- Mary Annunziata
- Q Chen
- Lawrence Chow
- Elena Corrado
- Elizabeth Daicos
- Vanessa Dumais
- Rachel Fender
- Cressida Frey
- Shannon Garden-Smith & Polina Teif
- Maha Haider
- Nahin Islam
- Angela Jargstorf
- Christina Kim
- Jenny Kim
- Michelle Lun & Farhad Manouchehri
- Alexandra McCarthy
- Anna Pearl
- Konstantinos Polyzois
- Andrew Rutherdale
- Eva Sampson
- Elias Saoud
- Katherine Tucker
- Ellyn Walker & Corrie Jackson
A General Idea of General Idea’s First Retrospective Show
Haute Culture: General Idea, A Retrospective 1969–1994 (at the Art Gallery of Ontario)
Haute couture, French for "high sewing" or "high dressmaking", refers to the creation of exclusive high-fashion custom-fitted clothing, by the most respected seamstresses. The term also refers to the fashion designers that create exclusive trend-setting fashions and in modern France, haute couture is a "protected name" that can be used only by firms that meet certain well-defined standards. It goes without saying then, that Haute Culture: General Idea, A Retrospective 1969 – 1994, the title of General Idea’s first ever retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is quite ironic. The reason being of course, that the group did not have particularly high cultural standards for their art, which is articulated through one of their most famously audacious quotes, “We never felt we had to produce great art to be great artists.” Irony is present throughout the entire show because of the ideas that General Idea sought to communicate in their art about the gallery and the institution. As a group that challenged social power structures and traditional modes of artistic creation, placing their work in a gallery is bound to have an ironic and disjointed effect, but its thematic organization gave it structure and unity in the given context of a gallery space.
Haute Culture is the first widespread retrospective devoted to the twenty-five year-old artist collective. The last time General Idea had a major survey show in Toronto was 1985, at the AGO, and they still had almost a decade of art-making left as a group, until 1994 when Partz and Zontal both died of AIDS. This retrospective serves as General Idea’s true homecoming, although only one member, AA Bronson, has lived to witness it.
The show was conceived and curated by Paris-based independent curator and critic Frédéric Bonnet, with assistance from the AGO’s now-former Director of Modern and Contemporary Art, David Moos. The show was staged earlier this year at Paris's Museum of Modern Art (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris), from February 11 to May 29, 2011. It has been slightly expanded for its Toronto debut, and Bonnet has arranged the show thematically, rather than by timeline. “My main goal was to give a real survey of General Idea, the most complete view and understanding of them as possible,” says Bonnet. “That means showing all the aspects of their work, and that’s why I absolutely never considered doing a chronological show.” The five themes which the exhibition is organized around, are as follows: “the artist, glamour and the creative process”; “media, consumption, and mass culture”; “architects/archaeologists”; “sex and reality”; and “AIDS.” This thematic organization was an effective way to display their work since it is so heavily based on a diverse range of themes, which playfully critique traditional conceptions of the media, the self, and the public.
Although the AGO needs no introduction, here is a brief description of the institution, and it’s significance in relation to General Idea. The Art Gallery of Ontario is among the most distinguished art institutions in North America, with a highly reputable permanent collection of more than eighty thousand works of art. In 2008, it opened its doors (after a four-year “transformation” period), with a spectacular new design by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry. The expansive gallery currently displays an extensive Group of Seven collection, African art, a substantial collection of Henry Moore sculptures, and the treasured Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece, The Massacre of The Innocents. Not to mention, an ever-changing collection of cutting-edge works in the contemporary tower, which is currently exhibiting over three hundred works by General Idea for their current retrospective.
The show features 333 works by the groundbreaking multidisciplinary group, including 107 works from the AGO collection. Occupying more than twenty thousand square feet of space on the fourth and fifth floors (about twenty-three rooms) of the AGO’s Vivian & David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art, this is the largest show which has ever been held in the gallery's shiny Frank Gehry-made tower, not only in size, but stature. The massive retrospective show will hold a six-month span at the AGO (from July 30th, 2011, to January 1st, 2012), significantly longer than the four-month period which shows have typically inhabited in the AGO’s Vivian & David Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art since it’s opening in 2008 which says more than enough about the long anticipated retrospective’s importance to this Toronto gallery. “We are so pleased to mount an exhibition of their work on this large a scale, as I know that our visitors will find their exuberant and exacting vision to be intensely rewarding.” says Matthew Teitelbaum, the AGO’s Michael and Sonja Koerner Director, and CEO. Although it is arguable that General Idea’s oeuvre cannot be rightfully displayed in a smaller space than the AGO has allotted, at times I found that the exhibition was physically too large, and quite difficult to fully absorb from a single trip to the museum. Its epically large scale also permitted me from fully appreciating all of the works, since I could not spend too much time looking at one piece. Since the show does inhabit two floors, it is important for the gallery to inform guests that it does begin on the fifth floor rather than the fourth. I was not informed of this, even when I asked Ticket Sales where the exhibit was located. This is especially important for this show because the wall text at the beginning of the exhibit introduces the viewer to not only the context of the entire show, but also explains how it has been arranged (thematically) by the curator. These are essential items of information which I would have found useful to have when I was wandering through the fourth floor. It is arguable that since the show is organized thematically rather than chronologically, this is not an issue, but it ultimately depends upon each individual’s preference when viewing a show.
