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Pedro Neves Marques, Aedes aegypti, 2017. Digital animation. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Umberto di Marino

The role of the gallery-as-host takes on an extra significance in light of the proliferation of viruses in this exhibition, where Marques repeatedly exploits the doubled meanings of virality in order to expose systemic political and biological injustices. Against the backdrop of the deadly Zika virus outbreak in Brazil in 2015­–16, Marques uses the mosquito as a device to explore the confluence of biotechnology with the resurgence of reactionary politics and gender-based violence, culminating in the election of Jair Bolsonaro earlier this year. Efforts to tackle the Zika epidemic in Brazil have centred on the creation of a transgenic subset of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito which is a vector for several viral diseases and has also been declared an enemy of the nation by the Brazilian government.

Brazil’s war on the mosquito casts the nation as an immune system. In the late 1850s, Rudolf Virchow used the metaphor of the liberal state to conceptualise his theory of the cell as a base unit of life. His analogy of bodies to society was influenced by political metaphors that imagined ‘multicellular’ and ‘multicitizened’ republics.[1] Marques extends and updates this notion in a video work for Gasworks’ social media channels in which an animated virus spins slowly to reveal an enormous crowd. Seen from high above, the people are dwarfed by a huge rubber duck — a viral symbol of protest adopted by anti-government demonstrators in Brazil. In the gallery foyer we are met by a hyperrealistic rendering of an Aedes aegypti. Both these works remind of the ways that art and science exploit the render to create speculative images and craft narratives around health: a kind of science fictioning. Going viral, according to Marques, has the potential to further political action but can also be responsible for peddling falsehoods.

Marques’ film diptych, A Mordida (The Bite) spans two adjoining rooms. The Gender of the Lab documents a controlled laboratory where transgenic mosquitos are bred under harsh artificial light. In the second room, Sex as Care shows a patchwork scenography of languid bodies shrouded in perpetual dusk. Marques’ projection of polyamory in Sex as Care may seem at odds with the ‘hard science’ of the lab, but both films share a critical relationship to the ways in which embodiment and health are beholden to hierarchies of economic, social and gender privilege. In Sex as Care the group takes turns to keep watch, suggesting vulnerability, distraction and control as operating outwith normative representations of sex and intimacy. In both films contrasting tonalities of light prolong this sense of unease, whilst the soundscape by London-based music producer HAUT inhibits the respective containment of either film, with its shuddering droning and raised pitches that repeatedly crest and collapse. The effect on the audience is anxiety inducing, emanating a threat of unknown proximity and scale.

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Pedro Neves Marques, It Bites Back, featuring music by HAUT, 2019. Exhibition view at Gasworks, London. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Andy Keate

The walls of the gallery have been painted cloying beige, evocative of both the plant nectar mosquitoes rely on for sustenance and the gendered and racialised ideals of plastic dolls. Both associations harbour fantasies of biological neutrality. This is one example of how It Bites Back draws attention to the intermingling of political contexts within what Mel Y. Chen refers to as ‘biopolitical brokerages’ that simplistically distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’.[2] All adult mosquitos feed on nectar, yet the popular characterisation of the ‘blood thirsty’ female proliferates gendered tropes. Meanwhile, genetically engineered male Aedes aegypti have been designed to pass on a lethal gene to their offspring. The development of insects as insecticides (-cide meaning kill) raises critical questions around a method that relies on individual governments to pay for ‘Friendly™ Mosquitoes’ and risks overlooking the uneven distribution of effects resulting from underlying environmental, economic and social factors. If, as Chen observes, animality is never ‘innocent’,[2] then neither are their stories.

Haraway’s oft-cited notion of ‘situatedness’, Marilyn Strathern’s work on partial connections, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s theory of perspectivism can help to situate Marques’ located perspective over ethnographic objectivity. Informed by Trinh T. Minh-ha’s notion of the interval in cinema — as a structural conceit that allows for overlap and disturbance — It Bites Back doesn’t attempt to overcome binary thinking but rather allows itself to be vulnerable to the tensions that arise from Marques’ status as a white male artist born in Portugal who has chosen to work in a Brazilian context, with feminist, queer, postcolonial and indigenous politics. Self-scrutiny is a crucial part of this remit, and the way Marques interleaves analogue film (with quasi-interview dialogue), video, sound, digital renders and poetry works to eschew hegemonic narration and theatrics of speculative fiction in favour of an aslant view that focuses attention on the ways in which things are put together.

It Bites Back asks what happens when we look beyond individualistic notions of the world while recognising where it is necessary to ‘speak nearby’, following Minh-ha, as ‘[a] speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it.’[3]


Gabriella Beckhurst is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of York

Gasworks, London, It Bites Back, 11 April-16 June 2019


[1] Mel Y. Chen uses this term when describing Donna Haraway’s work ‘The Biopolitics of Modern Bodies’ and ‘The Promise of Monsters’, see Chen, ‘Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections’, in Cyd Cipolla, Kristina Gupta, David A. Rubin, and Angela Willey (eds.), Queer Feminist Science Studies: A Reader (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2017), 296–309, 302.

[2] Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2012), 104.

[3] Nancy Chen, ‘“Speaking Nearby”: A Conversation With Trinh T. Minh-ha’, in Visual Anthropology Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1992, 82–91, 87.