A Film About McLuhan-Inspired Indo-Canadian Artist Mansaram is Now Available Online

Produced by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) –  Published on Aug 16, 2018  
From 2014-2017, the ROM acquired over 700 works of art—paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, fabrics, film—from the archive of Panchal Mansaram (b. 1934), one of the few artists of the South Asian diaspora whose career in Canada stretches over 50 years. This video is a glimpse into his life and work, which is a testament to the role of a diasporic artist in a global history of modernism.
The following excerpt is taken from my published article Mansaram & Marshall McLuhan: Collaboration in Collage Art which you can find online in Marshall McLuhan & the Arts at https://goo.gl/PTgXpW. The full issue of Marshall McLuhan & the Arts is at https://goo.gl/pL6YYN
 Click on image for expanded view
Rear View Mirror 74 (RVM 74) – Collage by Mansaram and Marshall McLuhan (1969, with new elements added in 2011)

On a page that is untitled and unpaginated, preceding page one of the Prologue to The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), McLuhan wrote of his “mosaic or field approach,” stating that it represents “the galaxy or constellation of events” in a “mosaic of perpetually interacting forms that have undergone kaleidoscopic transformation—particularly in our own time.” That is an apt description for Mansaram and McLuhan’s Rear View Mirror 74, which represents elements from the converging cultures of India and the West, including aspects of their natural ecologies, media ecologies, and religious symbols. Elena Lamberti argues that meaning from such a mosaic assemblage is acquired:

… through the interplay with its own ground. By doing so, a pattern gets created and in turn revealed through our active observation. Pattern recognition is the way we approach all mosaics: we look for the overall design that the assemblage of the various tesserae brings to light, something which transcends their mere sum. (xxviii)

Such mosaic structure forces viewers to employ pattern recognition, to pay attention to the total design, and to participate in the process of deriving meaning from what they are experiencing. It promotes active engagement, rather than the passive and detached observation that is characteristic of representational art.

McLuhan appreciated collage art and supported this aspect of Mansaram’s artistic expression because he sensed that this art form better reflected the post-literate “allatonceness” (McLuhan and Fiore 63) world of electronic media and technology. As Margarita D’Amico argues, “In his own published work if McLuhan was not the first to have used collage, [but] it is he who has best captured the totally new character of the new mass means of communication and the social impact of new technologies” (Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan 232). The superseded Gutenberg era of widespread literacy based on the dominance of writing and print media in the form of relatively inexpensive books, magazines, journals, and newspapers favoured visual space. Yet what McLuhan called “new media” favoured the ear via technologies such as radio, movies, TV, recorded music, and satellites, which replaced visual space with acoustic space. The visual aspect still existed in film and TV of course, but sight was no longer the most dominant of the senses in the new electronic media.

Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt opined that:

Our world … is an invisible Rim Spin—all the communication that surrounds us. It is like a cyclone, a vortex that has transformed the old world of visual connections into a new world of audile-tactile resonances: a global theatre of instant awareness. (Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan 231)

In a collaborative text with Marshall McLuhan first published in Spanish in Venezuela, D’Amico linked collage and mosaic using McLuhan’s terminology:

We live in an acoustic space … like discarnate minds floating in the magnetic cities of radio, television and satellites. …Our world is a great multimedia poem. To understand this world we must study its processes, investigate their effects to recognize their causes: to program our future … Perhaps our one possible approach may be of mosaic type or collage, rather than a lineal one of logical demonstration. (Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan 231)

The art of the previous Gutenberg era of print had been mostly representational: street scenes, natural landscapes or seascapes, and portraits that were identifiable as such. The introduction of perspective, around the same time in the mid-15th century as Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, enhanced the lifelikeness of this representationality (McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy). Just as the linearity of typeset printed pages endowed readers with a fixed point of view, perspective in art made “the single eye the centre of the visible world” with everything converging on it “to the vanishing point of infinity” (Berger 16).

Yet electronic media substituted simultaneity or all-at-onceness for linearity and ABC-mindedness, and acoustic space for visual space, thus eliminating perspective and the possibility of a fixed point of view. Representational art was no longer reflective of electronic media, satellites, space flight, and new conceptions of space/time that they stimulated. Abstract art in its non-representationality provided one solution, and the ancient art of collage provided another. D’Amico explains why mosaic and its application to collage art appealed to McLuhan:

Mosaic emphasizes that all elements together create the total effect. As for collage, the association, arrangement and juxtaposition of objects, phrases, different concepts, both heterogeneous and absurd, that comment upon and influence each other, all of this has very close affinities with concepts of chance, accident or “serendipity” (making accidental discoveries of valuable, but unsought, knowledge), important concepts in present science and culture. (Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan 231-232)

Marshall McLuhan, a cultural medievalist by training, was especially interested in the lower three of the seven liberal arts of the medieval educational curriculum: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He was aware of medieval artistic expression beyond the literary, including the pre-Renaissance mosaic art that followed the Byzantine practice of decorating walls and ceilings with tesserae. Art historian Alexander Nagel explains that the medieval mosaic represented for McLuhan “a mode of apprehension” that integrated the full human sensorium of vision, hearing, taste, smell, and even touch, whereas Western representational art biased perception in favour of the eye and sequential vision:

Mosaics engaged an integrated medieval “sensory ratio” where the visual was not disconnected from the other senses and if anything was subordinated to the “audile” and “tactile” forms . . .  [In] The Gutenberg Galaxy, [he wrote that the mosaic is] “a multidimensional world of inter structural resonance”—in contradiction to modern perspective, which was “an abstract illusion built on the intense separation of the visual from the other senses. (160)

Indeed, McLuhan found “the mosaic mode of being relevant in the new age of electronic media, which were exploding the bounds of a mechanically understood world, putting things once again into multiple relation across space and time” (Nagel 160).

Mansaram also related a relevant side note to this essay’s author: at the opening of his 2012 exhibition of collages at the J.M. Gallery, now the Ashok Jain Gallery in New York, Teri McLuhan, a documentary filmmaker and daughter of Marshall McLuhan, commented to Mansaram, “That is how my dad spoke, just like your collages.” Those who are still mystified by some of McLuhan’s cryptic and non-linear pronouncements might possibly agree.

A cropped portion of a collage created by Indo-Canadian artist Panchal Mansaram who prefers to be called Mansaram with the collaboration of Marshall McLuhan that includes a photo of the latter taken by Mansaram (1969, with new elements added in 2011).

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