The notion of archival context–formalized in the principles of provenance and original order–is so central to archival thinking that the suggestion that a body of records may encompass multiple creators, different orders of arrangement, or alternate interpretations of ownership can generate heated philosophical arguments. But increasingly the archival conversation has begun to include speculation that the origins of a fonds may not be unilateral, that the order of items within that fonds (if fonds there be) may not be fixed, and that archives should not be seen as bound within the confines of space or time.
MashUp: The Birth of Modern Cultureprovided ample evidence that, no matter how archivists interpret (or revere) a unified approach to context, artists have for decades wilfully challenged the idea, breaking apart seemingly coherent entities, documentary or otherwise, to interrogate, unsettle, and provoke. The term "mash-up" is an evolution of the concept of collage, first coined by the avant-garde artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 20th century to refer to the act of incorporating "found" objects–existing images, sounds, artifacts, and words–into paintings, music, film, sculpture, and other creative works.
The Vancouver Art Gallery's most ambitious exhibition to date, MashUpfilled the building's entire 35,000 square feet of space. Thirty curators from around the world selected 371 artworks by 156 artists, musicians, architects, and others, including artists such as Picasso and Braque, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Brian Jungen; filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Joyce Wieland, and Arthur Lipsett; and musicians from Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage to Brian Eno and David Byrne.
The show was structured into four separate but thematically integrated exhibits, displayed on each of the gallery's four floors. Presented chronologically, the exhibit began with "Early 20th Century: Collage, Montage and Readymade at the Birth of Modern Culture," which introduced the concept of collage and considered its impact from the late 19th century to the end of the Second World War. Pride of place was given to Picasso's Guitar on a Table(ca. 1912) and Nature morte, bouteille et verre(1913), collages integrating wallpaper and newsprint into charcoal sketches. Two of Canadian photographer William Notman's composite photographs from the 1880s demonstrated how mechanical reproduction technologies such as steel engraving and offset lithography upset the perception of photographic authenticity. Hannah Höch's photomontages from the 1920s and 1930s rework everyday images from magazines and journals to create distorted images of human bodies, questioning accepted perceptions of beauty.
In the second part of the exhibit, "The Post-War: Cut, Copy and Quotation in the Age of Mass Media," mid-20th-century artists, filmmakers, and [End Page 186]musicians such as Robert Rauschenberg, Guy Debord, and John Cage use documentary images, archival film footage, and natural sounds to demonstrate even more forcefully the disruptive influence of art. Andy Warhol–whose iconic screen prints of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, and the Kennedy assassination, produced in the 1960s and 1970s, were given significant space here–is credited with "pilfering" found images as a way of condemning consumerist culture. Feminist artist Dara Birnbaum's 1979 video Technology/Transformation: Wonder Womandeconstructs film footage from the Wonder Womantelevision program to challenge stereotypical images of gender. Also included were pieces that reworked photographs, films, music, and paintings in order to "hijack" or "reroute" original messages, establish new metaphors, and express disenchantment with the status quo.
The third section, "Late 20th Century: Splicing, Sampling and the Street in the Age of Appropriation," highlighted a much more skeptical, politically charged cultural period, from the 1980s to the end of the 20th century. The works here decontextualized found objects, including an increasing number of documentary items, in order to undermine traditional power structures and social hierarchies. For instance, selections from Sherrie Levine's After Walker Evans(1981) revealed her intention to challenge notions of the ownership of and authority behind art production, as Levine rephotographs Depression-era images originally taken by the photographer Walker Evans and claims those new images as her own. Similarly, in compositions from...