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Mariana Castillo Deball: Driven by Curiosity


reading time: approx.  min

Visiting one of Mexico’s major artists

It is still early when Mariana Castillo Deball unlocks the door to her studio in Berlin-Schöneberg. It is somewhat hidden in the back of a commercial building complex where the first address book for Berlin was printed. A fitting place for an artist whose family has owned a printing business for generations. Castillo Deball, who was born in 1975 in Mexico and has lived in Berlin for ten years, saw the space two years ago while on an elevated section of the subway. It was love at first sight.

Werkstattansicht – Mariana Castillo Deball in ihrem Atelier in Berlin-Schöneberg

Studio view: Mariana Castillo Deball in her studio in Berlin-Schöneberg © Christoph Mack

Visitors are amazed at what they find here. On a practically cloudless spring day bright sunlight floods the two-story room through high windows; parts of the ceiling have been removed. Stairs lead up to a loft with a mesh grid floor that would cause problems for people who are afraid of heights. From here, where Castillo Deball has installed a small library, it is easy to view the many white tables scattered around the room – islands of art where current projects are waiting to be completed, some as models and some in original size.

One of these projects is the installation Codex Humboldt Fragment 1/Codex Azoyú Reverso. Financed by the Freundeskreis des Ethnologischen Museums (Friends of the Ethnological Museum), it will soon be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum. The work quite deliberately examines an object from the ethnological collection of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin). Alexander von Humboldt himself acquired 16 fragments of various indigenous pictorial manuscripts during his visit to New Spain. Probably the best known one, Codex Humboldt Fragment 1, and its counterpart from Mexico, Codex Azoyú Reverso, are from the 16th century and are pictorial records of tax payments that the subjugated Tlapa region in Guerrero had to pay its Aztec conquerors.

“The two codex fragments could be compared in 1940, which made research on the development of the Aztec empire tax system over a 36-year period possible,” said Castillo Deball, who was inspired by the material to create an extensive work of art consisting of 320 ceramic tiles. It will soon cover the end wall of the exhibition hall on Mesoamerica.

“I work for projects like these or for exhibitions, not for the open market,” explained Castillo Deball after a tour of her studio, taking a sip of her coffee. The open market is much too stressful for her. Its mechanisms also appear to be too difficult to reconcile with her style of work: she follows her own curiosity, which regularly brings her into contact with completely different scientific fields like mathematics, geology, history, and philosophy.

Castillo Deballs Arbeit „Codex Humboldt Fragment 1/Codex Azoyú Reverso“ (Detail).
Castillo Deball’s work Codex Humboldt Fragment 1/Codex Azoyú Reverso (detail) © Mariana Castillo Deball

Castillo Deball’s success has not been harmed by her approach. She exhibited at documenta 13 in 2012 and a year later she received the Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst (Nationalgalerie award for young art). Parergon, the exhibition that emerged from the award, established her reputation for embracing the border between research, art, and curation. In fact, forgotten and neglected things often awaken her interest; the curiosities and stepchildren of archivists that are otherwise locked away from the public eye and gather dust in museum storerooms.

Even if Castillo Deball’s own works for Parergon speak for themselves, the works she used in the processed objects can tell incredible stories of their own. For example, there is the death mask of Jewish painter Max Liebermann, which Nazi sculptor Arno Breker (of all people) made after Liebermann’s death in 1935 or the wheelchair with the label “Null Problemo,” which hints at an art theft in 1989. At that time thieves used a similar wheelchair as a disguise to steal Carl Spitzweg’s painting The Poor Poet from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

But in Castillo Deball’s opinion, the image of “curator of art” who is mainly occupied with the research process – which has been applied to her at least since this highly acclaimed exhibition – doesn’t go far enough. Nor does she want to be reduced to questions of identity or cultural affiliation in her work. So, at the end of this studio tour, what remains is the realization that Mariana Castillo Deball is a master of the creative process. She smashes the familiar to bits over and over again and builds a new and unusual world from the pieces.

Mariana Castillo Deball

Born in 1975, she studied art and philosophy in the 1990s. She completed post-graduate studies in the Netherlands in 2002–2003, which is still her second residence. After receiving numerous awards, she was appointed to the Chair for Sculpture at the University of Fine Arts in Münster. Her installation Codex Humboldt Fragment 1/Codex Azoyú Reverso will be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum.