In our series entitled RÜCKBLICK (RETROSPECTIVE), a sequence of exhibitions from our archive, we have focussed on important projects from the long history of the Kunstverein in Hamburg. We use archival materials to give our exhibitions new contexts and present them for discussion. We are keen to throw light onto the present by reaching back more and more into the past as well. The project traces our treatment of history in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Kunstverein, and it accompanies the digitalisation of the increasingly growing archive. We are continually working to publish our whole archive in its considerable extent on our website.
In 2020, we are starting out with a project that symbolises the period from the end of the 1980s to the beginning of the 1990s. The Canadian artist-collective, General Idea, was founded by the three artists, Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz und AA Bronson in 1969. They are considered pioneers of concept- and media-art and were active up to the mid 1990s. Their work comprised installations, performances, photographs, objects, videos and drawings, as well as magazines, postcards, posters, t-shirts and wallpaper. They referred satirically and with self-irony in their works to the mass media, advertising and pop culture. And General Idea rapidly gained international attention through their strong interest in the punk movement, the queer theory developing at the time, and in AIDS activism.
From 1987 on, the trio became more intensively engaged with the topic of AIDS. For example, they transformed the text-image LOVE by the pop art artist, Robert Indiana, into AIDS, which was then duplicated innumerable times on stickers, posters and wallpaper. The work illustrated the end of the era of free love, as occasioned by the increased incidence of HIV infections. General Idea broadcast the message into the world like a veritable virus: whether in New York, San Francisco or Berlin, the text was everywhere for people to read, and consequently it did reach a wide audience.
In the same year, the onetime President of America, Ronald Reagan, made his first pronouncement on the threat of AIDS. Previously, Reagan’s Communication’s Director, Pat Buchanan, had described AIDS as “nature’s revenge on gay men”. The homophobia dominant in wide areas of society and the false assumption that only homosexual men could infect themselves with the HIV virus meant that the fight against the disease in the 1980s was anything but adequate.
The title General Idea gave the exhibition in those days was Fin de Siècle. It was displayed by the Kunstverein in Hamburg as a guest-event in the small Deichtorhalle and referred to the exhibition’s central installation: three stuffed baby seals becoming lost in a gigantic sea of ice flows, which quoted the famous painting, Das Eismeer (The Sea of Ice,1823-1824) by Caspar David Friedrich. The work had been long known under the title, Die gescheiterte Hoffnung (The Wreck of Hope). The installation, Fin de Siècle, was using this latter title, itself describing a direction – also known as decadence – in the art of the waning 19th century, with the intention of pointing to the social collapse the trio of artists felt exposed to, like the three seals in the sea of ice. At that time, the Canadian government had promulgated rewards for killing seals, something numerous activists were opposing. Jorge Zontal linked this circumstance to the increasingly severe AIDS crisis and said, it would be easier to sell “Save the seals” as a call to action than “Save the three middle-aged homosexual men with AIDS”. Alongside the installation, the AIDS text was presented as wallpaper, as a brooch and as a bronze sculpture in an outside area. Oversized gaudy pills flew through the air in the form of balloons and were a visual equivalent of the daily, monthly and yearly ration of AZT. This medication, sold in Germany under the name, Retrovir, was then the only existing medication capable of prolonging life for HIV-positive people – at the same time, it was the most expensive prescription-only medication and had massive, partially debilitating side-effects. And still today, there are ca. 37.9 million people living with HIV. Not all by a long way have access to the vital medications and those affected still experience discrimination and stigmatisation.
1994 marked the end of the artist collective, as Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz developed AIDS and died. AA Bronson is still active today, both as an artist and politically.
Other exhibitions from the series “RÜCKBLICK“: