“Visitors are invited to take balloons that have floated to the ground.”
Now that’s a label you don’t typically see on the walls of a museum! Magi© Bullet (1992), by the Canadian artist’s group General Idea, is an installation of silver helium balloons that fills the ceiling of an exhibition space. Riffing on Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (1966), General Idea infiltrated this form, turning its inflatables into the shape of pills and branding them like pharmaceuticals with the group’s name and the work’s title. The balloons fill the large skylight space in the Print/Out exhibition (through May 14) and, as balloons do, gradually lose their helium and begin their slow descent to the ground. The life cycle of these objects is part of the work; as the balloons are displaced to the ground, visitors are encouraged to take one with them, participating in the dissemination of the work beyond the Museum’s walls.
Infiltration and dissemination were key artistic strategies for General Idea throughout its 25 years of activity. Founded in 1969 by AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal, the group began operating out of a storefront space in Toronto, initially setting up fake commercial displays in the windows with various items they had recycled and rehabilitated from the trash of neighboring businesses (from romance novels to mannequins). From there, General Idea began producing its own multiples, and in 1974 opened a shop called Art Metropole, which sold the group’s own inexpensive artists’ books, magazines, prints, and ephemera, as well as distributed similar works by other artists. Aiming to reach a broad public and create a platform for social issues, General Idea continually found new ways to inject countercultural content into existing popular culture forms.
Magi© Bullet takes a central position in Print/Out, representing both General Idea’s important and historic contribution to the field, and also exemplifying the ideas of reproducibility, distribution, and ephemerality that are so critical to the exhibition. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (1991), the billboard project that was examined in the first post of this series, draws a number of parallels with Magi© Bullet, not least in its dual presence in the galleries and outside the Museum. Both works also offer deeply thoughtful reflections on the AIDS epidemic, as experienced personally by the artists and as part of a larger cultural crisis. In the late 1980s, two of General Idea’s members, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, were diagnosed with the virus, and the group’s focus shifted to promoting awareness of the disease and the social controversies associated with it. General Idea’s major AIDS campaign, which appropriated Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE motif (developed in the mid-1960s), was realized by the group in the form of multiples, billboards, prints, stamps, and wallpaper. The group termed it an “image virus.” (You may have seen one such wallpaper installation in MoMA’s Contemporary Galleries a couple of years ago.)
As the one surviving member of the group AA Bronson has explained, “We were all surrounded by pills, and the pill became a kind of sculptural form that we turned into our art.” These “magic bullets,” whose name suggests a sort of cure-all, are, of course, as fallible as any pill. The installation over time offers a visualization of the work’s own ephemerality, as the balloons first begin to shrivel, then slowly free themselves from the cluster, and finally drift down into the galleries, dismantling the installation. Below are a few snapshots documenting these changes:
And yet, as they are scooped up by excited visitors and carried away to their new homes, they begin a new life. You just might see one marching by on the street…