Mexico City

Minerva Cuevas

For her most recent exhibition in her hometown, “La venganza del elefante” (The Elephant’s Revenge), Minerva Cuevas took on the role of a nineteenth-century explorer; she sought out and presented objects and images, some from that period, that possess an aesthetic dictated by their political and social contents—history’s material production. Cuevas considers herself an activist, and her art deals with issues such as ecological disaster, unfair trade and globalization, and humankind’s desire to dominate nature. The body of work that she presented in Kurimanzutto’s warehouse space was diverse and included video and animation, projected stills, objects, and a sound installation.

Serie hidrocarburos (Hydrocarbon Series), 2007, which features a tabletop array of objects, newspaper clippings, and photographs, evolved out of a stay in southeastern Mexico. Moved by her interest in social ecology, she visited the oil wells and refineries of the region. A recent tragedy at an oil platform, in which twenty-one people died and petroleum spilled into the sea, made Cuevas’s work even more poignant. Combining photographs taken by workers on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico with newspaper cuttings, torn-out book pages, and everyday objects such as a mobile phone, a packet of string, and a piece of sidewalk, all covered with tar, she documents an urgent global issue. She also uses tar to create aesthetically striking sculptural forms by covering readymades such as a Mickey Mouse figurine and an old scuba-diving mask. Cuevas may be beautifying a dangerous substance, but the work’s polemical force is patent.

Cuevas conveys the need to confront these worldwide ecological and social disasters, for which no one wants to admit responsibility. In an interview she explains, “The formal result comes second to the idea or the content. To produce an aesthetic object is my own way of making politics, of getting through to people, of creating projects that sometimes become cultural experiments. These are aesthetic exercises where I become deeply involved.” Zoo, 2007, is a projection of five early-twentieth-century magic-lantern slides whose beauty painfully contrasts with the lost freedom of captive wild animals, among them an elephant with a proud European man, presumably his captor, standing next to him. The idea that man is the measure of all things has turned into human domination of nature. A 2007 work with the same title as the exhibition—a series of color slides of illustrations from a nineteenth-century book, digitalized and projected on a wall—tells the story of an African hunter and an elephant. The moral of the original story—what you do not want done to yourself do not do unto others—is simple, though its expression in this instance may be racist. Cuevas has rearranged the images in order to create a more complex reading of our relationship with nature, one which has been oversimplified and has become trendy owing to the treatment the media has given it.

Elephant’s Revenge is a conceptually challenging show that points out our materialistic idiosyncrasies. By ignoring the media, political propaganda, capitalism, and other such notions of progress, Cuevas silences the noise and addresses each one of us directly, appealing to our intelligence and to what also constitutes our humanness: our ability and desire for invention and change.

Jessica Berlanga Taylor