Review by Eleanor Ivory Weber
The Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is a seemingly odd choice of location for the inaugural retrospective of the Canadian art trio General Idea, considering the ground-breaking conceptual art collective spent most of their time working in North America.The connection to Paris is questionable, though the museum is renowned for exhibiting work by many of conceptual art’s icons - Sturtevant, Jan Dibbets, Jimmie Durham, Jonathan Monk. One could say General Idea fit within this tradition.
The exhibition is thoroughly executed, with every stage of AA Bronson, Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz’s work together outlined and installed in a clear and in-depth fashion. The show is not organised chronologically, rather by themes such as ‘Mass culture’, ‘Sex and reality’ and ‘Architects/Archaeologists’, which form broad banners beneath which works are presented. Evidently, these headings are not unequivocal, most of General Idea’s work moves between categories, but for the purpose of creating a coherent vision of their oeuvre ‘ one that is difficult to speak of in chronological or strictly categorical terms - this is an effective curatorial decision. Furthermore, works from their Imagevirus and AIDS series are dispersed throughout each section - a metaphorical representation both of the virus the artists were plagued by and of the dynamic, sometimes aggressive nature of a practice which has proved a precursor to much of today’s ubiquitous virally-transmitted imagery.
Active from 1969 to 1994 - when Zontal and Partz died of AIDS-related illness - General Idea were pioneers of an art that not only employed new technology and mass media but toyed with notions of reality and fiction and challenged the idea of art being the product of personal genius or rare talent. Their name is testament to this philosophy; the artists felt it ‘freed them from the tyranny of the myth of the individual genius’, though it also references mass-culture symbols like General Motors.
‘Haute Culture’ hosts a wealth of archival documentation and imagery as well as all key General Idea works. The famous appropriation of Robert Indiana’s Love (1964) to read AIDS appears in various incarnations; the Miss General Idea works, too, which included beauty pageants-cum-performance events (here presented via film), clothes patterns and poster competitions centred on the mythical muse-like persona who in many ways became the mascot of the trio’s practice; XXX bleu (1984), an homage to Yves Klein whereby each member of General Idea painted a giant blue X using a stuffed life-size poodle (the group’s recurring emblem for the artist) for a paintbrush; the ten large-scale black and fluoro on canvas paintings titled Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (also featuring three poodles, this time locked in erotic poses inspired by the sex manual); the television series made in the 1970s as both a parody of and inspired by the sorts of documentaries and advertisements which are released to mass audiences (even Marina Abramovic featured in one of these clips); issues of FILE magazine (an anagram and total plagiarism of LIFE), which featured interviews with artists and coverage of the Canadian artistic scene. The exhibition is exhaustive.
These works and many more crystallise to provide an extremely coherent image of the collective’s body of work, the issues which occupied them and the steps General Idea have made toward an art which is not hierarchical nor individualist, which does not discriminate based on form, which is at once political and pleasurable and which is open at all times to new directions and ideas.
As Bronson, Partz and Zontal state themselves: ‘The current reality wasn’t sufficient for us, or we didn’t feel we belonged, so we had to create our own world, which was a kind of parody, an imperfect simulacrum of a perfect world.’ ‘Haute Culture’ is thus the ideal title for this exhibition. It sums up the parodic stance General Idea dose with dead seriousness, as well as the irony present in the fact the trio’s supposedly low culture methods are matched with high culture reception. Perhaps the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris is the perfect place for the first General Idea retrospective after all.