– Summer 2011

Minerva Cuevas: Anarchy in the Hive

Francis McKee

Minerva Cuevas, The Elephant's Vengeance, 2007, 12 slides from the nineteenth century, illustrations projected on wall, slide projector model Rollei 66, Dual P Projector, installation dimensions variable, slides 7 × 7cm each. Both images courtesy the artist and Kurimanzutto,
Mexico City

Social Entomology (2007) occupies a key place in the work of Minerva Cuevas. It draws together many of the implications of the work that precedes it, and it lays a foundation for the pieces that Cuevas planned beyond it. Moreover, it represents the culmination of a long period of collect­ing and research, extending her work far into new modes of display and subject matter. The installation itself could be considered in three parts: a sound piece, Insect Concert, which permeates the entire space; a set of six tables, onto which ephemera and objects are placed, and which forms a circle in the room; and a series of floor-based projection micro­scopes, which cast images onto the sur­rounding walls. Amid the collections on the tables lies a handwritten quotation on cellular theory as expounded by the nineteenth-century German scientist Rudolph Virchow:

In 1858, pathologist Rudolph Virchow declared that ‘the composition of the major organism, the so-called individual, must be likened to a kind of social arrangement or society, in which a number of separate existences are dependent upon one another, in such a way, however, that each element possesses its own peculiar activity and carries out its own task by its own powers.’ A creature like you and me, said Virchow, is actually a society of separate cells. The reasoning also works in reverse — a society acts like an organism.1

The quotation clearly binds the emerging theory of cells to a view of human society, and thereby joins the long tradition of using animals to metaphorically describe human behaviour.

It is important, from the outset, to understand how that tradition of animal metaphor functions

  1. Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into The Forces of History, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995, p.102.

  2. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, ‘Preface’, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987, trans. Robert Paolucci), Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1992, p.11.

  3. Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Ya Basta!: Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising (ed. Ziga Vodovnik, trans. anonymous), Oakland: AK Press, 2004, p.127.

  4. Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1714), Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1924, pp.18—24.

  5. Tomás Meabe, ‘The Poor Man, the Rich Man and the Mosquito’ (1920), available at http://www.braskart.com/?p=689 (last accessed on 10 March 2011).

  6. John Berger, ‘Why Look at Animals?’, About Looking, London: Writers and Readers, 1980, pp.1, 9 and 11.

  7. Ibid., p.14.

  8. See ibid., pp.21—26.

  9. Barbara Maria Stafford, Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1996, pp.226—27.