AN ITERVIEW WITH MARIANA CASTILLO DEBALL
BY TOBIAS OSTRANDER
Tobias Ostrander (TO):
Your work has often explored the museum as a problematic cultural site and validating system. Recently the narratives of Echo and Narcissus have entered this discussion about exhibition spaces. Could you describe the appeal of these figures and how they relate to the project you have developed for the Museo Experimental El Eco?
Mariana Castillo Deball (MCD):
Last summer I made a trip to the Chapada Diamantina—a mountainous region in Brazil with many caves and other rock formations. When I was visiting some of the caves, the guide would very often point out a particular formation and ask visitors, “What is it?” Visitors had to stare at the abstract wall and guess. The figures ranged from a dolphin, a face, a mermaid, an electric guitar, and a slice of bacon. I found an interesting space where figures were apparently hidden—almost blending in with the environment—a space where there was no difference between figure and background.
I started to think how different museums and galleries are from the experience of exploring caves, where the spaces are neat and white, where the works are immediately recognizable.
In terms of mythology, I thought of Narcissus as a white-cube-type exhibition space, and of Echo as a cave. The practice of finding images in stains on walls and rock formations is closer to Echo’s imaginative nature, when she tries to repeat what Narcissus says, but her voice is inevitably distorted, always becoming something else. Narcissus is the opposite, he’s an instrument of repetition, trying to constantly reaffirm his image through his reflection in the water. The consequences of this gesture entail a complete denial of the outside world, in order to confirm the uniqueness of the self.
I’m on Echo’s side. This show will include some of Echo’s friends and relatives—characters who are in constant dialogue with their surroundings, establishing conversations that transform their environment’s shape constantly.
The cave you’ve made for this project is a loose structure of open and closed spaces, made of a rectilinear metal frame over which you’ve placed a faux-rock covering made of papier-mâché. The papier-mâché itself features numerous images. Could you describe your use of papier-mâché in this work, as well as reveal some of the sources of the images you have imbedded within this material? Could you also touch on the development of the geometric frame, its form and the relation it sets up with the faux-rock covering?
Anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro starts his essay “O mármore e a murta: sobre a inconstância da alma selvagem“ (The Marble and the Myrtle: on the Inconstancy of the Savage Soul) with a quote by the Portuguese missionary António Vieira:
Those who wandered through the world could see in those gardens two kinds of very different statues, ones made out of marble, others of myrtle. The marble statues are very difficult to make, because of the material’s hardness and resistance; but once finished, they need no further work: they always conserve the same shape; the myrtle statue is easier to make, because of the pliancy of the branches and the leaves, but one must work on it constantly. If the gardener stops working, in four days
a branch grows out of an eye, another one deforms an ear, and seven fingers appear instead of five: what used to be a human shape becomes a mess of foliage and myrtles.
Vieira uses this image to compare European and “savage” civilizations. For him, European culture is like marble, difficult to mold, but once it has acquired its shape, it’s guaranteed to last for centuries. On the other hand, the “savage” civilizations, in this case the Brazilian one, are more malleable: at first glance, they seem to accept doctrine and adapt themselves toimposed habits, but if you get distracted for just a moment they return to their old rituals. The piece I developed for El Eco mimics the behavior of a myrtle sculpture, climbing overa geometric shape. The pattern is similar to an epiphytic plant’s—like bromelias or orchids that grow on other plants or sometimes on other objects, though they’re not parasites. They’re also called air plants.
I use papier-mâché, a technique I’ve been interested in for a long time, because of its flexibility and simplicity and also because of its link to Mexican crafts.
The images that cover the structure are based on my experiences in Brazil over the last two years. They include people, places and trips in which I was in pursuit of “the inconstancy of the savage soul,” discovering its generosity, flexibility and playfulness. Many of the pictures come from the Museu de Imagens do Inconsciente (the Museum of Images of the Unconscious), where I found an amazing archive and paintings by Arthur Amora; from the National Museum, where I learned about “Amerindian perspectivism”; from Lina Bo Bardi’s house in São Paulo; from folk-art exhibitions; from the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden; from the garbage dumps of papier-mâché sculptures after carnival; from Glauber Rocha; from mathematical models of non-linear figures, and from so many more sources.
The optical play that occurs with the images included in the piece creates confusion between the figures represented in the images and the background on which they’re positioned. You’ve mentioned elsewhere your reading on the concept of “figure-ground reversal.” Can you explain this idea, its origins and relation to your art project?
I’ve been interested for awhile in potential images—images that have to be constructed by the viewer, images that are invented or constructed by a collective hallucination—like miraculous images that appear filtered through water, strange reflections, and so on. Potential images challenge our perceptive priorities since the background and the figure aren’t exactly defined. I’m interested in this not just as a formal puzzle, but also as a question about intentionality, and how we decide where to focus our attention. I look for images, texts and experiences that blur these boundaries. Anthropologist Roy Wagner talks about figure- ground reversal in similar terms in his conversation with Coyote. According to Coyote, “perception is a very tricky thing.”
