Mariana Castillo Deball’s Who would measure the space, who will tell me the time? is an arch meditation on the intersection of contemporary art with popular art mediums, Mexican identity, narrative, archaeology, and museum display practice. The work is installed in front of SITE Santa Fe and consists of three ceramic columns with cacti disposed at their feet. Castillo Deball is a Mexican artist based in Berlin. Created for an exhibition in 2015 at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO) in Oaxaca City, the work was a collaboration between Castillo Deball and the Coatlicue ceramics workshop (led by the Martínez Alarzón family) in Santa María Atzompa, and Innovando la Tradición, a nonprofit devoted to promoting both traditional Oaxacan ceramics and to imagining their possibilities in the 21st century. Castillo Deball’s practice often recontextualizes Mexican archaeological objects, thereby calling into question how they represent the past.
For this project, Castillo Deball and her team first visited the Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo that houses the 20th-century Mexican painter’s collection of pre-Columbian objects. One of the founding principles of the museum, which opened in 1974, was that the objects should be displayed as aesthetic objects, and not as archaeological specimens arranged by culture and chronology. The idea was to question the way that pre-Columbian sculptures in all mediums were displayed in archaeological and natural history museums, and most especially in Mexico’s flagship Museo Nacional de Antropología. Castillo Deball has commented that she is not interested in the archaeological facts of objects in museums, but instead in their hidden histories and in the ways that they can tell stories different from those advanced in museums. At the Tamayo museum, the Coatlicue workshop ceramic artists and Innovando la Tradición designers each selected pieces that served as the basis for exploration and the creation of new narratives.
SITE Santa Fe has three of the seven columns created for the 2015 exhibition. One is an assemblage of ceramic cylinders peppered with pointy forms that evoke the Pochote tree (Ceiba aesculifolia), sacred to many native peoples in Oaxaca as a symbol of the world tree, or axis mundi, connecting the heavens, Earth, and the underworld. Another column is a stack of gear wheels, punctuated by a head with a horn tied to its forehead, copied from a well-known variety of pre-Columbian ceramic sculpture made in the Mexican state of Colima. The third column incorporates copies of several different types of ancient Mexican sculptures, most notably a bat image from the Zapotec site of Monte Alban and a dog from Colima. Hollow ceramic dogs were included in many tombs in Colima, and are thought to make reference both to the role of dogs in ancient Mexico as guides in the afterlife, as well as to their place in ancient Mexican cuisine, as the original hot dog. Over the past century, the contemporary ceramic arts of the state of Oaxaca have become increasingly valued as symbols of Mexicanness. Collectors also snap up works by important artists. Castillo Deball’s columns call to mind the totem poles of the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast of the U.S. and Canada, like the Haida and Kwakwaka’wakw. Those poles fulfill a narrative function, often relating the family sagas of the elite. Castillo Deball’s team also intend that these columns narrate histories, new stories that sprang from the minds of artists and not archaeologists.
The artist has described her work as a mix of architecture and sculpture, and as a hybrid of the different ways of thinking about working with clay. The discs, spirals, and other geometric forms deployed in the columns are not necessarily natural to the history of ceramic art in Oaxaca, and they may relate to the history of 20th-century modernist sculpture, as seen, for example, in Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column (first version, 1918). Archaeologists are used to conceiving time through stratigraphy, where objects found deeper underground are assumed to be older than those above them and closer to the surface. Castillo Deball’s title announces that her work will engage with the relation of space and time, and as we scan the columns from bottom to top, perhaps time is inverted, stratigraphy subverted, and new stories unfold.