The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion
15 September–6 December, 2009 Art Gallery of York University, Toronto
The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion was never destined to remain fixed in any given space or time. The moveable ‘Hoarding’ that blockaded Toronto’s Carmen Lamanna Gallery in 1975—the same wall that now confronts visitors upon entry to the Art Gallery of York University—is a jigsaw declaration of the Pavillion’s refusal of boundaries. Any reconstruction of the idea is not so much a decentralised alternative as it is a part of the same ever-expanding centre, a world without end.
Even after the premature deaths of two of its members, the legacy of the Canadian collective General Idea (AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal) perseveres in the AGYU’s uncanny recreation of two of their critical exhibitions: 1975’s Going Thru the Notions and Reconstructing Futures from 1977. Both are proposals in photography, writing and architectural plans striving towards the ultimate confluence of art and life embodied by 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion: the artist as pure being, a performative personality elevated beyond content and alarmingly prescient of the 21st century celebutante.
Mounted with impenetrable irony, the paired exhibitions are rehearsals and artifacts for the Pavillion that never arrived, destroyed by the fictional fire of 1977 that never burned. The sensational sincerity at work in Miss General Idea’s self-assured universe, combined with the passage of time, adds a veneer of realism to the elaborate deception. By manipulating familiar market tropes with comedic disdain, General Idea helped found a tradition of Canadian conceptual art descended from Marshall McLuhan’s critique of mass media as a formative creator of society.
The reading of found imagery as syntax follows naturally from General Idea’s compelling written narrative on their serigraphed ‘Showcards’, generating a hybrid language rendered in collage like hieroglyphs. The depicted pageantry promises all the spectacle of reality television’s pervasive lack of realism and predicts competitive trends in today’s art world: the prizes for the perfect image, the valorisation of the gallery as stage, the beauty queen who barters subjectivity the better to become the ideal object. Yet for all its contemporary currency, the media-driven culture anticipated by Going Thru the Notions and Reconstructing Futures once looked forward to that impending Orwellian moment of 1984, and must also be assessed as an archaeology of its own time.
Much of General Idea’s imagery, culled from Fortune and Life magazines among other sources, was already outdated as the daydreams of the artists’ post-war childhoods. Their vision of the future is indebted to a nostalgia already deteriorating by the 1970s; bright-eyed with optimism but driven by greed, these fantasies are as light and innocent as whipped cream—in short, not always as innocent as they appear. From the piercing potential of her fetish stiletto heels to the clawed glove as ‘a radical tool to slice through the thin skin of cocktail chatter’, there is a combative edge to Miss General Idea’s Busby Berkeley-influenced couture. This dance between dualities reinforces every camp gesture as a veiled declaration of serious moral intent.
If this is war, General Idea expands the metaphor to claim all the world as both stage and battleground. The ziggurat-like costumes that serve as 1984 Miss General Idea’s ‘urban armour’ and function as sculptural objects in Going Thru the Notions are made from Venetian window-blinds, a domestic fixture designed for both concealment and voyeurism. Where they recur in General Idea’s ‘Showcards’, the gaps between window-blind slats reveal a crucial slippage between public and private realms: an uncontested trench for seeing, free for the taking. Just as the ‘Hoarding’ claims both its sides as a construction site in-progress, the Pavillion is a manifesto that sets its sights on the total transformation of art and life as a perfect depiction of hollow glamour.
Because General Idea never set a finite limit on its component parts, the Pavillion remains an unfinished project with the potential for infinite continuation. If ancient mythologies thrive on their own retellings, The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion endures as the offspring of a three-headed collaborative monster, a Cerberus from a tumultuous time that looked forward and backward at the same time to decipher the presentday, a postmodern myth that flourishes with the force of countless repetitions.
Stephanie Vegh is an artist and writer based in Ontario