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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,
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