From 22nd September 2023, the Gropius Bau presents the most comprehensive retrospective to date of General Idea, the Toronto-based artist group that blurred the boundaries between art, media and creative activism.
Fig. above: General Idea, P is for Poodle, 1983/89, © Royal Bank of Canada Art Collection
The exhibition was developed in close collaboration with founding member AA Bronson, who lives in Berlin, and traces the unique artistic legacy of General Idea: From its founding in Toronto in 1969 to the group’s dissolution in 1994, when two members, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, died as a result of AIDS-related illnesses. With almost 200 works – including their subversive and ironic sculptures, installations, paintings, videos, publications and archival material, as well as their signature wallpapers and iconic logos – the exhibition is the most comprehensive retrospective of the artist trio to date. In a predominantly chronological structure and with General Idea’s trademark “serious humour”, the exhibition presents collaborative and cross-genre explorations of the interrelationships of gender, sexuality, media, protest, commerce, the economies of the art world and the public sphere.
In addition, the Gropius Bau presents a programme of events and discourse that follows the motif of infiltration in order to illuminate the themes of the exhibition from different perspectives.
General Idea’s international exhibition history began in 1973 at the DAAD Gallery in Berlin. In 1983, a performance at the Akademie der Künste followed, and in 1988-1989 the group was part of Frank Wagner’s important nGbK exhibition VOLLBILD AIDS, Europe’s first institutional exhibition on the AIDS crisis. In 1989, General Idea adapted the colours of the German flag for the design of the first logo of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Deutsche AIDS-Stiftungen. The newly produced public sculpture AIDS (1989/2023) was installed in front of the Gropius Bau. Conceived as a participatory work, visitors are encouraged to help shape the sculpture and leave notes, drawings or comments.
“In my youthful imagination, Berlin was the legendary city of artistic freedom, the Threepenny Opera and Bohemia. General Idea’s first international exhibition took place in 1973 at the DAAD Galerie, curated by Robert Filliou. But we only discovered the true magic of Berlin, this walled city of outcasts and uranists, in 1983, when three of us drove through the GDR strictly controlled by armed border police for our poodle performance at the Akademie der Künste.”
AA Bronson, artist and founding member of General Idea
General Idea’s exhibition history began more than 50 years ago: They were first invited to a festival in Toronto in the late 1960s in the context of the experimental art and theatre scene. Among their first works was Miss General Idea Pageant (1970), a work that adopted the format of beauty pageants to satirically engage with the structures of the art world and the idea of competition.
The exhibition begins with the earliest projects, which trace the group’s experiments with conceptual art, performances and mail art. Often with General Idea’s characteristic humour and irony, they take the form of pamphlets, instruction manuals and photographs. Their FILE Megazine (1972-1989), a playful appropriation of Life magazine, featured interviews with celebrities and artists such as Andy Warhol and published projects, manifestos and letters from artists.
Originally a collective of around 25 people, General Idea later consisted of members AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal. While their experimental publications increasingly engaged with the emerging celebrity culture, their beauty pageants, which were live TV shows with audience and rehearsals, anticipated today’s social media and pop culture formats such as reality TV.
In the 1980s, General Idea used the visual language of brands and corporate identity to humorously explore the connections between art, media and commerce. The trio of artists worked with copyright symbols, created advertising parodies and set up boutiques, commenting on the commercialism and consumerism of the 1980s era. In 1986, the trio moved from Toronto to New York when the queer community there was in crisis. Between 1987 and 1994, General Idea turned to socio-political activism to create visibility for the AIDS emergency. For IMAGEVIRUS, one of their most famous projects, they appropriated Robert Indiana’s iconic pop art work LOVE by replacing the word “LOVE” with “AIDS”. General Idea thus confronted the climate of silence and repression that surrounded the tragic deaths and public apathy surrounding the AIDS crisis in the US and elsewhere. Their idea was to spread the logo further, creating posters and circulating them on mass transit, t-shirts, silkscreens and public spaces in cities from San Francisco to Berlin, raising awareness of the crisis. This happened even before Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal learned of their own HIV-positive status in 1990. The exhibition highlights the generative quality of General Idea’s protest imagery.
The installation Fin de siècle (1990) takes up the entire atrium of the Gropius Bau and shows baby seals made of artificial fur resting on a stage-like block of ice made of Styrofoam. First created during Partz’ and Zontal’s HIV diagnoses, it is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Eismeer (The Failed Hope, 1823-24). The work is intended as an ironic self-portrait of three artists adrift in critical circumstances. It astutely illuminates the widespread public attention given to the allegedly endangered harp seal babies at the time. Their hunting was protested by Brigitte Bardot, among others, in her political campaign to save seals, while people dying of AIDS in the 1980s did not receive comparable visibility and attention. “‘Save the seals’ is an easier sell… because they are cuter than three middle-aged homosexuals,” Zontal wrote about the work.
The exhibition pays special attention to General Idea’s provocative and often tongue-in-cheek interventions in the mass media. The Infe©ted Mondrian series (1994) consists of reproductions of Piet Mondrian’s catalogue illustrations: painted on foam boards, yellow has been replaced by green – a colour Mondrian detested. Like many of General Idea’s appropriations, the works in the Infe©ted series are both an homage to and a reversal of canonical images, alongside those by Mondrian, including architect and furniture designer Gerrit Rietveld. The exhibition provides a comprehensive insight into one of the most visionary artistic interventions of the 20th century.
The Gropius Bau has conceived an extensive programme of events and discourses to accompany the exhibition. It combines historical with current discourses and delves deeper into the issues raised by General Idea. The specific focus is on an intersectional approach to the German and European context. In addition to guided tours by the curators and AA Bronson, the programme will explore the thematic complex of ‘infiltration’ in the form of sound performances, artist lectures, interactive events and archive workshops for the public throughout the exhibition.
Curated by Adam Welch, National Gallery of Canada and Beatrix Ruf, in collaboration with Zippora Elders, for Gropius Bau.
The programme of events and discourse is curated by Zippora Elders, Head of Curatorial Department and Outreach.
Organised by the National Gallery of Canada in collaboration with Gropius Bau.
Friday, 22.09.2023 – Sunday, 14.01.2024
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 11:00-19:00
Saturday, Sunday 10:00-19:00
The entrance fee is 6/9€.