While issues of bio-chemical terror may have gained visibility in recent years, through their dreaded presence and on-the-ground absence (in the case of Iraq), artist Minerva Cuevas gives such chemical agents a weight that is equally invisible but more socially pervasive. Here those agents take the form of pesticides: the common household sprays used to terrorize unwanted creatures, to protect the security of a home, to ward off disease or to keep a farmer’s crops unharmed. But for Cuevas pesticides are not simply solutions to pesky problems – necessary evils in the trade-off between order and chaos. They serve as analogies for the synthetic ills pervading contemporary global society. A pesticide is a toxin that symbolizes a technologically advanced society’s capacity for self-preservation via self-poisoning.
Cuevas’ recent exhibition, titled ‘On Society’, gathered itself around a fable by the Spanish socialist writer Tomás Meabe. Written around the turn of the last century, the story, ‘The Poor Man, The Rich Man and the Mosquito’, tells the tale of two men of different social classes bound together by a wayward mosquito carrying an indiscriminate disease. Their view of each other’s worlds is through their respective homes’ windows, and this external detached relation becomes the construction Meabe seeks to topple. In the final lines of the story he writes: ‘The only thing set in stone is that there is never a shortage of mosquitoes, nor of even more minute beings, there to violently remind us of that which men of the heart should already know, that we all have much, very much in common with our neighbours, particularly when our neighbours are dreadful wretches.’
In the exhibition Cuevas employed Meabe’s fable as both a press release and a narration for her video The Poor Man, the Rich Man and the Mosquito (2007). The latter showed a young boy calmly reciting Meabe’s story from an old, tattered volume. Throughout his monologue the camera panned outwards, slowly melding the boy’s image with that of a mosquito. Here Cuevas offers childhood innocence as the thing set in stone, in bountiful supply, a subtle antidote to determinative societal structures. Less innocent in appearance, Cuevas’ Target with Shelltox (2007) sat opposite, offering a destructive solution to Meabe’s mosquito. Made up of a found Shelltox pesticide spray-gun mounted to a target painted on the wall, it hung with the weight of both chemical and ideological artillery. Pesticide is the artificial bile that can formulate distinctions between Meabe’s ‘neighbours’, guaranteeing the persistence of class differences and the primacy of those in charge by way of nature’s destruction.
The video Silent Spring (2007), which borrows the title of Rachel Carson’s seminal and influential 1962 book exposing the environmental havoc caused by the indiscriminate use of the pesticide DDT, occupied a space between these poles of innocence and immorality, and somewhat clarified Cuevas’ own position. The work consisted of three monitors, each repeating a loop of archival footage. One showed a stop-motion image of a decaying plant, another that of a crop-dusting plane working a field, the last a montage of two men wandering around a hillside farm. In their soundless brevity these clips evoked the overall condition of the exhibition. Here pesticide is not only an agent reinforcing the hierarchies of modern society but also, in the paranoid medical parlance of our day, a ‘silent killer’ ensuring the passing of a certain agrarian culture.
In this context Cuevas’ Concert for Lavapiés (2003) was the most apt part of the exhibition. Like many of Cuevas’ best works to date, the piece was a public action (documented here in photographs). Although it took place in Madrid some four years ago, this event was the practical realization of Cuevas’ essayistic and metaphorical propositions in ‘On Society’. She invited musicians from the eclectic and socially diverse Lavapiés neighbourhood to join in a one-off, free-form concert. The event featured players of every level, on every instrument from guitars to brass instruments to home-made percussion. For Cuevas the cacophony of this grassroots performance proposes an organically structured society, one ignoring the rules of modern economic or political order. In Cuevas’ proposition pesticide is the destruction of innate forms of community, and its rejection offers a path away from artificial solutions to a more holistic and egalitarian culture.