Foun­ded in Ca­na­da in the ear­ly 1970s, this ar tist ’ s col­lec­tive de­ployed kitsch iro­ny in its self­por­traits, per for­mances and sculp­tures. One work in par­ti­cu­lar, Fin de siècle, still re­so­nates to­day, long af­ter the turn of the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Numéro - - English Text - By Éric Tron­cy

As the win­ter chill sets in, one is re­min­ded of an his­to­ric work by an ar­tists’ col­lec­tive that for­med exact­ly 50 years ago – Ge­ne­ral Idea, who are the sub­ject of a show this au­tumn at the Lon­don gal­le­ry Mau­reen Pa­ley (un­til 11 No­vem­ber). Al­though not fea­tu­red in Lon­don, the work in ques­tion has the par­ti­cu­la­ri­ty of re­gu­lar­ly ins­pi­ring new ge­ne­ra­tions of ar­tists to “co­ver” it as though it were a pop hit. Which is ra­ther strange for a piece made out of mul­tiple po­ly­sty­rene sheets and three toy seals.

Ge­ne­ral Idea com­pri­sed three men who met each other in To­ron­to in 1969, du­ring re­hear­sals by Theatre Passe Mu­raille. The three­some – Mi­chael T ims ( born 1946 in Van­cou­ver), Ron Gabe ( born 1945 in Win­ni­peg) and Slo­bo­dan Saia- Le­vy ( born 1944 in Par­ma, Ita­ly) – al­most im­me­dia­te­ly mo­ved in to­ge­ther, and, each of them ha­ving al­rea­dy ex­pe­ri­men­ted with art, be­gan crea­ting work to­ge­ther. It was “mail art” for the most part, against a ba­ck­drop of the Ca­na­dian coun­ter- culture scene – in­deed the trio were fa­med for their ca­re­ful­ly sta­ged ar­ri­vals at par­ties, which were na­tu­ral­ly ra­ther thea­tri­cal, since, af­ter all, they’d met at a theatre. Some say the name Ge­ne­ral Idea was ins­pi­red by Ge­ne­ral Mo­tors, but Tims ex­plains that in fact “Ge­ne­ral Idea was the name of one of the first pro­jects we sho­wed, but eve­ryone mi­sun­ders­tood and thought it was the name of the group.”

What is sure, ho­we­ver, is that they ra­pid­ly adop­ted pseu­do­nyms: Tims be­came AA Bron­son, Gabe Fe­lix Par tz and Saia- Le­vy Jorge Zon­tal. One of their first works took the form of a beau­ty contest, The 1971 Miss Ge­ne­ral Idea Pa­geant, for which they sent out forms and in­vi­ta­tions to 16 ar tists along with a brown dress, as­king each to send in eight pho­to­graphs of him/ her­self in said dress. Thir­teen took part and the win­ner, Mar­cel Dot, was fê­ted in style at a ga­la at the Art Gal­le­ry of On­ta­rio. They didn’t pick up the idea again un­til 1984, when they crea­ted the Miss Ge­ne­ral Idea Pa­villion, which re­minds us that two out of the three men stu­died ar­chi­tec­ture.

In the ear­ly 70s, Ge­ne­ral Idea laun­ched

whose title was a de­for­ma­tion of LIFE ma­ga­zine. The 26 is­sues they pu­bli­shed bet­ween 1972 and 1989 still amuse to­day in an era when the big com­mer­cial gal­le­ries pu­blish ma­ga­zines to pro­mote their ac­ti­vi­ty as a way of not ha­ving to bo­ther with cri­tics and their un­con­trol­lable opi­nions. FILE Me­ga­zine didn’ t on­ly pro­mote Ge­ne­ral Idea, but al­so fic­ti­tious ar­tists such as Dr. Brute or Mr. Pea­nut, and was one of se­ve­ral avant- garde re­views that loo­ked to­wards mains­tream gla­mour in the wake of An­dy Wa­rhol’s 1969 In­ter­view ma­ga­zine. As Ge­ne­ral Idea ex­plai­ned, “We wan­ted to be fa­mous, gla­mo­rous and rich. That is to say we wan­ted to be ar­tists and we knew that if we were fa­mous and gla­mo­rous we could say we were ar­tists and we would be. We ne­ver felt we had to pro­duce great art to be great ar­tists. We knew that great art doesn’t bring gla­mour and ce­le­bri­ty.”

