BY Kito Nedo in Features | 27 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

History on the Move

For Mariana Castillo Deball, every artefact tells the story of its origin – and where it’s been since

BY Kito Nedo in Features | 27 FEB 12

Mémoire Interlope, 2010
(1 of 5 prints)

In his Atlas pittoresque du voyage : Vue des Cordillères et Monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas), published in 1810 in Paris, Alexander von Humboldt recounts the strange story of the Codex Borgia. This early 15th-century Mexican document – consisting of illlustrations made on deer skin – is unusual in having survived the destructive fury of the Spanish Inquisition, only to embark upon a tortuous journey via Spain to Italy. There, it inexplicably ended up in the hands of the domestic staff of the Giustiniani family before being saved, ironically enough, by Cardinal Stefano Borgia, an art-loving cleric. Today, this calendar of Aztec rituals, whose full history remains a mystery, is among the most important artefacts for Mesoamerican studies. The original is kept in the Vatican collections while facsimiles circulate in various formats in the cultural sphere: In 2010, a digitized version of the Codex was released for the Kindle e-reader.

Mariana Castillo Deball’s video installation El dónde estoy va desapareciendo (The where I am is vanishing, 2011) addresses the fate of the Codex Borgia and the incomplete history of its discovery, which have played more than a minor role in turning the codex into an archaeological myth and popular object of speculation. The installation features a scroll which unrolls in the video to reveal black and white drawings based on scenes depicted in the Codex, whether deities or sacrifices. Unlike her many historical predecessors who tried to decipher the meaning of the rituals, Castillo Deball seems to use a technique of free association which lets the Codex tell its own story, starting with the living deer whose skin was used as paper for the drawings. The voice-over in the video becomes the voice of the Codex itself, by speaking in the languages of its successive owners: Nahuatl, Spanish, Italian, German and English. ‘I began to forget where I came from, my shapes went mute.’

Mémoire Interlope, 2010
(1 of 5 prints)

The treatment of artefacts is a core theme in Castillo Deball’s work. ‘Some very prominent archaeological objects have had an unsettled life, shifting between courtyards, cellars, pedestals, display cases, museums, touring exhibitions and private collections. The representation of archaeology has spread through copies, illustrations, textbooks, models and souvenirs. The meaning and the authenticity of archaeological material are involved in this chain of infinite representation.’1 Her view is not obscured by a reverence for ancient cultures. She analyzes the role of objects like the Codex Borgia as tools of a modern cultural production whose enlightened rationality repeatedly tries, in a dialectic twist, to revitalize the aura of these objects. When the context of an object changes (the way it is presented), then the object itself changes, too (the way it is viewed and used). ‘I’m interested less in the meaning of the artefacts than in the way people treat them, how they are manipulated.’ This interest naturally includes labelling, reproducing, damaging, liquidating or falsifying archaeological objects. For Castillo Deball, the way such objects are approached is never free of ideology.

In the spirit of Institutional Critique, the artist inquires into the conditions under which archaeological artefacts appear in today’s culture, thus rendering archaeology itself visible as an ideological construct. To this end, she deploys various media and materials, including an anthology, performances and texts, photomontage, found objects and video installations – a diversity that can be explained both formally and in terms of content, as her working method could be described as a form of cheerful epistemology. ‘Within my practice, I constantly adopt tactics from other worlds. My approach to knowledge is playful. […] As an artist, I can play this intermediate game between science, storytelling, fiction and visual arts.’2 In her seven-minute video Entropology I (2008), she interweaves several different narrative strands on a visual and textual level: Found photographs from the 1950s taken from the archive at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) are processed in Photoshop, combined with mineral specimens from the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris and then set against strongly contrasting background colours. The voice-over tells the story of a passionate collector of stones from Geneva who works at CERN’s materials testing lab designing new kinds of stone. The archive’s frenzied quest to record and to collate speaks of excess and of a megalomaniac fantasy of dominion over knowledge of the future.

Art and research suddenly become closely related, if not indistinguishable. Starting with the story of the Coatlicue statue, the artist produced a lecture, linocuts and the fibreglass sculpture No solid form can contain you (2010). The 2.7-metre Coatlicue was discovered by construction workers on 13 August 1790 in Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor. Initially, the statue of the all-devouring earth and death goddess was taken to the Real y Pontificia Universidad de México (Royal and Pontifical University), but it was soon buried in the university’s courtyard, not only because the country’s rulers found it shapeless and ugly, but also because they feared a revival of the old pagan religion among the indigenous people. Occasionally the statue was excavated to be shown to foreign visitors, including Alexander von Humboldt in 1804 and the English collector William Bullock,3 who had a papier mâché replica made to be shown in London. It was only after Mexico’s independence in 1821 that Coatlicue was made publicly accessible again, first at the university and later at the Museo Nacional de Antropología where it is now a key exhibit.

According to the artist’s working hypothesis, the way traces of the past are treated points to many pressing issues: education, national identity, tourism strategies or politics. Rummaging through the seemingly abandoned store-rooms, libraries and archives of ethnographic collections, one always finds the present. Yet unlike the scientist, Castillo Deball always finds playful and poetic forms for her critical approach. The drawings appropriated from the Codex Borgia for El dónde estoy va desapareciendo reappear in Coyote Anthropology: A Conversation in Words and Drawings (Documenta Notebook No. 24, 2011), a joint publication with the American anthropologist Roy Wagner, who adds a fictional dialogue between a coyote and a man to Castillo Deball’s drawings. Once again, it is not the subject itself that forms the focus of Castillo Deball’s artistic interest but rather the discursive cloud that develops around such subjects in the course of time, including a ‘conversion’ from text to image, animal to human. After all, historical significance does not come about of its own accord but results from the movements of actors following their own academic, political, commercial or other interests. Humboldt’s interpretation of the Codex Borgia, Castillo Deball tells us, was totally wrong. ‘But it was still important since it brought much attention to the book, which in turn led many others to begin studying it.’ It should come as no surprise that her first, three-year archaeology project ‘Estas Ruinas que ves’ (These Ruins You See, 2006–8) included no fieldwork but rather interviews with antiques dealers on Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Spiegelstraat. ‘The antique dealer is a peculiar character who can legitimate what is valuable, what should be kept, and how an object can become a status symbol.’4 Since the collected object’s history goes beyond the framework of the collection, many ethnological and archaeological museums increasingly provide details of the provenance of exhibits.

But how do we get away from objects? For the exhibition ‘Estas Ruinas que ves’ at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in 2006, Castillo Deball did not produce art works but rather borrowed various elements of exhibition architecture from the halls and store-rooms of Mexican history museums: vitrines, plinths and other display aids. The vitrines contained numbers referring to the sections of an audio guide which offered around 50 stories and descriptive texts on archaeology collected by the artist in the course of her research for the exhibition. ‘People usually have quite a clear idea about the things they create,’ she says, ‘but things take on a life of their own and give us unexpected answers.’ In this way, even empty display cases can become objects that speak to us about their own time – a zeitgeist that never wants to acknowledge its own ideology and historicity. Castillo Deball is silent about the near future, from her participation at documenta (13) to her solo exhibition this autumn at Zurich’s Haus Konstruktiv for winning the 2012 Zurich Art Prize. But there’s sure to be traces of the past.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 Mariana Castillo Deball, These Ruins You See, Berlin, 2008, p. 165
2 Kulturkreis der deutschen Wirtschaft (ed.), ars viva 09/10. Geschichte/History, Ostfildern, 2009, p. 55
3 (retrieved 27.1.2012)
4 These Ruins You See, p. 179

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.