Until two of them passed away of complications from AIDS in 1994, the art collective known as General Idea produced an enormous body of intellectually engaging, provocative, and savagely witty work, much of which explored notions of identity and social control. On July 30, the trio will get its first comprehensive retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario when “Haute Culture: General Idea” opens for a five-month run.
Though none of the work on display carries Jewish themes, much of General Ideas oeuvre confronts fascism and manipulation in multiple forms — familial, sexual, political and media-spawned. As surviving member AA Bronson told The Arty Semite at a press preview this week, his late collaborator Jorge Zontal was born Slobodan Saia-Levy in an Italian concentration camp in 1944.
Zontal, who formed General Idea with Bronson and the late Felix Partz, was “a Sephardic Jew whose family originated in Spain,” Bronson said. “But Jorge was never circumcised. The family wanted to pass as Roman Catholic.”
After Italy’s capitulation, Zontal’s parents were sent to the camp where he was born. While his mother escaped with Zontal to Switzerland, his father was caught and sent to Auschwitz. Miraculously, the family survived and reunited, taking refuge in Venezuela. Zontal migrated to Canada to escape what Bronson called a “very conservative” climate; after studying architecture, filmmaking and acting at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Zontal moved to Toronto, where he met Bronson and Partz (born Ronald Gabe). Like much of General Idea’s work, the Jorge Zontal moniker was a sly joke — inspired, Bronson said, by the fact that “we couldn’t get him out of bed.”
A major part of General Idea’s oeuvre limns the furious devastation of AIDS; an iconic work repurposes Robert Indiana’s “Love” sculpture as an AIDS monument, and Bronson’s 1994 photographic portrait of an emaciated, AIDS-ravaged Zontal now resides in the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum in New York. Bronson told Canadian art magazine BlackFlash at the time that “a week before Jorge died, he asked me to take these photographs. Jorge’s father had been a survivor of Auschwitz, and he had the idea that he looked exactly as his father had on the day of his release. He wanted to document that similarity, that family similarity of genetics and of disaster.”
“It has occurred to me since that the moments in history are rare when entire communities are erased, leaving surrounding communities intact,” Bronson continued. “The gay community suffered ongoing losses through the late ‘80s and most of the ‘90s; the Jewish community suffered similarly during the Holocaust.”
At the AGO preview, Bronson also revealed to the Forward that General Idea created a series of work in the 1970s based on Kabbalah, though none of those pieces appear in the AGO show. The series, “Borderline Cases,” presented 10 images and accompanying texts “related to Kabbalah,” whose content Bronson said he couldn’t recall. “We sent the show to Amsterdam, and the museum there lost some of it,” he said.
Now 65 and living in New York, Bronson — born Michael Tims in Vancouver, the descendant of Anglican missionaries who preached to Blackfoot Indians in Alberta — heads the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where he is trying to “create conversations between religions.” The Institute, says its web site, “is intentionally not faith-specific, and focused on contemporary art practice as a means of addressing issues of social justice today” — much as Bronson’s work has done for decades.