Roy: So why is perception a fake?
Coyote: You see, Roy, we don’t see the world we see, hear the sounds we hear, touch the things we touch, or in any way perceive what we perceive, but something else that comes in between. [...]
Coyote: Sure. As they say, “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”
Roy: The sounds and shapes that you’ve been trained to react to and project (so that by now it’s become quite unconscious) form the pattern or content of first-attention reality. The spaces between and around those words, or between the words and the things they stand for, which you notice only in passing, form the backdrop of second-attention reality.
Fables have recently been of increasing interest to you, particularly those involving non- humans: animals, plants, rocks or objects. Could you please talk about how you engage with these specific narratives, their various sources and how they relate to the concept of “uncomfortable objects” that you’ve been developing?
Lately, I’ve been collecting dialogues and fables involving non-humans, at first I found these dialogues only in fictional literature, but then I started finding experiments of this kind among science historians, philosophers and anthropologists. That was when I started looking at the work of Brazilian anthropologists like Tania Stolze Lima and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who coined the expression “Amerindian perspectivism.” Perspectivism is based on the idea that the world is inhabited by different beings that apprehend the world from different points of view. Human beings see themselves as human beings. But the Moon… the snake, the jaguar or the smallpox virus see them like tapirs or boars, which they kill.
Jaguars see blood like manioc beer, the dead see grasshoppers as fish, the vultures see maggots in rotting flesh as barbecued fish. I’m questioning two things here: on the one hand, what remains of the object after so much historical manipulation? And on the other, what would be these objects’ stories if they could tell us their own version of the events?
My project is like a journey composed of a series of fables about “uncomfortable objects”—a portrait of contemporary society seen by non-human eyes. A compilation of succinct stories where the main characters are animals, mythological creatures, plants and objects.
Your title for the El Eco project, Este desorden construido autoriza geológicas sorpresas a la memoria más abandonada (This constructed disorder allows geological surprises for the most abandoned memory), is taken from a poem by Carlos Pellicer. You’ve also printed this poem in the form of one of the posters that the public can take with them. What is your interest in Pellicer’s poetry and this poem in particular?
The title of the show comes from Carlos Pellicer’s poem Esquemas para una oda tropical a cuatro voces, segunda intención (Ideas for a Tropical Ode in Four Voices, second attempt). I’m interested in Carlos Pellicer’s work as a poet but also as an intellectual who was involved in music, visual art, archaeology and anthropology.
The poem is an ode to the Mexican rainforest in Tabasco. I see the poem as a work with multiple perspectives and voices—it’s not the poet describing nature, but becoming a bird, plant, sunset, serpent, soursop, sunshine, water, tongue, green, multitude.
Anthropology has continually played a major role in your research and projects. Can you describe your attraction to this field and how you see it in dialogue with your art practice and with contemporary art in general?
I’ve found lately there are many resonances between anthropology and contemporary art practice. Like the art world, anthropology is trapped in a self-reflexive system. It’s probably clearer in anthropology, as the need to do field research and to engage with other communities is crucial to the practice. It’s based on the need to understand the other, but the people who are the original source of the study don’t usually have access to the research’s final results, so they become no more than a projection mechanism of the anthropological apparatus.
In the case of the art world it’s a little more complex, since the final product’s public projection is ambiguous. At the same time, as an artist, you need to be self-reflexive, site-specific, and critical. The artist is caught in a trap that’s hard to escape from, and this self-awareness makes it practically impossible to create metaphors, or to actually address anything outside the system.
Roy Wagner makes this point clear in a conversation with Coyote:
Roy: Isn’t that what linguists do, in a purely hypothetical sense? And isn’t it what Heisenberg did when he called our inability to determine both the location and the velocity of a particle at the same time an “uncertainty principle,” as though the particle itself were uncertain as to its own motion and location?
Coyote: And isn’t that what you are doing to me right now by anthropomorphizing me, pretending that I am an anthropologist just like you? Heisenberg pointed out that we interfere with tiny particles in the very act of observing them, and so re-project our own intentions inadvertently upon the particle (or Coyote, as the case may be). But what he did not allow himself to concede was that the particle was doing the same thing back to him, for “it” had entered his own thought process as though it were part of his own neural net.
Roy: Which, by that time, it was. Or, in other words, by virtue of the fundamental subject/ object shift, I got coyotes on the brain.
 Vieira, Antonio, “Sermao do Espíritu Santo”, 1657, [available in
 Wagner, Roy, Coyote Anthropology, University of Nebraska Press, 2010.