The word “égalité” is displayed in red letters on the wall of the exhibition room. In terms of the design and the choice of colors for her large-format mural work, Minerva Cuevas imitates the soft blue, pink and white tones that prevail in the advertising logo for the mineral water brand Evian. Above the dominant lettering is the blue-shaded outline of a mountain chain in the heart of the French Alps where, in the secluded town of Évian-les-Bains, this still mineral water has been bottled since 1826. In spite of the substitution of the writing, the reference to the globally familiar bottled water is immediately recognizable. In her manipulation of the text – “evian” becomes “égalité”, whilst the words below, “Eau Minérale Naturelle” become “Une Condition Naturelle” – she fills the product logo of the multinational food giant Danone with new content. By breaking away from the familiar context of this visual symbol, a new layer of meaning and information becomes apparent behind the façade of the image of everyday consumption.
Over 700 million people worldwide have no access to clean drinking water, and 90% of them live in the Global South, in low-income countries with high levels of poverty. At the same time, in most high-income countries water has long been more than just a basic ingredient for life; rather, as a luxury product, as “blue or liquid gold”, it has become a matter of taste or a statement – in those very places where extremely high-quality water apparently flows limitlessly from the tap. With some imported products, the price of water far exceeds that of champagne. Although many suppliers, like Evian, advertise their sustainable use of water, the PET bottles are an ecological disaster and pollute oceans the world over. Water expert Dr. Peter Gleick summarizes the hidden costs and the use of resources in the filling of bottled water as follows: “To bottle one liter of water, you need three or four liters of tap water. And if you take into account the material, the production, the transport and the cooling of the bottles altogether, up to a quarter of a liter of crude oil is required to fill one liter of mineral water. ”1
Sources of water pollution include the extraction of sand and crude oil as well as contamination by waste water or dirty water from agriculture and industry. The figures about the state of water are alarming the world over, as is clear from the current report by UN Water. Two thirds of the world’s population experience a water shortage for at least one month a year, and it is the already disadvantaged who overwhelmingly suffer most. Hence water consumption per head in Mexico City, where Cuevas comes from, is one of the highest worldwide. Yet the supply of the undoubtedly scarce resource is inefficient and unequal; there is a “two-tier water society”, as the taz provocatively puts it,2 and 1.25 million Mexicans have to get by without running water. The increasing scarcity of water and the pollution of lakes, rivers and oceans is favorable to the sales of drinking water in bottles, and the purchasing and privatization of water sources are lucrative investments.3 More bottles of water are sold than soft drinks.4 Just a few particular big companies have long shared the global market, which is continually growing, with prices rising.5 In Germany, for example, the price of Evian rose by almost 50% in 2016.6
The theme of the installation “égalité”, which was first presented in 2004, has lost none of its relevance – in fact, it is more topical than ever and transposes the question of social justice, which determines Cuevas’ political thinking and interest, into the exhibition context. Starting with a specific social or urban situation or a condition of daily life, in her conceptual work the artist examines the organization of social coexistence and shines a light on the political and economic power structures and interconnections. She is primarily interested in the distribution of resources, in property relationships and values in a neoliberal, capitalist social order and in “survival” in the urban context. Here Cuevas, whose artistic practice makes use of painting, video, sculpture, photography and installations, uses images and objects from everyday consumption and life, which she deliberately changes through critical interventions and actions in the public space.
Foundation of the Mejor Vida Corporation
In 1998, Cuevas founded the Mejor Vida Corporation, which was based in the Latin American Tower in downtown Mexico City up until 2003, but still exists online and opens up pop-up shops, as it did at “Playing the City 3” in Frankfurt in 2011, for example. The aim in starting this company was to propose solutions to fundamental problems facing the world’s poorest people and thus to make their lives easier. At the time, Mexico was in the grip of the turbulent events and radical changes of the 1990s: politically motivated assassinations, the Zapatista rebellion, the signing of the NAFTA treaties, which went hand in hand with the neoliberal economic reorientation of Mexico and with a catastrophic economic crisis, as well as the defeat of the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party) after 70 years of domination. The consequences were social unrest, an enduring inequality in the distribution of property, unemployment, crime, political intrigue, corruption and a rise in poverty among the continually growing population. Currently around 45% of Mexico’s residents are considered poor.7
The guiding principle of Cuevas’ company is to give out money instead of making profits, whereby various products and services are offered for free, such as manipulated barcode stickers to enable people to buy foods more cheaply in the supermarket, or “Safty Pills”, with which they can avoid falling asleep and therefore being robbed on the train. In the way the artist dismantles the company mechanism of acting for profit and sets herself against the principle of economic utility, she shifts attention towards the “losers” of capitalism.
Cuevas makes use of the language and the vocabulary of advertising, and by substituting “evian” with “égalité”, she changes the image of the luxury brand, which is associated with the keywords of purity, relaxation and detox. The complex global interconnectedness and the role of the multinational corporation in relation to the problem of distribution, which also arises from the economic cycle of water as a product, is highlighted and questioned. For Cuevas, however, it’s not about a new utopia or changing the system overall, but rather about highlighting the gaps within the structures and offering alternatives. “My intention is not to create a perfect world”, Cuevas says. “I don’t believe that’s possible, but I do believe we can improve small things.”8 Here she uses the possibility and the freedom offered by art institutions in order to link her actions or artistic works to the social reality, to highlight tensions and to create openness.
The insistence “égalité – une condition naturelle”, “equality – a natural condition”, which is anchored in the French constitution, has shifted out of the institutional context and has been transformed into a tool for action. The “égalité” mural is presented in the exhibition space of the Schirn Kunsthalle together with posters showing the same motif. However, it can also be exhibited with small water bottles with the same logo. Students from France used the posters in a demonstration as a criticism of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing populist politics, and visitors to the Schirn can take them home with them from the exhibition space. As the artist states in an interview, it is our choice how we react to our social reality and how we want to (help) shape it. And it’s in this regard that art has the potential even to change society.
Gislind Köhler (b. 1984 in Haarlem, NL) writes and creates exhibitions. She co-founded the artist-run space Jenifer Nails, is supporting the establishment of a foundation in project management and is working on a new exhibition project in public space in Berlin.