We are in a lusty affair with polarities. The new Met logo, Chris Rock’s Oscar monologue, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life: it’s got to be either love or hate. On social media, comparative binaries, often false dichotomies, are posted earnestly, not rhetorically. What is good or bad is gauged, tyrannically (if entertainingly), by convenient juxtapositions with what pre- or coexists: Life of Pablo > Yeezus, Bernie > Hillary. Acts of criticism may touch us in unprecedented ways, but the virtues of slow criticism—treating the thing on its own terms; allowing for equivocal opinion—do not. Facebook’s five new “reaction” buttons seem ironic evidence of this. (Facebook had originally designed a sixth button, “yay,” but removed it because it “was not universally understood.”)
Of course, a polarized audience creates its own polarizing aesthetics. To quote George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language,” “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Trump, ISIS, “Formation,” Taylor Swift’s Album of the Year Grammy: how could one not feel strongly? So much influential culture now emerges online fully formed—a bazooka blast through a combat zone (a fart in a crowded elevator?). Team-style debate makes work that does not just belong on, but inherently claims, one side or the other.
This was on my mind as I visited “MashUp” at the Vancouver Art Gallery, running to June 12. The VAG was closed for over a month to install it; it takes up all four floors of the gallery, with 371 works by 156 artists occupying every nook and cranny. Knowingly and ambitiously, “MashUp” is an exhibition that wants to be seen, to be Tweeted about, to be of our time. Its anti-Modernist, amusement park–style install, also reminiscent of a contemporary biennial, pays squirrelly attention to the optic, piecemeal ways in which we consume art now.
There are cynical jokes to be made about the VAG specifically—did they cram their space to demonstrate how much they need that new Herzog and de Meuron building?—and about contemporary-art institutions generally—are repeated visits necessitated by cluttered, prolix blockbuster shows an attempt to boost membership sales? But it must be said that “MashUp” is spectacular and impressive, a significant achievement for the VAG. You want either to love it or hate it. But its ultimate effect is much closer to ambiguity.
What is “MashUp” exactly? We associate the term with the ’00s trend of professional and amateur DJs mixing two songs into one. (My personal fave: the Kylie Minogue/New Order combo “Can’t Get Blue Monday Out of My Head.”) At the VAG, “mashup” concerns the revolutionary momentum caused in Western art by the advent of collage: how it met with technological innovation to mutate into a variety of methodologies that have become central to how we create, from remixing to hacking to vidding. The four floors of the VAG are divided into four sections demonstrating the chronological progression of “mashup culture”: “Early Twentieth Century,” “Post-War,” “Late Twentieth Century” and “The Digital Age.” Robert Rauschenberg, whose combines fused the improvisation of the readymade with that of abstract expressionism, and whose practice embraced dance, kinetic sculpture and new-media art, all with concerted attention to collaboration, seems the degree-zero mashup artist, and he gets generous space on the third floor for his work.
According to curators Bruce Grenville, Daina Augaitis and Stephanie Rebick, you can start anywhere in the chronology. Most will start on the first, “The Digital Age.” Getting lost or curating your own experience of the show seems desirable. (You might only listen to plunderphonics records for hours, or visit the VAG repeatedly to view Stan Douglas’s masterful, ever-changing 2002 video installation Suspiria.) Grenville has claimed the exhibition is “in response to a considerable void in the scholarship on this important subject.” But this void probably exists because “this important subject” essentially comprises any and all things modern and contemporary. To wander through “MashUp” is to enter this void.
Despite this, Grenville, Augaitis and Rebick’s approach to “mashup culture” is conspicuously formal and anthropological. There is a lot of stuff, but everything has its place. In rooms where artists are meant to interact with each other, they seem siloed and/or jostled. One room with Isa Genzken and her contemporaries is covered in Silver Factory–style wallpaper, which is distracting and doesn’t even seem an allusion to Warhol. On the second floor, Jeff Koons’s Pink Panther is tucked behind a wall projecting Jack Goldstein’s MGM, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking the former for a strangely dressed security guard.
