New York

General Idea

Stux Gallery

Art about AIDS often focuses on the suffering of individuals caught within the health-care system, and between inadequate government programs, reiterating a by now well-known list of grievances: lack of research funds and of affordable treatment, and artificially elevated drug prices. Rather than thundering polemics or emotional manipulation, the Canadian.collaborative trio known as General Idea attempts an alternative strategy that leaves the door open to multiple interpretations. This deliberate ambiguity has caused some problems for the group. While many viewers praised their transformation of Robert Indiana’s Pop art L.O.V.E. paintings, 1962, to spell “AIDS,” for imbuing works from a more optimistic era with contemporary relevance, others expressed outrage at what they saw as a trivialization of the crisis’

General Idea’s more recent series of installations on drugs for the treatment of AIDS turns on the absurdly ineffective attempts of the medical establishment to grapple with HIV. The “PLA©EBO” series, 1991, roomfuls of oversized pill capsules in bright colors, addresses the issue of using human beings as lab animals for testing new drugs—a problematic, if necessary, stage in developing effective treatment. In One Year of AZT, 1992, hundreds of small capsules are arrayed on a wall, surrounding the complementary piece, One Day of AZT, 1992, in which five enormous, coffin-sized capsules occupy center stage. The whole graphically represents the typically required dosage of AZT: five pills per day or 1,825 per year.

The current installation—some 1,700 silver Mylar, capsule-shaped, helium-filled balloons covering the ceiling—refers directly to Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, 1966. The work’s title, MAGI©BULLET, 1992, is a medical term for drugs that go straight for their target in the body—something AZT and other drugs are not able to do with HIV. A portrait of the three artists in lab coats with stethoscopes, entitled Playing Doctor, 1992, hangs on a side wall, implying that all doctors can do in the face of an incomprehensible epidemic is play around until they get it right. On the floor lies MAGI© CARPET, 1992, a Dan Flavin–style row of fluorescent tubes resembling a bed, the typical site of the virus transmission.

The visual play on art-historical references in these installations seems to ignore their cultural and psychological baggage: wayward associations that can easily run amok and distract one from, or distort, a work’s intent. While turning Flavin’s vapid formalism into something with social relevance is somewhat of a coup, especially in light of his disco-style installation at the newly reopened Guggenheim, the reference to Warhol is more problematic. Warhol’s grounding in a subculture devoted to another (voluntary) kind of drug experimentation, with occasionally lethal results, is a disturbing subtext for a work dealing with drugs absolutely essential to survival. Moreover, the room’s luminous, ethereal quality is at odds with its sinister subject matter—unless the artists intended to evoke a heavenly realm with magic bullets to cure us, and magic carpets to whisk us away, as a contrast to what’s going on below in our own imperfect world.

General Idea’s work always leaves me on this kind of fence: I’m tempted to criticize yet hesitant to rain on their earnest parade, with them in spirit while confronting conceptual snags at every step. Maybe they want to perplex. Maybe, rather than telling us what to think, they want to leave each of us in an unsettled state that makes it impossible for us to easily resolve the issues they raise.

Lois Nesbitt