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.
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.”
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.