Thoughts On: Gallery Weekend Berlin 2018 (Part Three: AA Bronson + General Idea)

AA Bronson + General Idea, 1968 - 2018

Catch Me If You Can! at Esther Schipper, Potsdamer Straße 81E, Berlin

Hotel Photos 1995-2000, AA Bronson, (1995-2000)
If I was to choose an overall visual thematic from Gallery Weekend Berlin 2018, the penis would likely win. From the ball of penises I mentioned in my article on NGORONGORO II to this retrospective Catch Me If You Can! the penis seemed to truly be the object du jour. Perhaps that this particular show featured so many iterations of the phallus, and so much gay imagery, is a little less surprising when you already know something about the Canadian artist AA Bronson and his history.

50 years ago Bronson and two fellow artists: Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal founded a group (active 1967 - 1994) that they called General Idea after a gallery mistook the title of the exhibition they wanted to mount for the name of the group. All gay men, their artistic practices (both together and as individuals) flourished in Vancouver and later New York. Their approach was freely interdisciplinary, and Bronson would later become a small-publishing champion, establishing the NY Art Book Fair and the LA Art Book Fair
Self-Portrait with Books,
AA Bronson, 2007

In other write-ups of this exhibition, much has been made of the decision to mount the work as a timeline. Walking around the space anti-clockwise, you begin with the group-work of General Idea (until the deaths of Partz and Zonatal in 1994 to AIDS) and continuing up until the most recent work produced for this show: Flasher. Despite his collaborators passing, Bronson has continued to work with other queer artists, for example in the video-performance work: Nayland and AA, June 20, 2001 (Coat). 

On the whole the joy in which the men were exploring and presenting their own bodies felt liberating, so used am I to seeing the naked female form. This was an exhibition filled with open and factual representations of many different men's naked forms: old and young - appearing and disappearing "at odds" with one another (as is the theme the curator opted for). But there is a strong relational aspect that I found missing: I really felt like an outsider looking in. Perhaps this was intentional, especially at the beginning of their careers - it was the early works I felt most distant from. There needed to be that artistic exploration for them due to the oppression and non-acceptance of queer people: of their bodies and sexuality. As the world changed, so has Bronson's work. Naturally as you stroll around the show, there begins to be less disappearance evident, and more appearance.

There is not necessarily a core-truth to be discovered in the work presented in Catch me if you can!. Early on in their career the members of General Idea absorbed the critical writing theory book Seven Types of Ambiguity by William Empson (1930) as one of their principle sources of inspiration. They set about to to put as many kinds of interpretations into each of the works as they could, with an aim to spark questions within people, and provoke thought. This intentional ambiguity seems dated to me now, I find that I am already questioning so much within the world that I have begun to look at Art as a source of answers, solutions, information on how and who other people are. The time of simply 'asking' is over, Art is a tool that can be incredibly powerful: and Artists must try to help answer something that is lacking and needed within society in the 21st Century.

Of course some ideas and themes presented in this show seemed old-fashioned, it is a retrospective after all. And given the proclivity of the penis that I was experiencing around Gallery Weekend, I couldn't help but start to wonder if the market is beginning to seek works which may appeal to a homosexual audience. I asked myself if there is a maturing of collectors' sensibilities, around the art market and queer scene, coupled with a wider societal acceptance of queer viewpoints. Seeing so many well-heeled homosexual couples visiting shows, perhaps there is a sea-change in the demographics of collectors. Either way, basing my opinion on how many penis' and works centred around the homosexual experience I saw: it seemed to me that this year the shows during Gallery Weekend Berlin were openly embracing the artistic and aesthetic communities proclivity to be queer and out. 

The scale of General Idea's work, their performance and innovation can only be hinted at in Catch me if you can! - it is not a large space. Even with the addition of a pop-up shop where published works could be purchased I struggled to understand the extent of the impact that Bronson has had, and still has, within the Contemporary Art world. Reading into the history of General Idea, it is clear that the political and societal climate during their formation and existence places the work very definitely as a response to that moment in time. If I struggled to relate with some of the works, it is due to this fact and not the quality, passion or expression inherent in the pieces themselves.

Installation View of AA Bronson + General Idea
( L-R) Flasher (2018), Plaid #10 (2015), unknown, White (2012/3),
Esther Schipper, Berlin Gallery Weekend 2018. Photo: Andrea Rossetti

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