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Derek McCormack: Being Miss General Idea
At the AGO, a retrospective on art collective General Idea harkens back to the days of their wind-up beauty pageant.

I was Miss General Idea.

If this doesn’t surprise you, it should; my name doesn’t appear anywhere in Haute Culture, the General Idea retrospective that opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario last week.

I may not be in Haute Culture, but Miss General Idea sure is. She’s a character, a conceptual caprice. Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and A.A. Bronson – the three Toronto artists that comprised the General Idea collective – created her in the late 1960s, and she flits through the following fifteen years’ worth of their work.

General Idea were Warhol’s Canadian cousins, making art, magazines and installations that mocked and mimicked the machinery of stardom. Miss General Idea was the brightest star in their sky from the moment she was conceived until the mid-1980s. She was the beauty queen to end all beauty queens, a parody of Miss America and other pageant glamourpusses.

Miss General Idea was a figure as real as any beauty queen-that is, not real at all. Through her, the artists in General Idea were able to plunge themselves into an aspect of stardom that they loved and loathed: glamour. They designed dresses for her, and a boudoir. They drew up plans for a pavilion that would be built in her honour. They staged pageants in which men and women would win her title, at least for a time.

In 1971, General Idea created an “artist’s conception” of her: a silkscreen on rubber of a woman – at least I think it’s a woman – in a skirt, killer heels and what looks to be a black rubber bodysuit. The Haute Culture retrospective at the AGO includes many more of her looks. There’s the 1940s style dress that was worn by Miss General Idea Pageant participants in 1971. There’s the VB dress of 1975, which consists of three Robert Smithson-y pyramids – a hat, a blouse and a skirt – that are constructed from venetian blinds.

General Idea produced glamour in order to parody it; the artists inhabited the world of fashion in order to fuck with fashion. Of course, being fashionable complicated their critique of fashion: was the critique for real, or were they simply co-opting criticism for fashion, furthering fashion’s reach? Miss General Idea embodied this ambiguity; she made fashion seem as complex and intellectual as I always wanted it to be.

Which is why I stepped into her stilettos. In 1985, I proclaimed myself Miss General Idea. I had to: she wasn’t real, and I needed her to be.

In 1985, I went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see a survey show of General Idea’s work. I was sixteen. I had heard of the artists, but not of Miss General Idea.

I was smitten. She was a creature of glamour, and for me glamour was a synonym for fashion, and fashion was a synonym for gay. Her duties: perverting and playing with beauty, fame and sexuality.

These were duties that I knew I could discharge. She was the ambassadress of artificiality and abasement; I was a spotty teen who longed for glamour and wanted badly to be abased. She wasn’t real, nor was I.

I crowned myself. Then I bused back to my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario. I did my best to embody the title. I was faggy. I was condescending. With a friend, I published a zine, The Aquamarine Poodle. The title was inspired by a triad of poodles – one pink, one gold, one aquamarine – that appeared in a number of General Idea’s pieces. More often than not, the poodles were engaged in a mnage trois.

My friend and I sold our zine in the school cafeteria. It included my reviews of the recent prt-a-porter shows in Paris. I hadn’t been in Paris for the shows, but that didn’t stop me. I also penned an essay about Paris. I tried to simulate the style of General Idea’s writings, which parroted and parodied the academic-ese of Artforum and blended it with the bon mots of Diana Vreeland’s Vogue: “Have you ever been to Paris?” I wrote. “Paris is an object, a 20th century icon imbued with the trappings of glamour, its characteristics and gestures.” It goes on and on. I discuss image and violence and surveillance. I couldn’t dress up in Miss General Idea’s garments, so I tried a different kind of drag: words.

I lost myself in Miss General Idea. What I didn’t grasp was that she was already lost.

“Miss General Idea has fled.” So wrote General Idea in 1984. The artists said she had abandoned them; in truth, they had abandoned her. She had amused them, but she was no longer their muse. They had turned their attention to other matters. For a while, it was the media and TV; then it was AIDS. In 1994, both Partz and Zontal died of AIDS-related illnesses; General Idea was lost, too.

Haute Culture, the AGO’s current retrospective, has impressive pieces from what A.A. Bronson, the sole survivor of the group, calls “The AIDS Era.” There’s lots of General Idea’s great early work. There are architectural plans for the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. There are relics from the ruins of the pavilion, which burned down in 1977 (it didn’t really burn down, since it was never really built: the pavilion was a ruse, as were the relics). There are oodles of fucking poodles. It’s all fun, all fancifully perverse, though the later AIDS art casts a long shadow on it. The mirrored surface of Felix Part’s big Mylar handbag (1968) is reflected by the mirrored surfaces of the pill-shaped Mylar balloons of “Magi Bullet” (1992). From purse to prescription: General Idea reflected the fashion world, the art world, the gay world, and their mirrors mirrored me mirroring their mirrors.

Derek McCormack lives in Toronto. His most recent novel is The Show That Smells.

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