dezembro 3, 2018
Minerva Cuevas At Videobrasil, São Paulo by Clayton Press, Forbes
Minerva Cuevas At Videobrasil, São Paulo
Artigo de Clayton Press originalmente publicado na revista Forbes em 15 de novembro de 2018.
“Life is overvalued. Reflecting on this allows me to question the intrinsic moral values that are usually connected to environmentalist discourse and practice. And this statement also allows me to take the necessary distance to evaluate human civilization.”
Minerva Cuevas, 2013.
There is an uncanny coincidence that Jair Bolsonaro was elected the president of Brazil during the current run of Dissidência, “Dissent,” an exhibition of video works in São Paulo by Minerva Cuevas, a Mexican artist. Bolsonaro, nick-named the “Tropical Trump,” is a deeply polarizing president who will assume office in January 2019. He speaks rhapsodically about the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship and embraces the inflammatory rhetoric of the far right. He threatened to pull Brazil out of the 2015 Paris climate accord and to loosen regulations on the agricultural industry with the potential to make Brazil an environmental pariah. Since the inauguration of the Transamazon Highway in 1970 and the “Decade of Destruction”—the 1980s—deforestation has become really “big business” in Brazil, where large and medium‐sized ranches account for about 70% of clearing activity. With Bolsonaro, Brazil is facing an “Apocalypse Now” scenario, at a time when climate change and diminishing rainfall already pose a serious threat to the Amazon.
Since the 1980’s, the environmental movement in Brazil has aligned itself with other social movements. This is a particularly striking feature. The topics and themes of environmental protection are aligned and interwoven with those of social development: reducing poverty, inequality and injustice. Nonetheless, maintaining cohesion among labor unions, conservation groups, indigenous peoples, allied political parties, small farmers, and a number of other interests is likely to become increasingly difficult in the Bolsonaro era. Since 2014 public concern with environmental issues has been declining in Brazil. Worse yet, as recently reported in YaleEnvironment360, “Bolsonaro has frequently called for an end to all ‘activists’ and has vowed to expel international environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and WWF. He wants to alter Brazil’s anti-terrorism law to classify as terrorist organizations a variety of social movements, such as the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement, a leftist organization supporting land reforms.”
Minerva Cuevas’s work specifically addresses ecological and contemporary social issues that align well with Brazil’s “socio-environmental" movement. Although she may not specifically label herself as an activist artist, she does not disguise her orientation to ecology, democracy and social change. It might seem an art historical overreach to associate Cuevas’s thinking with that of Joseph Beuys. Yet, Beuys demonstrated how art might originate in personal experience, while addressing universal artistic, political, and/or social ideas (that is, topical issues of the day). His was a positive vision, positioning art in an optimistic role during times when hope for many was closing down. In some respects, Beuys also rediscovered—or at least, rearticulated—the criticality of the man–nature relationship. He developed the concept (or construct) of “social sculpture,” a term he created to embody his understanding of art's potential to transform society. Beuys' intention was that his work—art work—should stimulate audiences to action and to sculpt thought-forms, speech and other forms of creative activity.
Beuys was politically active as a forerunner and then cofounder and candidate of the Green Party in Germany. He also led a series of imaginative public political demonstrations for ecological causes, beginning with a successful effort to save a threatened forest tract in Düsseldorf in 1971. As art historian David Adams wrote, Beuys
. . . also undertook searching explorations of how artistic creation can directly convey the existential attitudes of a more profound understanding of natural ecological relationships, and how an expanded conception of art can tackle even the social, economic, and political reorganization of Western society. He saw this as necessary to replace the current ecology-destroying tendencies embodied in consumerism, patriarchy, statism, and capitalist growth.
Founded upon a holistic vision of society and nature, Beuys is still provoking us to transform our everyday actions, “joining,” as Fabio Maria Montagnino (Managing Director of Consorzio ARCA) wrote, “the collective effort toward a new evolutionary stage of humanity.” Cuevas’s work is oriented to awakening this potential. She heightens the complexity of relationships between people and nature, saying:
The environmentalist discourse tends to be superficial and only pays attention to ‘problems’ that are merely the symptoms of a violent system. By contrast, in the framework of social ecology the causes of the ecological crisis are located in relations of domination between people. To quote Murray Bookchin: ‘the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human’. [Emphasis added.]
Associação Cultural Videobrasil (Galpão VB) presents several video installations and slide presentations by Cuevas. (Only a few of her video installations are discussed here.) Donald McRonald France (2003), the oldest work, is Cuevas’s broad critique of capitalism and consumerism channeled through “a character, dressed as a clown, [who] stands in front of the premises of the best-known hamburger chain and invites passers-by to enter and consume its products.” The clown teases, inveigles, badgers and pleads with customers to come into “his restaurant” to make him richer, to “eat a hamburger with additives and a lot of fat.” McRonald says,“[I]f you eat regularly the delicacies I offer, you can get diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, heart disease.” He offers a happy meal of corporate greed and personal disease. And, if you need a job, McRonald offers a non-unionized, minimum wage job. As you snicker at the character’s comic behavior, the hair raises on the back of your neck.