General Idea’s work takes multimedia to the extreme, using almost every medium possible: video, photography, magazines, posters, performance art, costume, architecture, sculpture, plaster, acrylic paint, drawing, pasta, vegetables, underwear, taxidermy, gold leaf, fluorescent tube, poodles, all in order to create dizzying alternate universes. There is even straw on the floor of the surreal installation, P is for Poodle (The Milky Way from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion),making the gallery smell like a barn, and consequently transforming the gallery space into another world with one simple material. As the group state themselves, “the current reality wasn’t really sufficient for us, or we didn’t feel we belonged, so we had to create our own world, which was a kind of parody, an imperfect simulacrum of a perfect world”
Since the AGO is the hometown institution for General Idea, it was an obvious decision to host their first ever retrospective there. General Idea has staged four performances in AGO’s Walker Court, and the AGO has organized several exhibitions in their name. During the nineties the AGO acquired four hundred and twenty-one works by General Idea. The retrospective brings dozens of rarely exhibited works which have not been seen in more than twenty-five years, if ever. The General Idea retrospective sparked yet another first for the AGO, by proving to be an opportunity for the public to find out more about the exhibition from artist AA Bronson. The gallery accepted question submissions via Twitter for an interview which took place on July 26th, 2011. This is the first time the AGO has used social media in this way. By using Twitter as a direct link between artists and visitors the Gallery is exploring new ways for the public to engage with the exhibitions. This interview is the first of a new series that gives visitors the opportunity to connect with artists, curators and other experts to find out more about the AGO. Some works on display include Nazi Milk (1979 -1990), Baby Makes 3 (1984 – 1989), Playing Doctor (1992), and P is for Poodle (1983-1989), just to name a few of the blockbuster pieces included in the massive show. The retrospective show also includes documentation of The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant, a performance which was originally staged in the AGO’s Walker Court, including a recently rediscovered twelve-minute video clip from the performance. Haute Culture is ultimately a testimony to AGO’s commitment to continue its role as host to General Idea’s art.
From the beginning of the show, the AIDS logo is very present. When considering all of the possible entrances to the exhibition on both floors, each one offers the viewer an immediate exposure to the instantly recognizable logo. Bonnet definitely put special consideration into this visual element of the show, and by strategically placing the logos in these particular locations, the viewer constantly feels as though it is following them around the gallery. Like the AIDS project, which circulated worldwide, the works from this period are embedded throughout both floors of exhibitions (Imagevirus series, Pla©ebo capsules, and “infected” Mondrian paintings). General Idea was known for simultaneously paralleling and antagonizing advertising strategies, and this is reflected through the omnipresent AIDS logo, which almost seems to surpass time and space as it replicates and infects the show itself, much like a virus. The curatorial decision of dispersing the logo throughout the space helped to create a fluidity and unity throughout the show, not only thematically, but also aesthetically. Although I was somewhat disappointed to see that Bonnet chose not to replicate the 1994 Infections installation, the (approximately) 50’ x 30’ wall which is covered by the AIDS wall paper, and displays the Infe©ted Mondrians behind the Infected Rietveld, was very monstrous. It was almost as effective as displaying all of these works in a room, because the wall seems to envelop the viewer when one stands directly in front of it. In addition to the works on view inside the exhibition, the AGO also installed the artists’ two-metre-tall AIDS sculpture at the corner of Dundas West and Beverley streets. The lacquered metal sculpture appears beyond the boundaries of the gallery’s walls, thus symbolizing the inescapability of not only the disease which they sought to create awareness for over twenty years ago, but also the permanence of it. As the introductory wall text states at the beginning of the exhibition, “The AIDS project (within the exhibition) has no space of its own.”
The only moments when I was reminded of the curator’s involvement throughout the show was when I noticed shortcomings in the curatorial layout. Some elements of the show which particularly stood out in this sense, were the spatial relationships of some of the wall pieces, the wall texts, and the arrangement of floor pieces in a few of the rooms. The two most problematic rooms in the exhibition were galleries 502 and 505. There is no doubt that the works are hung professionally, but the inconsistent formal choices in the display of wall pieces in gallery 502 were very distracting. By hanging such large wall pieces next to much smaller ones (ex: The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant Documentation and The 1984 spirit of Miss General Idea Vehicle) it struck a visual imbalance. Many pictures that were grouped together were framed differently (colours, thickness, material), and multimedia works were placed next to each other, which can be done successfully and dynamically, but here it looked disorganized and even somewhat chaotic.
