Memory in the artistic practice of Mariana Castillo Deball
In November 2022, the annual conference of the International Research Project “Bilderfahrzeuge. Aby Warburg’s Legacy and the Future of Iconology” with the title Mobile Memories was held at the Humboldt University in Berlin. It was inspired by Warburg’s dynamic conception of memory as invariably moving and connecting diverse times and spaces via artworks and images, articulated in the notion of Nachleben. Astrid Erll elaborates on Warburg’s idea of the afterlife with her theory of ‘traveling memory’. For Erll, the study of memory has travelled between different time periods and countries, as well as within different disciplines of the humanities and social sciences. “What Warburg focuses on is the movement, the migration or travel, of symbols across time.”1
Artistic creation is a material route to formulate strategies for understanding, problematizing and imagining the world; it draws out connections to socio-cultural environments across time and space. Many artworks and visualizations—based on individual or collective memories—can be considered particular ways to engage with certain historical concerns and political arguments. As such, artistic memory should be thought of as a repository of invention rather than a factual record of history. In this context, memory ceases to be merely about the past and becomes also about the present as well as the future, always open and subject to interpretations. Memories are constantly reactivated and creatively transformed by artists, who construct and reconstruct alternative scenarios about what might happen as opposed to what has happened. Thus, memories are contained in and carried by multiple objects, and can act as agents in specific cultural dynamics, or in regard to their transcultural itineraries and transformations.
For the occasion of the Mobile Memories conference, a detail of an artwork by Berlin-based Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball, (b. 1975), from her exhibition Uncomfortable Objects (dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, 2012), featured as a central image of this academic event.
This artwork takes us on a journey to the past, as Castillo Deball assembles pieces of naturalia and archaeological heritage, and pulls them to the rugged and relief-like surface of the picture plane. She integrates and juxtaposes different objects of material culture: rocks of different colours and the replicas of clay artifacts stemming from different moments of the pre-Columbian era and sites of Mexico, namely, a broken dog effigy-vessel from Colima, and a typical Classic period clay female figurine from Teotihuacan, wearing a long dress, a quechquemitl, a headdress and earspools (figure 1). By evoking both geological and cultural strata, the artist connects the layers of the past with the present. These temporal encounters can be constantly reconstituted and reinvented, and give way to the possibility of creative engagement with constellations of agents (i.e., objects), past and present. Furthermore, as a map-like composition which shows imaginary land and sea masses, this artwork is also about the engagement with geography and shows a different ontology of land, which contains memory, knowledge and living histories. It is about understanding the role environments and objects play for our identity and the ways memory is inscribed in them.
In an interview from 2015, Castillo Deball asserted that “an object actually doesn’t exist if there is not a relationship that activates it,” and “in that sense, what is really amazing about archaeology is that you have an object that can actually have so many lives, so many ways of existing, of becoming present.” 2 Therefore, every time we experience or relate with an object and a place, when we ‘unearth’ them, it is then when they are able to generate new understandings; that is, their apprehension is in a constant flux, always open-ended.
Moreover, and similar to Warburg, Mariana Castillo Deball calls for a radical transdisciplinarity through her artistic practice that mediates between sciences, archaeology, anthropology, literature, philosophy and the visual arts, and explores the ways in which these fields interpret the world. She draws inspiration from diverse sources and engages in the exchange of knowledge as a transforming process for everyone involved. She creatively ‘breaches’ the borders between institutions and brings into conversation archaeological and ethnographic collections with contemporary art, as well as libraries and historical archives. In this way, she produces works which go beyond simple classifications and finds alternative modes to explore uncharted territories. As Castillo Deball’s artistic practice reveals, a wide range of ‘objects’ can contain or carry memories.
In thinking about her work, two questions came up foremost and thankfully the artist has commented on them for us:
What are your thoughts on originals and replicas, and how does your overall work deal with this question?
The fact that interrelations are so present in your works leads to the second question: In Uncomfortable Objects you deal with the relationship between subjects and objects, and the reversal of perspective between them. In doing so, you position the objects as protagonists with their own ‘silent’ lives. What are your strategies to make them speak for themselves, and what stories do they tell us?
1 Astrid Erll, “Travelling Memory”, Parallax 17/4 (2011): 11.
2 “Conversations | Artistic Practice | The Artist as Archaeologist”, Art Basel, YouTube, 20 June 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5zB4lmb7B4.
3 Mariana Castillo Deball, Estas ruinas que ves. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008.
4 Roy Wagner, Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010, p. 8.
Castillo Deball, Mariana, Estas ruinas que ves. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008.
Castillo, Deball Mariana, and Roy Wagner, Coyote Anthropology: A Conversation in Words and Drawings / Kojotenanthropologie. Ein Gespräch in Worten und Zeichnungen, 100 Notes – 100 Thoughts / 100 Notizien / 100 Gedanken, no. 024. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2011.
“Conversations | Artistic Practice | The Artist as Archaeologist”, Art Basel, YouTube, 20 June 2015,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5zB4lmb7B4.
Erll, Astrid, “Travelling Memory”, Parallax 17/4 (2011): 4–18.
Mariana Castillo Deball: Amarantus. Textos / texts by Mariana Castillo Deball, Tatiana Falcón, Isadora Hastings, Catalina Lozano, and Hubert Matiúwàa. Traducción / translation by Elizabeth Anguamea, Christopher Fraga, and Daniel Saldaña París. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México – Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Editorial RM, 2021.
Wagner, Roy, Coyote Anthropology. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.