General Idea: Haute Culture

This review of General Idea’s exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne de la vile de Paris was published in Art Monthly issue 345, April 2011

High up on the left-hand wall of the grand lobby of the Musée d’art de la Ville de Paris’s hang a number of large, brightly coloured heraldic shields. This impressive collection of 40 paintings represents The Armoury of the Miss General Idea Pavilion, 1985-90. Each crest carries a different configuration of insignias taken from the universe of General Idea’s unique symbology. Poodles (used as a metaphor for the artist) and cornucopias (used to represent the fount of inspiration) sit alongside test tubes, pill capsules, skulls and the ziggurat. The through line which links the distribution of these forms, and the pattern repeated in each, is the triad: an important articulation of collectivism, ménage à trois, and the physical number of General Idea’s members, (AA Bronson, Felix Parts and Jorge Zontal). To understand the various signs represented is to be furnished with an ability to decipher the group’s particular language. As such The Armoury of the Miss General Idea Pavilion functions as a key to the General Idea code, a syntax laid out to help the viewer read what is on display. Positioned at the exhibition’s entrance, the work operates as a legend to be internalised and referred to when encountering the group’s multifaceted oeuvre.

‘Haute Culture’ is the Musée’s comprehensive General Idea retrospective. Spanning the length of their career from 1969 until 1994 – the year of Parts and Zontal’s deaths as a result of the AIDS virus – ‘Haute Culture’ is the most ambitious showing of the group’s work in Europe since the early 1990s. The notion that General Idea’s significance as an art group is inextricably linked to the social and political events of the 1980s is debunked from the start. Instead, the group’s ‘form as fiction’ maxim is thoroughly illustrated as work generated by their fictional Miss General Idea narrative. Born out of their annual non-gender-specific beauty pageant, the Miss General Idea concept began in 1970 and continued until 1984: the year its grand pavilion (part Dionysian sanctum; part bathhouse) was destroyed. While the pageant and winning participants were real (mostly), both the pavilion and its destruction were fictional constructs. The resulting artworks range from camp pageant ephemera to large, quasi-archaeological ruins pulled from the pavilion’s rubble.

Initially, ‘Haute Culture’ introduces work from General Idea’s pre-fiction flirtation with Conceptual and Mail Art. Orgasm Energy Chart, 1970-71, is a black and white card index separated into fields that correspond to days in a month and hours in each day. The receiver of one of these cards was to record the time, place and intensity of orgasms achieved during the set period. In Skyportaits Chain Letter Project, 1969, a card with a set of typed instructions asks the receiver to ‘Paste a photo of yourself onto a picture of sky. Send it to the name at the top of the list below’. This small selection of works illustrates a kind of Puckish engagement with the project of dematerialisation. It is here that the group’s signature techniques of gentle subversion and parody as wry homage begin to emerge.

General Idea have a gift for framing things in a way that is as instantly recognisable and contagious as any advertising campaign. This virtuosic use of commercial techniques has led to criticisms, especially when the group ventured out of its fictional framework into the socio-political sphere. Their ‘AIDS series’, 1987-93, a number of works developed from the appropriated use of Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE, 1965, in which the group substitute the letters A-I-D-S for L-O-V-E, could be seen as a passive gesture, paying lip service to the awareness movement of the 1980s. While others favoured a more militant stance, General Idea mounted a viral campaign that saw their image pinned up across various international cities. Still, at a time when a master of the sales pitch governed the US, utilising the language of advertising to combat the president’s inability to acknowledge the AIDS problem, and the homophobic comments of other artists (see Mark Kostabi in Vanity Fair’s June 1989 issue) could be seen as a masterstroke. Here, the series appears intermittently throughout the exhibition, reaching its apotheosis in a large room wallpapered with the design and ending with White AIDS #6, 1993. Hung as the exhibition’s penultimate work, the canvas of White AIDS #6 carries the faintest outline of the bold design. Completed one year before the deaths of Parts and Zontal, this erasure takes on an almost elegiac significance; a sobering moment of visual silence in a display dominated by colour.

Of the large collection salvaged from the Miss General Idea pavilion, Cornucopia, 1982, seems most able to convey what it was like to be inside the fictional building. Presented as a documentary film, a dispassionate voiceover explains the significance of paintings, sculptural works and ceramic artefacts with poodle prints. Intercut with sequences of a spinning upturned cornucopia, a soundtrack of percussive field recordings imbues the scenes with just the right kind of benign museological tribalism. The final work presented is P Is For Poodle (The Milky Way from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion), 1982. Like the restaged native environments presented behind ropes in natural history museums, this spot-lit hay-covered room appears to be a preserved anthropological scene. Three poodles (Bronson, Parts and Zontal) are positioned among large coiled pieces of metal, milking stools and brass buckets. The overpowering smell of hay and the repeated use of field recordings go someway towards creating an immersive total art experience. Indeed, with the universe of General Idea so thoroughly represented, ‘Haute Culture’ steps out of standard retrospective territory into the realm of the gesamkuntswerk. Positioning the group as rightful masters of the fictional macrocosm, their status as the forefathers of artists like Matthew Barney and Charles Avery cannot be denied.

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