General Idea: Works in Public Spaces and Beyond
Poodles, dollar signs, skulls, cornucopias, pills, shot glasses, patent-leather heels, babies, blueprints, ziggurats, venetian blinds, test patterns, copyright logos, atomic explosions, starfish, cock rings and milk. These motifs currently dominate the ground floor of the National Gallery of Canada, which celebrates the life and work of the provocative artist trio General Idea. From 1969 to 1994, AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal developed an immense body of work spanning painting, sculpture, photography, video, performance, mail art and fashion. Addressing themes from popular culture to queer sexuality to the AIDS crisis, the exhibition General Idea, curated by Adam Welch, is currently on view in the Special Exhibition galleries. General Idea’s works, however, are not constrained to the parameters of this space: they also occupy the Gallery’s halls and plaza, the streets of Ottawa and the Internet. In this article, I trace these works, including those that are harder to find and easier to miss.
The plaza in front of the Gallery’s main entrance is dominated by the iconic Maman (1999) – a massive bronze spider, complete with pearly white eggs in a sac – by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. I have always thought of Maman, with her tremendous strength and scale, as the Gallery’s protector: she is, after all, a mother. But there is a threat on the horizon. Something has infected the landscape, coming between Maman and the Gallery: General Idea’s AIDS Sculpture (1989). In 1987, the group famously appropriated American Pop artist Robert Indiana’s LOVE motif, substituting the letters L-O-V-E with A‑I‑D‑S – a statement on illness, stigma and death. Like a virus, General Idea’s logo spread across North America and Europe in the form of posters, sculptures, animations, subway ads, fashion accessories, magazine covers and lottery tickets. AIDS Sculpture is no less relevant today, its size a reflection of the ongoing global impact of the AIDS crisis.
Originally made to sit outside a Burger King on a shopping street in Hamburg, Germany, AIDS Sculpture invites passersby to leave their mark on its surface. As with any work of relational aesthetics, viewers engage directly with the object, completing the work. AIDS Sculpture is covered in graffiti, with images and text – some legible, some not – in a range of media and materials. Some people have opted for pens or markers in black, silver and neon green. Others have added flyers or stickers: adhesive QR codes, for instance, call to mind their ubiquity through COVID-19 and the relationship between overlapping public health crises. A black-and-white photograph affixed to the sculpture shows two topless men smiling as they embrace one another. Someone has marked the names of friends who died of AIDS-related illnesses, along with their dates of death. Someone has spray-painted a couple dozen hearts in gold: a reminder that love and AIDS are intimately connected – not only within the context of transmission but because of the bonds, friendships and attachments that grew stronger in the wake of the crisis. Notably, Bronson would become a primary caregiver to Partz and Zontal, both of whom were diagnosed with HIV in 1990 and died from AIDS-related illnesses in 1994.
The markings on AIDS Sculpture range from political to poetic to comedic. The Gallery does not monitor, control or censor what is written – offering, instead, a space of discourse and negotiation, where anyone is invited to express their thoughts and opinions in the public sphere.
In the Gallery, a vast ramp leads to the Scotiabank Great Hall. Within the transitional space of the Colonnade, it is easy to miss a compelling detail: General Idea’s bronze-cast Homeless Sign for Trump Tower (1989), somewhat inconspicuous against the building’s expansive rose-granite walls. At first glance, the work may appear to be a gallery plaque, perhaps acknowledging a patron or donor. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that General Idea’s work replicates the words scrawled on a piece of cardboard – an artifact the artists found on the street outside their New York apartment. Attesting to the ubiquity of poverty and homelessness in the city, the sign was, as Bronson put it, “a sign of the times.” Casting it in bronze and mounting it on a slab of pink marble, General Idea transformed the handwritten message into the type of sign found on the facade of the Fifth Avenue Trump Tower, creating an ironic statement on economic disparity. Great wealth, they remind us, comes at a price others pay. The curatorial decision to install Homeless Sign for Trump Tower in a transitional space where it might go unnoticed reflects the way passersby tend to walk by homeless people – there but largely ignored, effectively invisible to a society that all too often excludes and rejects them.
The Scotiabank Great Hall is a feat of architectural majesty, encased in glass walls and cones resembling the roof of a cathedral. Look out and you will see a view of Parliament Hill, the Gatineau Hills and the Ottawa River. Look up and you will see something unexpected: three giant pill-shaped blimps filled with helium, collectively titled Pharma©opia (1992). Floating like balloons in the air above, these pills were originally created as a public intervention on Las Ramblas, a popular walkway in Barcelona. In the spirit of site-specificity, General Idea designed the blimps in yellow and red, ambiguously mirroring the Spanish and Catalan flags. The conceptual strength of Pharma©opia is inextricable from the way the work is installed. At the Gallery, the pills are in dialogue with the building’s architecture and even the environment. As the sunlight hits the Great Hall, the capsules cast shadows on the viewers below. Although balloons evoke joy and celebration, here they dramatically signal that something ominous is in the air.