FILE Me­ga­zine,

Their par tner­ship las­ted 25 years un­til, in 1994, AIDS car­ried

off Gabe and Saia- Le­vy, four months apart. From the late 80s on­wards their work was fun­da­men­tal­ly al­te­red by the ap­pea­rance of the di­sease, and, in 1987, they sub­ver­ted Ro­bert In­dia­na’s LOVE by ma­king of it an AIDS that be­came all the more dis­tur­bing as it was mul­ti­plied in the form of wall­pa­per, slo­gans and lo­gos. It is these works that are cur­rent­ly being shown at Mau­reen Pa­ley in Lon­don, but the piece that concerns us was in fact one of the ve­ry last they made: en­tit­led Fin de siècle (1990), it was shown in the tra­vel­ling ex­hi­bi­tion of the same name in 1992 and 1993, then in 1994 in the col­lec­tive show L’Hi­ver de l’amour put on by Purple ma­ga­zine at the Mu­sée d’Art mo­derne de la Ville de Pa­ris.

Fin de siècle com­prises at least 300 sheets of po­ly­sty­rene

that are pi­led up chao­ti­cal­ly to give the im­pres­sion of an ice bank, on which the three ar­tists dis­played what you might call their last self- por­trait: three cudd­ly- toy seals. With its spec­ta­cu­lar pro­por­tions, Fin de siècle re­vi­si­ted a work by the Ger­man ar­tist Cas­par Da­vid Frie­drich (1774– 1840) en­tit­led Das Eis­meer ( The Sea of Ice), which he pain­ted in 1823– 24, fai­th­ful in eve­ry way to the theme that runs throu­ghout his work – the vast­ness of na­ture contras­ted with the small­ness of man. But there are nei­ther men nor ani­mals in Frie­drich’s can­vas, and the in­clu­sion of three ba­by seals in Ge­ne­ral Idea’s re­vi­sit of the work pushes it to­wards the dis­play cases of na­tu­ral- his­to­ry mu­seums, as well as to­wards va­rious conver­ging lines of in­ter­pre­ta­tion – some of them ve­ry li­te­ral at a time when eco­lo­gists were cam­pai­gning to save the seals in the face of the Ca­na­dian go­vern­ment’s po­li­cy of ac­cor­ding fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to cull them for rea­sons of over­po­pu­la­tion. The seals could al­so be read, in the context of the AIDS cri­sis, as a por­trait of the three men adrift on an ice bank which will speed them to their death in a cli­mate of cold in­dif­fe­rence. In­deed Saia- Le­vy de­cla­red that “It’s ea­sier to sell ‘ Save the seals’ or ‘ Save chil­dren with AIDS,’ be­cause they’re cu­ter than three middle- aged ho­mo­sexuals.”

In 2003, Pierre Huy­ghe sho­wed

L’Ex­pé­di­tion scin­tillante, acte II,

a fair­ly li­te­ral in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Ge­ne­ral Idea’s piece, which filled the huge space of one floor of Lyon’s contem­po­ra­ry-art mu­seum with po­ly­sty­rene sheets chao­ti­cal­ly pi­led up to look like an ice bank. And last year it was Li­li Rey­naud- De­war who sho­wed, as part of her me­mo­rable ex­hi­bi­tion La­dy to Fox at Ga­le­rie Clea­ring in Brus­sels, ano­ther in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the piece, which was al­so made up of po­ly­sty­rene sheets pi­led up to form an ice bank. In both cases the toy seals had di­sap­pea­red, but the “co­ve­ring” of Ge­ne­ral Idea’s “hit” was the same. Clear­ly there’s so­me­thing of the uni­ver­sal and ti­me­less about Fin de siècle, which wins over vie­wers wi­thout being a slave to its epoch. These are cha­rac­te­ris­tics which, when you think about it, are usual­ly at­tri­bu­ted to mas­ter­pieces.

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