Wall texts carry a large importance in contemporary shows, and the curator has a difficult responsibility of displaying them effectively, and accordingly. There are a few issues I had with the wall labels in this exhibit, which I will now explain. First of all, most of the wall texts in this show were generally placed too far away from the works they were meant to accompany, which made it somewhat tedious to view some works. I found the placement of wall texts in gallery 502 especially problematic. One would have to view all of the works on an entire wall without seeing the names of the pieces until they get to the wall label at the end of the wall which lists all of the wall pieces as well as a mapped out guide to the pieces on the wall. Since there were about ten or more pieces on each of these walls, the map did not help much, and it made the process of viewing works somewhat frustrating. There were also two display cases in gallery 502, and instead of placing labels in the cases, they placed them on the wall closest to the cases, which was a few feet away, without specifying whether the wall label was for the items in the display case, or the wall pieces which can easily confuse many viewers.
One of the most problematic displays in terms of accompanying text was the Colour Bar Lounge from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. The laminated text cards accompanying these photos was ineffective because although it is understood that they were meant to mimic recipe cards (because they contained drink recipes,) the type was too small, and many “elderly” visitors who were trying to read them, commented on how they were having difficulties reading the small print. They were also placed too far below eye level, which is unfortunate since they were highly amusing in content and arguably the most interesting texts in the entire show. Many wall labels were simply too didactic of the works’ meanings and the artists’ intentions. These over-explanatory labels not only “dumb-down” the viewer, but they also “dumb-down” the work, and even the show itself. By leaving barely any room for interpretation, they restrict the viewer rather than liberating them. Although the artworks definitely reflect what I read in the wall labels, I found them to be much too obvious, which cheapened the work for me because I no longer had to actively think in order to fully understand the art.
The main concern with the arrangement of floor installations, was that most of them were placed too close to the walls, in large gallery spaces, leaving huge voids in the center of the rooms, and not enough space to view wall works. The V.B. Gown in 502 was placed much too close to the wall, as well as a video piece which is usually attracts high traffic in any gallery since videos generally have set durations, and take time to fully view. A small wall piece, The 1984 spirit of Miss General Idea Vehicle was almost hidden by it as well. Canvas Weaving (A Project of Felix Partz), a rather large floor piece, was placed in a small room (509), and managed to cover at least two thirds of the floor space, which made it very crowded and awkward in the small room, which also contained a video work.
In gallery 505, the floor arrangement appeared sparse because there was a large empty floor space which looked like it should not have been there. The Boutique, a rather large dollar-shaped sales counter displaying various artist multiples, almost appeared as though it was neglectfully pushed into the corner. The FILE magazine display cases are also placed too close to the wall in this room to the point of making it uncomfortable for the viewer to view the wall pieces behind them.
However I do not want to give the wrong general idea, that the General Idea show was a curatorial failure, because its strengths definitely outweighed its faults. There were many beautifully orchestrated rooms, one of them being room 405 which displayed the highly sexualized Jorge Zontal drawings in three long rectangular glass tables, in a triangular formation, which mirrored the paintings which were also on display in the room. These paintings were the Mondo Cane Kama Sutra series, which is a collection of ten 2.5 x 3 metre paintings depicting three neon-coloured poodles engaged in a variety of sexual positions. This series also focuses on triangular relationships, both social and sexual. This arrangement was not only visually effective, but it was also subtle, and one does not realize the significance of the triangular composition until they are standing in the centre of the room, which created an interesting dynamic between the viewer and the space.
Another example of a stunning exhibition display, was the installation piece, P is for Poodle (The Milky Way from the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion), which occupied an entire darkened room (408). Although people could walk into the room and experience the piece to it’s fullest extent, many people seemed hesitant to do so, which was unfortunate.
I found that the fourth floor generally flowed much better than the fifth floor, and I did not have any major issues with any of the curatorial choices.
Most of the guests appeared to be seniors, who I can only assume witnessed the AIDS Crisis firsthand during the early seventies to late nineties. Having seen and lived through the AIDS crisis, these people were most likely General Idea’s (or at least Bonnet’s) intended audience. They were probably exposed to General Idea’s work when all three of the artists were still living, and endured many similar struggles as the artists at that time. All of the wall labels were displayed in English and French throughout the gallery which not only displays AGO’s significant role as a public institution in Canada, but also perhaps the type of international audience the gallery expects.
It seemed that people spent more time discussing the art rather than looking at it, which I think is a sign of a successfully curated show. This retrospective successfully illustrates the power of a group that constantly provoked the public to question the media, and themselves, in relation to something much larger. The integration and dispersion of the AIDS logo, like a virus, throughout the retrospective brings the entire show together, with all of it’s diverse and conflicting themes and creates one cohesive unit. “Through a prolific creation, General Idea’s body of work reveals a complex combination of reality and fiction, and of parody and rigorous cultural critique,” says Bonnet. “Treating the image as a virus that infiltrates every aspect of the real world, the group set out to colonize it, modify it and so present an alternate version of reality. Their visionary influence has only become more apparent with the passage of time.”