syncretism: mashup

david j. staley

syncretism: mashup
designer's statement

My interest in the idea of cultural syncretism began as an undergraduate, where my concentration was ancient history. I was fascinated by the concept of religious syncretism, the blending of the attributes of many gods from different cultures. I was drawn to the material evidence of such syncretism in statuary and art, where stylistic traits from different artistic and cultural traditions blended together in the same piece (like this Buddha statue with Hellenistic features).

A beautiful large terracotta head of Buddha modeled in the classical Hellenistic style.

I was trained in a Panofskian art history tradition, which holds that (art) objects—whatever their utilitarian function—are representative of a larger cultural and symbolic ecosystem, and (art) objects are expressions of that larger system. These blended objects had a powerful effect on how I understood syncretism as a cultural phenomenon.

That sense of cultural blending and hybridity as expressed via material objects informs this digital mural. Rather than religious statues, I juxtapose objects and scenes from contemporary culture (with some historical allusions as well) that similarly represent a blending of different cultures. Objects here include a rickshaw in Copenhagen with “Made in Louisiana” emblazoned on its side; Akira Kurosawa's film Ran, which tells the story of King Lear within a Shogunesque idiom, as reviewed by a French film magazine; and, my favorite, “English-style Indian food.”

In so assembling this collection, I was struck by the associative connections with the mash-up culture that is today influencing everything from music to digital art to international relations (if Joshua Cooper Ramo [2009] is to be believed). In this piece, I do not claim any theoretical connections between syncretism, hybridity, and mash-ups; I am only curious about their associative, analogical connections and how I might represent these materially/visually via this juxtaposition of texts and images.

I used Vuvox Collage for this piece, an application I had not worked with before, but one that reminded me of the long history of the mural as a way to convey narrative. The cave paintings at Lascaux, Egyptian wall paintings, Roman triumphal columns, the Bayeux Tapestry, the murals of Diego Rivera—all are examples of this ancient impulse to tell a story via a succession of images in sequence.

Bayeux Tapestry Lascaux II

But unlike the Bayeux Tapestry, I am not conveying a linear narrative: This is an associative assemblage. I am interested in exploring the rhetorical possibilities of an associative mash-up of image and text made possible through Vuvox. Although the piece unfolds in linear sequence, what results is not a linear/logical exposition, but rather an analogical juxtaposition that nevertheless conveys a point of view. The argument here is that mash-ups (the digital mural itself as a mash-up), mash-up culture, syncretism, and cultural hybridity are homologous patterns and processes that map against each other, “syncretism:mashup” being a mapping of those patterns. In addition, I have assigned Vuvox Collages in an undergraduate class and have persuaded a number of my colleagues in the History Department that associative murals are a valuable “next generation assignment.”

David J. Staley
Director, The Goldberg Center
Adjunct Associate Professor
Department of History
The Ohio State University