Much of General Idea’s work represents or references the form of a pill. After Partz and Zontal were diagnosed with HIV, General Idea became increasingly interested in addressing not only the AIDS crisis but also the drugs developed to fight the disease. “Our life was full of pills,” Bronson recalls, “so they became part of our work.” At the time, these drugs had harsh side effects. Moreover, their cost was prohibitive for many who wished to pursue treatment. Accordingly, the group’s pill works raise important questions about the entanglements of illness, class and access to healthcare.
One pill work – Magi© Bullet (1992) – is on view in the exhibition itself but deserves special mention here. Hundreds of silver helium-filled balloons resembling shiny pills crowd the ceiling of a large gallery. During the course of the exhibition, the balloons deflate and fall to the ground. Visitors are invited to collect them and take them home, extending the work's life beyond the space and run of the exhibition. Installation art turned multiples, these balloons will transform from objects on view at a museum to personal souvenirs, likely kept – presumably treasured – within the private sphere.
As though having just flown out of the exhibition, dozens of birds are suspended in mid-flight in the rotunda near the exit. The work, Snobird (1985), is a parody of Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Flight Stop (1979), a permanent installation of sixty fibreglass Canada geese flying above shoppers in Toronto's Eaton Centre. General Idea’s work likewise represents a flock of birds, but theirs are made from ordinary plastic bleach bottles. The installation reflects General Idea’s impulse to appropriate the work of other artists, their use of commonplace objects and materials, and their sharp sense of humour.
Despite its tongue-in-cheek spirit, the work seems to invite an alternate, less upbeat interpretation. The birds are not birds but plastic bottles, not living beings but synthetic objects. Today, Snobird gives us an opportunity to think about the way plastics, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation interfere with human and animal populations, natural ecosystems and life on our planet. Another work – the large-scale installation Fin de siècle (1990), on view in the exhibition – has prompted ecocritical readings since its production. Three faux seal pups are adrift in a frozen landscape of breaking ice, a particularly poignant image given the immense impact of climate change on the Arctic.
General Idea’s birds seem to fly from the exhibition towards the Gallery’s spaces showcasing contemporary art. This detail – a choice in installation – subtly alludes to the way the group has influenced younger generations of artists and activists.
Since its inception, General Idea’s AIDS logo has been widely disseminated in the form of prints, ephemera and editions. In the late 1980s, thousands of AIDS posters were plastered across New York and other cities. In 1988, the logo appeared in vinyl above San Francisco’s Billboard Café, an artists’ haunt in a predominantly gay neighbourhood. This summer, more than 3,500 posters – titled AIDS (Ottawa) – have been plastered across Ottawa. A re-creation of the San Francisco billboard, AIDS (2022) is installed downtown, at the corner of St. Patrick and Dalhousie streets. VideoVirus (2021) was on view on the Kipnes Lantern, animating the façade of the National Arts Centre. These public works have reactivated General Idea’s viral AIDS project, first launched in New York in 1987. The logo continues to circulate quickly and widely, echoing the persistent spread of a virus.
Long before the advent of YouTube and TikTok, General Idea were pioneers of video and its broad dissemination. Their videos aired on broadcast and public-access television from Toronto to Amsterdam. Today, some of their most important video works are available online through GI TV. Blocking (1974), Pilot (1977), Test Tube (1979), Cornucopia (1982), Loco (1982) and Shut the Fuck Up (1985) exemplify General Idea’s conceptual preoccupations and favorite formats. Drawing from the structures of beauty pageants, performance, television, documentary, soap operas and infomercials, these videos address themes related to mass media, popular culture, fashion, glamour, myth, modernism, spectatorship, the art market, architecture, archaeology, sex and poodles.
If this sounds like a miscellaneous set of themes, it’s because it is. General Idea’s work – in the Gallery and beyond – attests to the diversity of the group’s output and the complexity of their vision. Fun and serious, simple and challenging, small and large, real and fictional, cerebral and emotional, General Idea’s work runs the gamut of art, politics and life.
GENERAL IDEA is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until November 20, 2022. For a full listing of lectures and related events, see the Events page; the fully-illustrated catalogue is available from the NGC Boutique. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.