and beyond); spiritual practices (Santeria in Cuba, Vodou in Haïti); music (African-American slave songs); cuisine (any number of Anglo-Indian dishes); architecture (Poblano Baroque churches in Mexico), and so on. If the intent was to deeply mine the richly complex notion of mashup in order to unearth the foundations of modern-day cultural production, why then is mashup framed so narrowly – that is, as a phenomenon specific only to the past century up to the present? Moreover, the exhibition’s framing of mashup within the familiar Western narrative of technological progress and capitalist achievement (“The Post-War: Cut, Copy and Quotation in the Age of Mass Media” for instance) reflects a limited understanding of mashup as well as a neglect of the global enunciations of this phenomenon.

A subtle yet pervasive primitivist undercurrent runs through a number of the exhibition’s works – though the curators do not acknowledge this reoccurring motif in their definition of mashup. Historically, for the Euro-American avant-garde, primitivism was a way for artists to push artistic boundaries and transgress generally accepted social conventions through an exoticizing embracing of the foreign, the feared, or the unfamiliar. Hal Foster has argued that primitivism is the fundamental “binary ratio” on which Western thought is predicated. Scholar Marianna Torgovnick renders this argument more explicitly, emphasizing that primitivism is not a perspective confined to a bygone era; rather, it still exists today and permeates “a wide range of fields and levels of culture: anthropology, psychology, literature, and art – and also advertising, fashions, television series, and fads.”

In MashUp, this primitivism is not always of the first-level “textbook” type as exemplified by such works as Hannah Höch’s collage Untitled (African Torso with Japanese Mask) (c. 1925), or Joseph Cornell’s film Rose Hobart (c. 1936), with its decadent harem-inspired setting and Orientalist encounter between a pale enraptured heroine and an “exotic” beturbaned seducer. These early nineteenth-century instances are unsurprising, enveloped as they are in the sepia-toned aura of a bygone era. A more recent and complicated kind of primitivism underlies David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s legendary album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). On display in a room featuring the tracks and a couple of its associated music videos, in addition to a selection of books that influenced Byrne and Eno in the making of the album, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is considered a touchstone album in the history of western twentieth-century music. It features samples from such diverse sources as evangelist preacher sermons, late-night call-in radio shows, ethnographic recordings, and Arabic pop song vocals, often in conjunction with dub- or funk-inspired themes.

Produced in a pre-global music, pre-internet era, it’s easy to see why this album was considered trailblazing when it was released, though, even then, Rolling Stone reviewer Jon Pareles qualified his praise: “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is an undeniably awesome feat of tape editing and rhythmic ingenuity. But, like most ‘found’ art, it raises stubborn questions about context, manipulation, and cultural imperialism.” Today, it would be impossible to ignore the privilege of two white men who, in order to push musical boundaries, appropriate the words and music of others without their permission while presenting themselves as legitimators of these appropriated expressions. Post-colonial critique has amply shown how, within the Euro-American canon, manifestations of the other are fetichized for their so-called exotic, authentic, or primal characteristics – which are then strategically absorbed into stagnant art practices thought to be in need of revitalization. The wall text accompanying My Life in the Bush of Ghosts includes a somewhat perfunctory two-sentence acknowledgement of criticism of Byrne’s and Eno’s practice. Indeed, MashUp’s overarching curatorial framework is too often unapologetically Eurocentric and fails to venture much beyond the celebratory thrust of its curatorial premise (arguably, the blockbuster exhibition model itself inherently stifles any substantive criticality).

Finally, it is important to remember that pragmatic and creative processes of mashup – occurring as a result of colonialism, increased global migration, economies, and communication networks, cosmopolitanism, or simply intellectual curiosity – don’t only involve the Euro-American appropriation of the cultural manifestations of its many “others.” Looking beyond Western capitalist societies, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai takes a cross-cultural and post-Marxist perspective on commodities. He argues that the “diversion of commodities from specified paths is always a sign of creativity or crisis, whether aesthetic or economic” and that this type of diversion inevitably “brings in the new.”

