The installation Fin de siècle by General Idea (active 1969–1994) is an example of the group’s poignant commentary on those struck by the AIDS pandemic. This deeply charged work is also one of the last self-portraits the trio created in their twenty-five-year collaboration.
The large-scale piece comprises a minimum of three hundred 120- by 240-centimetre sheets of Styrofoam that fill a room, creating the impression of a large field of breaking ice. Located within the landscape are three charming, artificial harp seal pups, whose insertion into the scene recalls a diorama from a natural history museum. Viewers are meant to question the placement of the seal pups—are they playful and cute, or are they a prelude to disaster?
Fin de siècle can be read as being about the AIDS pandemic, and it is intended as a self-portrait of General Idea, with the seal pups representing group members Felix Partz (1945–94), Jorge Zontal (1944–94), and AA Bronson (b.1946). Zontal characterized the installation as a representation of the artists “adrift in uncontrollable circumstances,” alluding to the impact of the AIDS crisis, which had a direct bearing on the artists’ friends and community. Here the innocent nature of the seals emphasizes that some lives are more valuable than others. “It’s easier to sell ‘save the seals,’ or ‘save the children with AIDS,’” Zontal maintained, “because they’re cuter, rather than three middle-aged homosexuals.”
Partz and Zontal passed away in 1994 due to AIDS-related complications.
This Spotlight is excerpted from General Idea: Life & Work by Sarah E. K. Smith.