Climate change tends to be visualized in Western culture in a few clichéd ways: a montage of graphs (the line goes up indicating rising temperatures), the chemical structure for carbon dioxide, scientists in white coats, a starving polar bear, and more increasingly, news stories accompanied by pictures of houses submerged in water after major storms or burnt down after raging wild fires.
The artist Minerva Cuevas, however, imagines a different way to visualize it, one that is probably unexpected. For her latest exhibition, “in gods we trust” at Kurimanzutto’s New York outpost, Cuevas insists that climate change be represented by the companies that are responsible for causing it, from oil companies like Shell to financial institutions like Chase Bank.
In a series of appropriated works, Cuevas displays ads from the oil and gas industry from the 1950s and ’60s: Mobil oil flows down a pristine snow-banked stream, slick tar is scooped with a spoon in a promotion of Shell’s new “recipe” for asphalt, and Humble oil (now known as Exxon) brags that “Each Day Humble Supplies Enough Energy to Melt 7 Million Tons of Glacier!” Given that oil companies spent the ensuing decades denying that the burning of fossil fuels cause climate change, these prophetic promotion of their sins is a tad on the nose.
These appropriated works give us a glimpse into Cuevas’s intense research process which is the basis of her art-making. In other works, like The Trust, Cuevas takes symbols of oil industries and submits them to her local context of Mexico. By alluding to ancient art practices that involved tar and the current oil industry in Mexico, climate change is not just a global phenomena but an act of pollution that speaks to a country’s past, present, and future.
To learn more about the exhibition, which is on view until April 15, ARTnews spoke with Cuevas to discuss her process and the role of the artist in times of crisis.
ARTnews: How did you first get interested in researching oil?
Minerva Cuevas: Of course, oil is Mexico’s most valuable export. But also, I was doing research on cacao and colonization and interestingly enough there is this connection between both things. The area where cacao is cultivated is the same area where most of the oil platforms are built, where the oil deposits are. So the population that used to cultivate cacao ended up working for Pemex, for the oil industry. When they stopped growing cacao, the traditions around the cultivation of cacao also stopped. So after that I began making references to the pre-Hispanic use of oil, of tar, which was used for waterproofing but also sculpturally, with stone sculptures.
This mixture of stone, tar, and sculpture is something that you’ve incorporated into your work. How did that begin?
When I first started playing with tar I went around the area around Campeche where most of the oil platforms are. My fantasy was to go there and find the natural oil springs. I couldn’t find exactly that kind of image but I did find some remains. And it was interesting to visit that city which is totally dedicated to Pemex and the production of oil. My main installation was inspired by this, the marine exploration they do there, the foreign interest, the pre-Hispanic rituals.
When making art about oil and climate change and ecological degradation, how do you resist aestheticizing an ugly crisis?
My art is a translation. I’m not known for being an artist who is working in one specific medium or similar formal solutions or techniques. So what is the common denominator in my practice? It is the research that I do and am connected with after 30 years of producing works. I try to analyze what would be the best formal solution in every situation, and that includes being conscious of the place where it’s going to be exhibited and the city as well. This came from my art education because the university I attended was very classic, traditional, but I was always more interested in interventionism and responding to the institutional and economic life in the city, rather than learning how to paint. Now, the situation in art schools has changed, I believe.
What do you think about the state of environmental art, that is, art that speaks to the ecological crises?
It’s tricky. On the one hand, it’s becoming more mainstream to make this kind of work, which is good for exposure and debate, but on the other hand, these works can still be superficial, misinformed, and can distract from real considerations about the environment. Greenwashing doesn’t only occur in commercial situations but social ones.
Do artists have a responsibility to make artwork about climate change and ecological degradation?
No artwork, no book will transform society, but art in general, as it’s linked to culture, has the possibility to generate change. But in a way that is not measurable. In the end, it is not the artworks or the projects that are political but the person who is making them. The political and ethical responsibility one feels as an artist is very personal. Nowadays, with the crisis, it should be personal for everyone. It’s not easy, comfortable, or nice to resist but it should be done.
It feels difficult to do that when the situation is so dire, and things don’t seem to be changing. The Willow oil drilling project in Alaska was approved just a few days ago.
Yes, it’s bad. I can’t believe that after 20 years I can’t say that we are in a better situation.