To wit, the structural, systemic and taxonomic fixations of French theory and the Frankfurt school seem to motivate “MashUp,” making it oddly clinical and quietly compartmentalizing. Outright queer works are placed loosely together in one area (General Idea, voguing and ballroom culture, Creative Salvage and Martin Margiela); there is a roomful of works about “material reordering,” which happen to all be by women (Liz Magor, Doris Salcedo and Rachel Whiteread); there is a roomful of works by Chinese artists Gu Wenda, Xu Bing and Qiu Zhijie.
What is strangest about “MashUp” is its discreet attitude to the politics that seep out of its every pore. It is the curatorial version of multiculturalism: a contained mosaic with ideological tensions arising anyway and inevitably, however unacknowledged. In so many ways, this is a show about the fundamental violence of modern and contemporary art and culture. Cutting, plundering, appropriating—the works in “MashUp” are polyphonic and polyvalent but also emblematic of the violations, mutilations, thefts, colonialisms, tensions and wars on which culture pivots, and to which it plays eternal host.
Do collage, montage and bricolage not mean different things when different artists do them? Can we not read in Hannah Höch’s 1930 series “From an Ethnographic Museum” challenging critiques of institutional colonialism and the patriarchy, when in other Dadaist collage we see only the formal disruption and anarchist parlour games of straight white men? Furthermore, what is the connection between Höch and Ellen Gallagher, separated by three floors here, the latter of whose deconstructed grids of vintage black beauty ads, Afrylic (2004) and Pomp-Bang (2003), are so reminiscent of Höch and (white) Dada? Questioning authorship becomes significantly less formal and structural when the artist doing so has been institutionally invisible.
And what of queer culture? Is Rauschenberg’s sexuality important to bring to bear on his status as a pioneering mashup artist? What of the problematics of presenting historic voguing and ballroom culture through the literal lenses of two white women, photographer Chantal Regnault and documentarian Jennie Livingston, whose Paris is Burning plays on a loop in a corner on the second floor? Furthermore, what are the problematics behind positioning voguing and ballroom culture as an idyllic social scene, “[creating] alternative spaces for expressions of solidarity, queer and transgender visibility and critique,” when it also continues to provide space to explore and even celebrate competition, with strong commercial and gendered elements?
Similar questions might be asked of a beautifully installed section of “MashUp” pertaining to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s first collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, complete with Bruce Conner’s mesmerizing accompanying film. It is not that the curators do not acknowledge Byrne and Eno’s appropriation of African musicians such as Fela Kuti and African writers such as Amos Tutuola. It is that those latter artists’ own relationship to mashup culture, as autonomous mixers and appropriators in their own right, is so under-acknowledged. In culture, who is borrowing from whom is rarely reducible to a binary of who is victimizing whom.
“MashUp” is curatorially concerned with its hoard of interrelated works, much less in unpacking them. I urge you, however, to attempt it; it has been made your job. Selfie opportunities abound, and we have of course learned to see collage and its formal legacy as an aesthetic—something disruptive that can be made beautiful, like sex. But every artist has her own distinct reasons for cutting up, splicing, eradicating and reconstituting meaning and authorship. Such motivations can and must be impossibly varied.
In his monograph essay, Grenville quotes Sherrie Levine, whom he calls “exemplary in her use of mashup methodology,” her words and works erasing polarities between stealing and stolen, love and hate. This is the real purpose of mashing up: to populate culture and its capitalist drivers with questions, to scramble. And so “MashUp” is a bright-looking show with a rather dark heart. “I try to make art which celebrates doubt and uncertainty,” writes Levine. “Which provokes answers but doesn’t give them. Which withholds absolute meaning by incorporating parasite meanings. Which suspends meaning while perpetually dispatching you toward interpretation, urging you beyond dogmatism, beyond doctrine, beyond ideology, beyond authority.”