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One KRAZY Curator

Vancouver Art Gallery's Bruce Grenville on exhibiting, and publishing, 'delirious' pop culture.

By Reanna Alder 27 May 2008 |

Reanna Alder, editor of the now-defunct Tooth and Dagger, hopes to one day run a comic book lending library.

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VAG's hot show and book.
  • Krazy!: The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art
  • Bruce Grenville, Tim Johnson, Kiyoshi Kusumi, Seth and Art Spiegelman
  • Douglas & MacIntyre (2008)

The art gallery was where you went to see The Original. It's where you discovered that the Mona Lisa is smaller than you imagined, or were brought to tears -- so I've heard -- by brush strokes.

But everything in the Vancouver Art Gallery's latest exhibition, KRAZY!: the Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art, has already had the benefit of mass distribution. Reproduction is the intended form, whereas the originals often lack colour and, ahem, animation.

And here's the thing about amassing a collection of pop culture: there's no exclusive.

When I sat down with senior curator Bruce Grenville in his office three days after the exhibition opened, he admitted that the collection could have been presented in list form. As in: co-curators and comic artists Art Spiegelman and Seth suggest these eight comic artists, co-curator and computer game designer Will Wright believes you'll have a better understanding of video games history if you check these out. And so on.

With eight creators representing each of the seven genres, this list would easily fit on a double-sided handout of suggested reading/viewing/gaming for a university course ("KRAZY! The Development of Visual Culture in North America and the Asia Pacific in the 20th and 21st Centuries").

Of course, Grenville and the VAG staff have drawn from the modern curator's bag of tricks to make the work meaningful in a gallery setting.

"Some of it has to do with scale and how you approach it," says Grenville. "[We are] taking the physical body into account as much as anything to shift your perception."

Dozens of heroes of the page and screen parade "life-sized" across gallery walls, the floor plan seems even more labyrinthine than usual, and Japanese design company Atelier Bow-Wow have installed playful seating structures that weave through the main floor.

Gallery-goers are invited to play video games, watch excerpts and full-length films projected on the walls (as many as four films to a room, for maximum disorientation), and read the original pages of a comic book by traversing an entire gallery room, hieroglyph-style.

You can check out Windsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur, one of the exhibition's featured animations here:

The goal, says Grenville, is to "map a field" of visual culture, one that hasn't yet been examined collectively, and see what can be found at the intersections where genres overlap. "In some ways it's about affirming the culture that you know, and in other ways it's about disassembling a culture that you know."

It's one of the VAG's most appealing and cohesive spectacles in recent memory. Even the catalogue is a cut above. KRAZY! (Douglas & McIntyre, 2008) is a juiced-up teaser-trailer, 72 cubic inches of full-colour stills, cells, renderings and drawings, plus pages of the conversational commentary from which Grenville distilled the exhibition's curatorial signage.

In his interview with The Tyee, here's what else Bruce Grenville had to share...

On why this show, in this city, now

"One of the things that we're quite committed to is visual culture, so we did Massive Change a while back. We do exhibitions that cross design architecture in different ways, but one of the areas that seemed to be growing in terms of visibility was the graphic novel, as an extended serious art form. Part of it was our interest in the Asia Pacific and to address that manga and anime come out of that.

"I did a show a couple years back called The Uncanny, which was a look at this image of the human machine, everything from the 17th century forward. Part of the show was to look at Japanese culture specifically, their ideas around the machine, which are entirely different than Western ones. The art was really fascinating in terms of that. But also how much of these images kept popping up in popular culture, like [Masamune Shirow's] Ghost in the Shell, or [Osamu] Tezuka's Astro Boy. I thought the depth and the character of the anime and manga was something that I just hadn't really understood, and felt like that [understanding] was something that we needed.

"We also live in a community where video games are pretty actively produced. There are some great producers in the community here, so [all this] became the large field, bigger then even we'd originally imagined, that needed to come together.

"We're an institution that's committed to contemporary art and visual arts especially, and so that's part of the mix. To really see visual arts is to see it as in integral part of visual culture, not separate from it."

