Mexico City

View of “Mariana Castillo Deball,” 2014. Floor: Vista de ojos, 2014. Walls: All works Untitled, 2014.

View of “Mariana Castillo Deball,” 2014. Floor: Vista de ojos, 2014. Walls: All works Untitled, 2014.

Mariana Castillo Deball


View of “Mariana Castillo Deball,” 2014. Floor: Vista de ojos, 2014. Walls: All works Untitled, 2014.

The visual techniques of colonialism—and their tenacious legacy in the present—were the focus of the Berlin-based Mexican artist Mariana Castillo Deball’s recent show “Vista de ojos” (View of the Eyes). Three larger-than-life photographs propped against the walls of the main gallery space all bore the title UMRISS (Outline), 2014. Each photograph depicts a mask, either facedown or in reverse, on a brightly colored gradated background. The images were inspired by an international advertising campaign from the 1980s for the antipsychotic drug Stelazine that featured masks from a variety of indigenous peoples. (The ad that ran in Mexico featured several of local origin that were set on similarly hued backdrops and accompanied by a call to action from an uninspired copywriter: “Stelazine. Remove the mask of schizophrenic symptoms.”) The advertisements perpetuated the sadly familiar equation of the so-called primitive with mental pathology. They also invoked the mask as the traditional face of alterity, exploiting its inherent capacity to make it possible for a viewer to be, and see as, the other for a while—similar deployments of the mask are plentiful throughout the history of European art. Deball’s photographed disguises were culled from the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin and, rather than engaging in the futile task of restoring ritual significance to these objects, the artist’s defining act is that of distortion: The mask, head size and habitually regarded straight on, was, in Deball’s photographic renditions, both outsize and obscured, making it impossible to look at, much less see through.

The 2014 work that shared its title with the exhibition was a wall-to-wall wood covering of the central gallery’s vast floor, with laser-cut markings derived from the first known map of Mexico City. Although it was first attributed to a court cartographer of Charles V, later study revealed that the map, made in 1550, must have been created by an Aztec native of the city who apprenticed in the colonial charting tradition. The map shows the ancient city, only three decades after the conquest, as home to both colonizer and colonized, as evidenced by European-style and indigenous dwellings. Presciently imbuing this positivist undertaking with intimate knowledge are depictions of an indigenous population engaged in everyday activities in the city and within the waters that at that time intersected and surrounded it.

Subject to scrutiny here were the interconnected and coincident practices of isometric charting and colonial expansion and control. As a metaphor for the asymmetries of colonialism, the map gives the omnipotent few the capacity to grasp the vast expanses of the many. While the original piece of parchment could easily be held and seen in one glance, Deball’s flooring impeded its delivery of immediate ocular mastery, instead approximating the cognitive act to the partial comprehension that comes with circumnavigating a place on foot. Furthering this visual fragmentation of the original were black-and-white prints, directly taken from the floor covering, displayed in a framed selection in a smaller gallery as well as collectively compiled in an atlas-like volume at the show’s entrance. Although the sheets matched the scale of their source, they served to splinter the city into a series of isolated locales, practices, and people. Here, a contemporary viewer found amplified the mark of lived experience embedded in this omnipotent vista by its creator, exemplifying how the visual evidence of colonialism, as Martin Jay has pointed out, can “tacitly unsettle the official story told in discursive form,” complicating accounts of imperial power as the simple domination of an active agent over its pliant subject.

Sarah Lookofsky