A 2005 work, Not Impressed by Civilization, is a video performance about spending a single night outdoors in the Rocky Mountains in western Canada. Cuevas later recalled that the experience was both peaceful and liberating, adding, “I think that when you face a vast natural area alone, you are led to take a more humble position in evaluating our relation with nature.” The very act of spending a night outdoors among wild animals and in extremely low temperatures “implied the inherent risks of being unprotected in the wild,” according to Cuevas. But the wild is the normal habitat of animals. So Cuevas poses two unsettling questions, “What is normal for wild animals; what is normal for domesticated humans?” The work also links well to the theses and theories of animal rights’ activist, Peter Singer, whose 2001 book, Animal Liberation, began,
This book is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought in recent years . . . This book is an attempt to think through, carefully and consistently, the question of how we ought to treat nonhuman animals. In the process it exposes the prejudices that lie behind our present attitudes and behavior . . . It is intended rather for people who are concerned about ending oppression and exploitation wherever they occur, and in seeing that the basic moral principle of equal consideration of interests is not arbitrarily restricted to members of our own species.
In Cuevas’s view, “We value human life more than life. The anthropocentric perspective seems naive and retrograde these days; the idea of ‘our’ planet is an arrogant fantasy that is leading us to extinction.”
A third work, El pobre, el rico y el mosquito (The Poor Man, the Rich Man and the Mosquito, 2007), is a poetic fable. Sitting in front of a slide projection of a skeletal mosquito, a child reads a narrative by the Spanish socialist writer Tomás Meabe. It is contained in a rare 1939 copy of ¡Levantate! (Get Up), an anthology for use by elementary students compiled Luis Hidalgo Monroy, who had participated in the Mexican Revolution as a colonel. The fable goes:
A poor man once lived opposite a rich man. Everyday, through his window, he saw how poor he really was. He said to himself: ‘What have I in common with this man?’ And the rich man across the way who saw him every day said to himself: ‘What have I in common with this man?’ And the poor man was dying. Dying […] He was dying, alone as can be.
And the rich man across the way saw him every day from his window and, stingy, he once again said to himself, ‘What have I in common with this man?’ But then that same night one of the millions of mosquitoes that lived in a swamp bit the dying man. Later, flying at the mercy of the shadows, it gained entrance to the home of the rich man, who was sleeping, and bit him too. As the mosquito bit him, it passed on the disease of which the poor man was dying. And the rich man was no longer able to see the poor man from across the way from his window […] Both men died of the same affliction, both died practically at the same time, unaware of what the one had in common with the other.
Lives in contrast; death in common. Nature always prevails.
A more recent video installation, Disidencia v 2.0, 2008-2010, documents that which is spontaneous, free-willed, anarchic, unpredictable, illegal, irreverent, makeshift. One of the highlights of this portrait of Mexico City’s rebellious character are the rural elements that remind us of the city’s origins and that constitute a form of resistance by themselves, managing to defeat the very urban definition of a city. The visual archive Disidencia v 2.0 is accompanied by 2 musical compositions by Mexican sound artist/composer Pablo Salazar. They enliven festive dissent. In a sense, democracy has never looked so good.
The other videos are equally engaging. Piratas y héroes (Pirates and Heroes, 2006), for example, initially seems also comedic, if not ironic, as a riff on popular comic books. Cuevas researched the history of the Hollywood superheroes, social heroism, piracy dynamics, and the public domain to create this piece. Most critically, the actors were asked to respond hypothetically to the idea of a Mexican superhero (or super villains). They do exist, and include Acrata, Aztek, El Muerto, Firebird and Iman. Nonetheless, these characters are in supporting roles to the Marvel and DC comic superheroes. Comic and comic book hegemony.
In a 2013 conversation with Eduardo Abaroa, a fellow artist, Cuevas said, "Art being part of culture can influence the way societies are shaped. It’s to be hoped that it influences society not only to associate the natural sphere with beauty but also social justice with something essentially aesthetic." Again, this aligns well with Beuys conceptually, who concluded, "Only from art can a new concept of economics be formed, in terms of human needs not in the sense of waste and consumption.” President-elect Bolsonaro’s plans for the country’s arts and culture include slashing or merging various government bodies, such as the Ministry of Culture, as part of a larger proposal to cut down federal agencies. Many artists in Brazil fear the censorship and intimidation they currently endure are about to get much worse. The curatorial selection for Galpão VB was strategic and timely.
The Video Works of Minerva Cuevas, Dissidência, Associação Cultural Videobrasil (Galpão VB), São Paulo, Brazil through December 15, 2018.
Expect critical reviews, informed commentary and some heretical notions in my mash-up of art topics. My three careers—art advisor, management consultant and anthropologist—mesh well to write about contemporary art’s creators, innovators, influencers and entrepreneurs.