Opposite the entrance to Minerva Cuevas’s solo survey show is a balcony overlooking an inner courtyard with orange walls and a two-storey installation, State (2002). Featuring a quotation from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in large block letters on a multicoloured flag background, it listed some 30 state-sponsored violations of freedom carried out in the name of freedom: ‘DIRECTED, REGULATED, INDOCTRINATED, SERMONIZED, VERIFIED, CLASSIFIED, CENSURED …’ At the base of this giant billboard lay an assortment of cultural trash: candelabrae, a horse-drawn carriage, paintings of monuments, boxes, musical instruments and other items referring to a remote high culture.
This introductory work declared Cuevas’s art as different from ‘Art’; it focused the viewer on the theme of injustice, establishing a context for the first piece, Angel (2012), which consisted of the original head of Mexico’s iconic Angel of Independence statue, broken off from the body and lying on the floor with a black flag draped across the wall behind it. The angel’s face, mottled and scarred, was open-eyed and desolate. A small photo of the intact statue, ebullient and bare-breasted, waving a flag, was the reminder of how she has changed.
The portrait of a nation in profound crisis, Angel may also have been taken as a self-portrait of the artist, serendipitously named for the ultra-rational goddess of war, whose work comprises an ingenious quest for a kind of art that might effect social change. The exhibition, deftly curated by Patrick Charpenel, displayed the impressive range of strategies the 37-year-old Cuevas has deployed to date, including sculpture with found objects, documentary street film, slide shows, public performance, poster pieces, staged videos and an online work. It also highlighted her métier: parody of the logo and the slogan. Cuevas hones in on the details of these omnipresent artefacts, slightly altering or re-framing them to penetrate, for an amusing and tragic moment, a pleasant or escapist lie. One such work is Egalité (2004), an installation of cases of water and a wall mural mimicking the graphics of the brand Evian and altering its slogan to ‘Equality, a natural condition’. More deadpan is Cuevas’s animation Believe and it Will Happen (2000), a compilation of corporate, religious and political logos that flash across the screen in sequence. Rendered in black and white, in uniform dimensions, they offer a compressed but comprehensive snapshot of our time.
Cuevas is best known for her online, diffused, longstanding public art piece, Better Life Corporation (1998–ongoing). Located at irational.org/mvc, this art work is also an anti-corporation that parodies and plays Robin Hood to greedy practices. The slogan ‘Yes It’s FREE!’ moved across a computer screen mounted on a gallery wall, while ephemera related to the project, such as barcodes, seeds, ‘awake’ pills and other Better Life Corpproducts were displayed in vitrines. A wall text described the way customers can procure student IDs, letters of recommendation and other ‘services’ of the entitled, including free food.
The greater portion of Cuevas’s work has a childlike ebullience that mitigates against a tendency toward the doctrinaire; she also occasionally uses child actors or children’s toys, books or theatre. One of the more charming of such works is Landings (2008). A 14-minute 16mm compilation of children’s book illustrations, it tells the story of the dialectic of enlightenment from the big bang, to the dinosaurs, to ancient civilizations, to the development of machines and technology, to the moon landing.
The final work, Dissidence 2.0 (2007–12), provided a counterpoint to the show’s overwhelming portrayal of injustice. A 29-minute video, it is a compilation of footage of demonstrations and protests, primarily in the Zócalo (Mexico City’s main square), and of the endless slums and tent cities surrounding Mexico City, to the soundtrack of the Kronos Quartet. The accumulation of protest placards and banners, with their cause-specific slogans, rebuke the slogans emitted from the corporate world. A sense of futility in the face of drug lords and other robber barons contends with an indefatigable spirit, not imagined, but simply evident, in the high-spirited dancing, marching and costumed theatre that characterize political demonstrations in this city .