For the third edition of the Museum Ludwig’s Schultze Projects series, Mexican artist Minerva Cuevas has created a new site-specific relief for the main stairway of the museum. The name of the series refers to the artist Bernard Schultze (1915 – 2005) whose estate is managed by Museum Ludwig, and in whose memory a contemporary artist has been invited to create a large-scale work for this prominent location every two years since 2017. Cuevas works in a variety of media including video, installation, murals and action-based interventions. In her research-based practise, she often examines the exploitation of nature by multinational companies and the injustices this brings.
Nearly five meters high and fifteen meters long, Cuevas’s monochrome wall piece, made of Styrofoam, MDF and white wall paint, is titled The Enterprise. Inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s mural for a market in the historic centre of Mexico City, it consists of 48 square panels that feature corporate logos from the world of finance such as Deutsche Bank, Mastercard or Barclays. Some of the logos use symbols that are inspired by nature, the upside-down Barclays eagle emblem that protrudes from the picture seems to represents economic power and strength.
The bank brandings contrast with pre-colonial representations of Mesoamerican animal deities, some of which Cuevas encountered in the collection of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. For example, we can see sculptural motifs of a bat inspired by the Mayan god Camazotz, a water-dog, which is a legendary creature in Aztec mythology, and a monkey on a liana drawn from the Jama-Coaque culture. Almost the entire height of the picture’s right side is taken up by an abstract Mayan cocoa tree. The image of the monkey is inspired by scenes Cuevas saw on ancient ceramic pots for cocoa, relating to the fact that in the past the monkeys would eat the fruit of the cacao plants and spread the seeds after they digested them.
The relief’s title The Enterprise may remind us of the spaceship of the same name in the series Star Trek, suggesting science fiction but also real initiatives: The United States space agency NASA gave the same name to the prototype for the space shuttle in 1976. Additionally, Cuevas also seems to be playing with the double meaning of the word ‘enterprise’ as an undertaking and as a business organisation.
This work is a logical continuation of the themes and approaches that Cuevas has engaged with over the past two decades. She often examines the role of large multinational corporations in the food industry and how natural resources are being used in this context. Resonating with the places for which she creates her works, the reference to the origin of chocolate is an allusion to the history of the Museum Ludwig: the institution was founded in 1976 with a donation by Peter and Irene Ludwig, whose fortune primarily came from the multinational production and sale of chocolate. In an interview with the Director of the museum, Cuevas explains that cacao originated in Mesoamerica and that it was already so valued by the Aztecs that it formed part of their monetary system. Today most Mexican cacao production however is exported to Switzerland and Belgium and the Mexican industry ends up using beans from African countries which are of lesser value in the market.
Minerva Cuevas’s wall relief triggers manifold associations. The Enterprise invites us to travel in time and space and to draw connections between the past and present of the American and European continents. The juxtaposition of contemporary corporate branding with symbolic animal characters of ancient Mesoamerican culture makes one think of today’s international trade and how it is closely linked to the history of colonialisation. Notions of economic exploitation of early Pre-colonial communities and cultures becomes increasingly clear when immersing oneself into this enormous landscape work. Last but not least, Cuevas’s large relief – placed at the most prominent spot at the Museum Ludwig – also highlights how the accumulation of wealth through natural resources is manifest in the history of our European art institutions.
With so many art events happening in Germany this summer, not least Documenta 15, this latest Schultze Projects series is well worth a detour.
Museum Ludwig, Heinrich-Böll-Platz, 50667 Köln, Germany. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10.00–18.00. Exhibition continues November 2023. www.museum-ludwig.de