Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1
Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1 Credit: Goshka Macuga

Collage, claimed Donald Barthelme, was “the central principle of all art in the 20th century.” The form has been around since the Chinese invented paper, but it wasn’t until 1912 and 1913 that Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque tapped into the greater mixed-media possibilities of the style Braque called papier collé—”pasted paper.” Their early collages would inform Cubism as well as Russian constructivism, Dada, surrealism, and abstract expressionism, whose practitioners developed the technique into a form that by its very essence conveys the fragmentation of modern life.

Is the collage as relevant to postmodern life—to the 21st century as much as the 20th? With its emphases on aggregation and citation, the Internet primes audiences to embrace the looping, self-referential aspects of collage formats such as photomontage and video remixes. YouTube is a paradise for mash-ups, influencing older forms of media as it cherry-picks from them. Witness, for instance, a heavily AutoTuned remix of clips of Julia Child put together by John D. Boswell, aka Melodysheep. PBS Digital Studios commissioned it in 2012 to mark the chef’s 100th birthday.

In the music industry, recording artists enrich their own creations by sampling tracks from other musicians. Video collage continues to make inroads in the fine arts world. Christian Marclay’s installation The Clock, which caused a sensation last year at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is a 24-hour compilation of movie clips in which some indication of the time is continuously visible. It screens in real time—that is, always in sync with viewers’ watches, as reliable as a clock.

But the still photograph is arguably as relevant as ever; what decades ago was a Kodak moment is today a snapshot on one’s smartphone, instantly available to share on the Web. The mash-up may be pervasive across artistic media, but two new exhibits in Chicago make the case for the enduring power of the photo collage.

In “Exhibit, A,” curated by Dieter Roelstraete, the Museum of Contemporary Art collects politically charged works by the Polish-born, London-based artist Goshka Macuga. The most arresting piece is Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not 1, an enormous, enigmatic photo-based wool tapestry showing various groups of people in front of the bombed-out Queen’s Palace in Kabul. In the middle ground, a long line of Afghans and foreign-aid workers face the camera; off to the side, in the distance, acrobats form a pyramid. In the foreground men sleep in the snow, oblivious to a giant cobra that dominates the composition, front and center. Its question-mark shape seems to echo the ruminations of the thinker sitting nearby, chin in hand. The tension between the intimate and the global makes this a heady antiwar cocktail.

Macuga’s tapestry is part of a diptych. The companion piece was recently on view at the Smart Museum of Art, but was taken down to make way for the new site-specific installation City Unclaimed. Indian artist Gigi Scaria’s monumental imaginary portrait of his native Delhi consists of photos he shot in far-flung areas of the metropolis, layered in a chockablock fashion, playing with scale and perspective. In the lower third of the mural, middle-class apartment buildings festooned with rooftop gardens, satellite dishes, billboards, and laundry jockey for space. In the top third a row of gleaming skyscrapers calls to mind antique paintings of mountain gods coolly surveying the mortal world below. Caught between the two layers—like magma beneath shifting tectonic plates—is a central ribbon of slums. A curious five-tiered tower rises from them. It rises, too, as an actual sculpture that faces the mural—a three-dimensional, 12-foot working fountain whose running water suggests the city’s nonstop energy.

The vitality that City Unclaimed conveys is more impressive given the near absence of people and street traffic in it. Trying to spot a human image in the mural is a little like reading Where’s Waldo?—only after considerable squinting did I locate a woman in a head scarf, a man with some cattle, and a man near a parked motorbike. The installation, overseen by curator Jessica Moss, underscores the humanist thrust of the collage form: mankind’s ingenuity and production are celebrated, even as we’re led to reflect on their potential toll. Scaria will have two more works featured in the adjoining exhibit “The Sahmat Collective: Art and Activism in India Since 1989,” a survey of Delhi political art that has an opening reception February 13.