“We never felt we had to create great art to be great artists,” the collective General Idea once said. For Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, who came together in Toronto in 1969 and were active until 1993, the performance of being artists was the work itself. Their motto “Form follows Fiction” is a simple post-modern rebuttal of Modernism’s “Form follows Function”.
The task of Frederick Bonnet, curator of Haute Culture: General Idea at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the group’s first comprehensive retrospective, is to link the triad’s one-time happensings (such as the tongue-in-cheek Miss General Idea beauty pageant) with their short films, TV special, mail art, architectural plans and traditional art objects.
Their Mondo Cane Sutra series shows three abstract, candy-coloured poodles rescued from resembling a corporate logo only by their pornographic positions. The poodle would become one of General Idea’s main symbols, a subversive twist on the neutered feminine frivolity of campy gay men.
By the mid-1980’s, General Idea’s work centered increasingly on the AIDS epidemic, morphing Robert Indianna’s LOVE poster into the word AIDS. They constructed gigantic pills out of vinyl to show the medicalized nature of suffers’ lives. Most poignantly, a painting of three precocious baby seals, standing in for the three artists, questions which kind of victims we feel more sorry for.
The artists themselves never focused on their own sexualities. Zontal claimed that the only thing worse than being dismissed as gay artists was being called Canadian.
The gallery might have done a better job explaining the more opaque works, but in displaying such a diversity of multi-media, the AGO has done a valuable service in reasserting General Idea’s important place in the development of conceptual art.
Every year the September issue of American Vogue lands with a thud both metaphoric and literal. Heralding the end of summer and the arrival of the oh-so-important fall season, the thick tome is the size of a bible. At the convenience store where I bought mine, it was the only copy on the shelf, presumably because one copy took up so much room. If the cover of Halle Berry with a tired 1920’s bob (like she’s Velma Kelly or something) doesn’t inspire you to shell out the six dollars, I will summarize the issue’s photo shoots for you: urban plaids, incongruous pairings (Evening gowns and sweaters! Leather and lace!) and 1950’s sweethearts (yawn!).
I’m often least interested in the accessories shoots, as I’m not as into shoes as everyone else seems to be, but this time the accessories spread saved the issue. Flipping through the pages, I halted when I saw pictures of figures in brightly-coloured furry costumes, dancing around with purses and heels, their hair flying wildly in the wind. They were the most intriguing pictures I had seen in Vogue in ages, though, they may break the cardinal rule of fashion photography: you have to force your eyes away from the costumes to notice the accessories!
The photos, shot by Raymond Meier, are of performance artist Nick Cave wearing his own creations. Cave’s full-body costumes have been exhibited at galleries in New York and San Francisco, but are best viewed when worn by dancers in rhythmic performances (hence their name ‘Soundsuits’). Performance art generally makes me uncomfortable; bizarre behaviour with the purpose of making people uncomfortable seems to me like the lowest form of theatrics. But Cave, who studied dance, visual art and fashion, has combined all three into a wholly original and beautiful art form.
His first Soundsuit was constructed with twigs, and since then he has used beads, sequins, feathers and, most dramatically, long strands of fluorescent hair, both real and fake. He has claimed that part of the inspiration came from the Rodney King beatings and the ensuing racial violence. When someone is completely enclosed in pink fuzzy fur, they have no race, age or gender. (It was only on close inspection of the Vogue photographs, when I discovered a glimpse of Cave’s hand, that I realized he was black.) He has described Soundsuits as being like “a suit of armor, protecting your identity making yourself hidden from your exterior,” but adds, “You have to settle with yourself before you can bring this association and other identity before you can let it completely take you over.”
He draws a lot of inspiration from traditional tribal African and Haitian costumes, but watching his dancers perform and hearing of the works’ transformative effects, I was reminded of the Wild Man legends of ancient Europe. My favourite pseudo-academic book, Santa Claus and the Last of the Wild Men by Phyllis Siefker, explains that practically every culture featured some sort of carnivalesque Wild Man tradition, in which a subversive bacchanal orgy would be topped off by the arrival of a bearded animalistic man costumed all in leaves, fur or sticks.
While our most recognizable modern remnants are Mardi Gras, Halloween, Newfoundland Mummers, and, the book argues, Santa Claus, in ancient times the putting on of a ceremonial and heavily-symbolic costume could almost transform the wearer into a mythic being. Be they ‘wodewose’ or Green men, these were powerful pagan deities, evoked to ward off bad spirits and perhaps to acknowledge and mentally tame the chaotic ‘wildness’ that lay directly outside the village. When Cave warns that his performers must have self-knowledge before donning the Soundsuits, he recognizes that you must know yourself before trying to transcending it.