These types of traffic – its trajectories and resulting lineages – are often multiple and multidirectional. Offering a rich example of this phenomenon is Hong Kong artist anothermountainman’s redwhiteblue (2000-ongoing), a site-specific installation made entirely from those instantly recognizable and ubiquitous red, white, and blue-woven plastic carryall bags. The installation explores and embodies the cross-cultural paths of the commodity as it moves through global geographies and markets. Invented in Japan, the plastic material was initially used for covering building construction sites or farmland in various parts of Asia; later made into cheaply sold carry-all bags used famously by migrants around the world because of its low-cost sturdiness; and recently, even rendered into a line of bags by the luxury brand Louis Vuitton. Similarly, Brian Jungen’s Prototypes for New Understanding (1998-2005) critically reveals and embodies this complex type of aesthetic diversion through his clever reconfigurings of Nike runners – the patterns on which shared resemblances with classic Haida formline style – into Haida-inspired masks. Prototypes moves between the realms of the spiritual, arts, crafts, sports, fashion design, museum, marketplace, art history, anthropology …. Unfortunately, these two artworks are rare exceptions in the VAG’s examination of mashup, which too often highlights a unidirectional model of cultural production of “we” and the “other” (the West gleaning from the East; the North grazing in the South).

An exhibition that claims to chart “the birth of modern culture” is perhaps bound to fail on its overly universalizing premise alone. The rich and multifaceted phenomenon of mashup in itself shows that culture does not evolve along a straight and chronological line of progress as Western art-historical convention would have it – and has never done so. The primitivist leanings that percolate throughout this exhibition are neither adequately acknowledged nor explored as a recurrent component of the Euroamerican brand of mashup, nor do the curators take the opportunity to expand their vision of mashup to encompass its many iterations worldwide. The prerogative of “modern culture” is thus predominantly corralled within the protected confines of the Western canon. Notwithstanding its many pleasures and despite its efforts toward exhaustiveness, MashUp frustratingly fails to live up to its potential.


The author thanks Antonio Loro for his feedback.


  • K.I.A. says:

    As someone who has been exploring the idea of mashup, collage, para-era/multicultural palimpsests, and has used contemporary music compositional techniques extensively in visual art (see last ‘graph below) for quite some time, a little pushback on the idea of primitivism, which implies being seen as lesser-than (in a power dynamic), when to the artists it’s often just ‘different-than’ (and therefore simply new).

    For ex. Bush of Ghosts was an exploration of, and appreciation of unfamiliar sounds. “Today, it would be impossible to ignore the privilege of two white men who, in order to push musical boundaries, appropriate the words and music of others without their permission while presenting themselves as legitimators of these appropriated expressions” is a very definitive statement — I doubt either Eno or Byrne thought the were legitimizing anything. They were very respectful of the material — in fact, after a request from an Islamic organization the removed a sample from one of the songs in deference to the religion. They also legally cleared all the samples, so permission was requested, and given. Alternately, when Afrika Bambaata sampled/copied Kraftwerk, or later Kanye sampled Daft Punk, would this be called privilege? In terms of dominant culture, each of those sampling artists (AB, K) was in a power position over the other (i.e. charting or more ‘popular’ at the time.) For them it was just a different sound to use. Cross-cultural interest is not always colonialism.

    FWIW re: music, anyone curious to see remixed sculptures, mashed installations, recombinant paintings — viz art using dub ‘versions’ , scratching, sampling, quantizing, looping and later glitching and time-stretching technique can see here:

  • Lee Henderson says:

    Solid and thorough and thoughtful review. An etymological examination of this is also overdue, as one would assume that choosing to call the show “mashup” would be a gesture towards smuggling in all kinds of new agendas and discourses that are absent from, or at least downplayed among, its precedent terms “collage,” “bricolage,” “assemblage,” “montage” (… Which I’m only now realizing are all French. Oh! “Merzbau”, there’s a Germanic one).

    Side note: another thoughtful read, vis-a-vis the Eno-Byrne conundrum, is Marcus Boon’s excellent essay “On Appropriation,” which is easily found online.

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