Mariana Castillo Deball’s Roman Rubbish (on view through January 26, 2023) is the latest contemporary art commission to engage with the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE. Inspired by the 14,000 Roman artifacts discarded in a riverbed and uncovered during construction on the site in 2012–14, the Berlin-based Mexican artist has created a detailed and extensively researched installation in three parts. First, a monumental wax wall. Then, three ceramic pillars. Finally, a hand-painted textile curtain. Objects from the Bloomberg collection selected by Castillo Deball and displayed in a wall cabinet complement the installation.
The black wax wall, made on site and inscribed with delicate, stylized images, responds to the materials of the Roman writing tablets found among the other artifacts. The imagery derives from a variety of sources. In one scene (taken from a drawing that Castillo Deball made during a visit to the Warburg Institute), Mithras is slaying the bull. Other images feature double-headed figures and fantastic hybrid creatures, some inspired by an ancient Mexican manuscript in the collection of the Vatican Library. Castillo Deball is interested in the history of this difficult-to-access manuscript whose knowledge is now enclosed within the Vatican; its chain of appropriation raises questions of how artifacts are understood across civilizations and shared with the rest of the world. She has never worked with wax on this scale before, and the wall allows her to share glimpses of the manuscript and other ancient sources in a new context while acknowledging the echoes of lost-wax bronze casting in her thinking.
The ceramic works and curtain were both produced in Castillo Deball’s Berlin studio. The three ceramic columns, each with a slightly different focus, rise to an imposing height. Castillo Deball first made small prototypes in order to experiment with the sequence of individual elements within the columns and ensure their precise fit. She then used three different types of clay, enhancing their gold, terra-cotta, and black colors through firing temperature and the occasional addition of metallic elements in the glaze.
The Column of Conglomerates is built from lump-like components that cannot be separated—a clear allusion to archaeological finds in which coins, pins, and crumbled fragments are lodged together with larger unidentified masses of fused material. The Column of Vessels includes scaled-up vessels, their size transforming how we view them. Any breaks, cracks, or imperfections are retained. The Column of Charms, according to Castillo Deball, does not consist of sacred objects, but of discards; it tells the story of daily life through broken, imperfect objects. The objects in this column, once again scaled up, include figures representing pagan deities and amulets for good luck, including sexual charms.
The semi-transparent cotton curtain, which can change position, subtly draws the installation together through color and form. In addition to anchoring the different elements, it also acts as an architectural screen, obscuring or blocking the view so that everything is not visible at once. The painted design freely interprets the shape of Roman writing tablets. There are a number of large pockets sewn into the curtain, where oversize wooden facsimiles of excavated objects have been secreted. These objects can be examined through the fabric, like partially visible artifacts emerging during an archaeological dig.
The curtain’s serpentine arrangement recalls ancient motifs and sculptural compositions, obliquely referencing the human body and the Romans who discarded the rubbish that Castillo Deball found so fascinating. It might also make another art historical reference, this time to the serpentine lines of William Hogarth’s book The Analysis of Beauty (1753). Like the rest of Castillo Deball’s installation, it is an ingenious means to transform the debris of much earlier times into art for the present.