Your Collection Around the World: General Idea

General Idea, One Day of AZT, 1991, 5 units of fiberglass and enamel, overall dimensions variable. Courtesy AA Bronson / General Idea, One Year of AZT, 1991, 1825 capsule of vacuum-formed styrene with vinyl, overall dimensions variable. Courtesy AA Bronson

For Concept 70, their first group exhibition in Toronto in 1970, artists Ronald Gabe, Slobodan Saia-Levy, and Michael Tims submitted a project they called General Idea. Due, perhaps, to some form of miscommunication, the gallery listed the artists, not their work, as General Idea, and the eponymous collective was born.

Four decades later, the thought-provoking trio has become larger than life. Initially viewed as eccentric, and even weird, the collective has continued to influence younger generations of artists and curators, far beyond Canada’s shores.

Agustín Pérez Rubio, Artistic Director of the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), has been especially drawn to the collective. General Idea: Broken Time, an exhibition he has curated in collaboration with the Museo Jumex in Mexico City, where the exhibition is now on view, before travelling to Argentina in March 2017. This extensive retrospective features 120 works by General Idea, including installations, paintings, numerous documents and videos, and various other formats. 

General Idea broke new ground in terms of the structure of the group and their success in working together for twenty-five years,” said Sara Smith, author of a recent Art Canada Institute book on the collective, in an interview with NGC Magazine. In her book, she highlights how, despite the random way in which the group’s name had come about, the artists decided to keep it. At the same time, the three artists cemented their identities as Felix Partz (Gabe), Jorge Zontal (Saia-Levy) and AA Bronson (Tims). “Using mail art, video, a self-produced magazine, painting and installation, they explored the crassness and ambiguity of mainstream culture, the media, politics and, of course, sexuality,” she says.

General Idea, Photographs from The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant documentation, 1971, variable dimensions. Courtesy AA Bronson

General Idea: Broken Time focuses on the ephemeral and the creation of mythologies, and how these concepts relate to advertising, fashion, beauty pageants and mass media. General Idea’s experimental works from the 1970s and 1980s, such as The Miss General Idea Pageant (1971), the celebrated publication FILE (1972–1989), the Showcards series (1975–1979), The Miss General Idea Pavilion (1984) and Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (1984) will also be on view. Three of the collective’s most important installations — Reconstructing Futures (1977), One Day of AZT (1991), and One Year of AZT (1991) — are on loan from the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).

“General Idea is really among the most important artists to emerge from Canada after the 1960s,” NGC Associate Curator of Canadian Art Adam Welch told NGC Magazine. He believes that Reconstructing Futures, for example, anticipates installation art of the 1990s. The installation is primarily a reconfiguration of elements scavenged from the Miss General Idea Pavilion 1984 (1977), which burst into flames during rehearsals for the accompanying pageant. Instead of giving up on the project, General Idea reconceived the remnants as a Green Room for pageant contestants. 

Never afraid to shy away from difficult topics, the collective pioneered the addressing of AIDS in art. Partz and Zontal themselves would die of AIDS-related causes in 1994. AZT was the medication available to them at the time to fight the effects of the virus. According to Pérez Rubio, One Day of AZT and One Year of AZT, the large coffin-like capsules that emphasize mortality, are presented at the exhibition “as a calendar showing the passing of time through the daily dose of the antiretroviral. Five pills a day make 1,825 pills a year.”


General Idea, General Idea. Playing Doctor, 1992, chromogenic print, 76.2 x 53.3 cm. Courtesy Estate of General Idea

The exhibition also includes a close encounter with the controversial set of fluorescent acrylic-on-canvas paintings known as Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (1984). “This piece is inspired by the Villa Dei Misteri of Pompeii,” notes Agustín Pérez Rubio, “and is composed of ten paintings in which three poodles — clearly representations of the three artists — re-create the poses from the Lupanar frescos at Pompeii.” Mondo Cane includes narration from the Kama Sutra, the epic Hindu book about sexuality and free love.

Described as a collection of theses and as a diary, forty-five works from the serigraphed Showcards series will be on view in the exhibition as well. According to Smith, the Showcards document many of the concepts that shaped the group’s work, and contain ideas that the group advanced in subsequent projects, such as the Colour Bar Lounge. “It is an open-ended series of cards, installed as a group, each of which resemble a magazine layout page,” she says. “Each card features handwritten text providing information about the group, as well as photographs from numerous sources.”

Although General Idea has been involved in more than 100 solo exhibitions and more than 150 group shows around the world, they have exhibited in Latin America only once before, at the 1998 Sao Paulo Biennial. According to Pérez Rubio, General Idea: Broken Time offers Latin American audiences a fresh approach to an already celebrated oeuvre. “While the audience for this exhibition is vast and heterogeneous,” he says, “they will find General Idea’s fictional constructions, their artistic and personal relationship with AIDS, and their advertising and design approach quite fascinating.”

General Idea, FILE Megazine no. 25, 1986, "Sex, Drugs, Rock 'n' Roll and Art & Text Issue", web offset periodical, 64 pp. plus cover, 35.5 x 28 cm. Courtesy AA Bronson

A “general idea” is often defined as a notion that attempts to describe the overarching scope of an argument. But processing thought is never general, and conveying meaning can be quite difficult. As innovators in Canadian conceptual art, General Idea was often misunderstood. Their tongue-in-cheek approach to everything from publishing and advertising to television and pageants may have had something to do with it.

Yet, as Adam Welch points out, their work was always “future-oriented and anticipatory.” What may have seemed frivolous at the time was a carefully thought-out, and often satirical response to their surroundings. According to Perez Rubio, in General Idea: Broken Time, “the material isn’t as important as the message.” And their messages were loud and clear. General Idea has had an enduring resonance, and a timeless ability to connect with audiences around the world in unique ways.

General Idea: Broken Time is on view until February 12, 2017 at the Museo Jumex in Mexico City. It opens at MALBA in Buenos Aires in March 2017. The retrospective coincides with the January 2017 publication of Canadian curator Fern Bayer’s catalogue raisonné for the collective, produced in association with the Museo Jumex and MALBA, and drawing extensively upon the General Idea fonds, housed at the NGC Library and Archives.

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