On the personal nature of the selections

"Will Wright's selection of games is really Will's view of what [video game] history is and I realized when we got to the end if it, if you look at [Will Wright's] Spore, which is the end point of the discussion, everything that he chose is in Spore, as a kind of user relationship to it. So clearly, you see [the history of each genre] through your own lens. Which is terrific, it makes for a very engaging vision. But obviously anybody could imagine any number of other things that could have been in the show."

On 'KRAZY!,' the catalogue

"There was the sense that it would be a document of something that hadn't happened before. In looking at all this media, we would want to be able to present it together, which is important, but also to see it as something that sort of maps a field, just a preliminary discussion. What if we started to talk about this as a large field of activity that has been sort of flattened? There are intersections and points of differences. How do they rub up against each other, and if you put them all together would you see that? We wanted something that you could hold, it's not like Masters [of American Comics], which is this kind of tome. This is something you can carry."

On the necessity of critical reflection

"You only come to an understanding of what you do through critical reflection. We can produce and churn out, [and] if you don't reflect on it, it's a lot easier. You don't have to think ethically about what you're doing, the purposes that you have, the connections that you've made, the history that you're either engaged with or you might be repeating, [or the history] you might be trying to diverge from.

"[But] without that critical reflection, you end up making things that either aren't really very interesting, or are culturally irrelevant. As soon as you start to be more aware of what you're doing and think critically about that process, then I think the ethical comes into that.

"It's a set of relations, and relations are the basis of our ethics. It's that sense of how do we interact with others, and others being not only other producers but also the receivers. Hence the reference to Krazy Kat, which [has] this sense that communities never resolve, communities are in tension, and that tension, that community without community, that inoperativeness, is very much what gives that community meaning and strength and allows it to go forward and to respond ethically, both to situations and to what we produce."

On whether pop culture is inherently 'absorbing' at the expense of critical reflection

"I think at times [the pieces] do ask you to just kind of be subsumed by them, and certainly when you walk into the video high wall space there is this sense that you are to be overwhelmed. Certainly film has always put you in a darkened room and provided you with these blinkers that encourage you to look to the spectacle and be absorbed. I think there's a lot about this that is intended to engage you and pull you into it, to be absorbed by it. But all those triggers are there to also encourage reflection."

On Roy Lichtenstein and framing

"I think what's great about those Lichtenstein paintings is that it is about an exchange of glances. It's this sort of series of visual interactions and cues between a subject and a viewer [within the frame], and a viewer -- me -- at play. So we become self conscious of our looking and seeing. If you take the time to look, if you look beyond the pop [aesthetic] of the composition -- the way he crops and creates this kind of fabulous slick surface, and all the things that Lichtenstein does to make a great painting -- if you look at the language that he's using, the compositional structures, the relations between the subjects and viewers, you get something else out of it."

On the poetics of a mixed-up culture

"There's a fabulous George Herriman piece in the show that I was looking at again this morning. I'm teaching a course on the exhibition for Emily Carr, and had a chance to slow down with the students and there's a wonderful piece where Ignatz [mouse] has been lost and nobody can find him so they call Officer Pupp to help them and Ignatz appears above. There's all this wonderful compositional work at play. Ignatz drops down through the fireplace and he's covered in soot and Krazy Kat says, 'That can't be Ignatz, Ignatz is blond and this is a brunette.'

"[So there is] this whole sense of misunderstanding, and if you start to read it in relation to Harriman's background, he's a mixed race individual and the language [in the comic] is mixed, there's all this mix-up and confusion and it's that mixing up and confusion that is the meaning of our existence. There's constant confusion and the desire to clarify."

On the power of the graphic novel

"Black and White by Taiyo Matsumoto was for me one of the great finds in the show. [It is] this astounding story, and I think it's so beautifully told, and such a rich narrative and beautifully drawn. There are not many stories that are that engaging. It's like a great novel, [and] a great visual art work all tied up into one thing, and there's an incredible amount of depth."

On what anime does better than cartoons

"One of the things that we were very interested in the show is the way that anime depicts urban spaces in a way that you never see in animated cartoons. It's this sort of dense urban space, it's especially in Tokyo, and the complexity of negotiating those spaces becomes a subject in the work. The city itself is a subject that is assembled and disassembled [within the films]."