If I had to choose one word to sum up the first retrospective of General Idea, ‘Haute Culture’, it would be ‘polite’. Given that politeness is antithetical to the Canadian collective’s work, this is confusing, but this display was unexpectedly discreet and unassuming: archival documentation, painting, sculpture and video from 1969 to 1994 neatly occupied the galleries, neutralizing the energy, humour and sharp cultural critique that characterized General Idea’s practice.
Founded in Toronto in 1969 by AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, the group’s identity as a threesome was, in their words, a conscious abandonment of the ‘tyranny of the artist as individual genius’. Together they created an alternative world as a form of total art work: one in which the poodle was their alter-ego (for its contradictory role as a symbol of glamour and its status as a dog) in a hybrid mix of high, low and counter-culture. As so much of their work was performance-based, many of the sculptures on display originally served as ‘props’, such as three stuffed white poodles dipped in blue paint for the performance XXX blue (1984) and subsequently featured in Shut the Fuck Up (1985), a video that includes footage of Yves Klein’s models smearing paint over their voluptuous bodies, as a segue for dancing poodles in pastel spandex. These video works form cogs around which different ideas revolve, encapsulating periods of the group’s work, yet frustratingly they were displayed on small monitors, minimizing their significance.
Much of General Idea’s work was a performed deconstruction of what they described as ‘cultural imperialism’. They parodied and poked fun at systems of power, particularly those of the art world. For example, a cover of their magazine FILE (the title design mimics that of LIFE magazine) displayed here in a vitrine, featured an image of Tina Turner with a drawn pencil moustache and the text ‘If you take the Cha Cha out of Duchamp you get … what a dump!’ Or The Boutique from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion (1980), a three-dimensional dollar sign that originally functioned as a shop from which to sell their multiples and magazines (but which was presented here as a sculpture). As Bronson writes in his catalogue essay, most museums refused to use it as it was originally intended, explaining that the Museum of Modern Art in New York showed items under Perspex ‘in a sort of castrated and purely archival state’. Bronson’s summary is apt, as here objects and images that were once used and alive felt like relics. Perhaps this is unavoidable when showing performance-based work, yet even Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (1984) – ten large canvases depicting their signature stylized poodles fornicating in a threesome of different positions – felt oddly anachronistic.
Throughout the show, some of the walls were covered with the group’s AIDS wallpaper (a play on the iconic ‘LOVE’ print by Robert Indiana) on which hung photos of the original wallpaper in the context of public interventions in cities including Amsterdam and New York. The group became highly politicized towards the end of their time together (in the lead up to Partz’ and Zontal’s eventual deaths from AIDS in 1994) focusing all their energy on art as a form of activism against a disease that was rapidly killing many of their peers. Their use of the AIDS logo was a consciousness-raising activity using alternative systems of dissemination: like Félix González-Torres’ candies, it was intended as a form of spreading or ‘infecting’ people with an idea Bronson has described as ‘image cancer’. Inside the gallery, this seemed more like a form of décor, akin to Andy Warhol’s wallpaper, rather than the defiant act it once was when installed parasitically mimicking ‘real’ advertising.
Put simply, the 1960s gave birth to a range of work by artists such as Allan Kaprow and Yvonne Rainer that strove to blur the divide between art work and everyday life; in hindsight this seems appealingly Utopian. Post-’68 saw a distinct shift in the way artists dealt with politics, in which the art work itself became a direct form of activism. This raises questions about how any gallery or museum can display this kind of work without rendering it archival and distilling the reality of the conditions in which it was made. Over the last year there have been a number of exhibitions, books and events looking at the history of 1980s activism, often specifically in relation to AIDS – including projects by Ultra Red and events and exhibitions related to Group Material. In the 1980s the AIDS crisis was extremely public: yet today, even when the disease is a global pandemic wiping out whole generations in Africa, it seems to have become an accepted fact, ignored for the most part. Perhaps this retrospective exhibition mirrors the trajectory of the public perception of the disease, demonstrating a desire to historicize it as a crisis overcome, when it is still a very urgent reality.