Exhibition // Making Objects Speak: Mariana Castillo Deball at Hamburger Bahnhof

Article by Alison Hugill in Berlin; Monday, Oct. 06, 2014

Mariana Castillo Deball‘s current show at Hamburger Bahnhof is an inert stage play performed by a vastly heterogeneous collection of actors. Though it’s billed as a solo exhibition, her pieces are not alone: a silent dialogue is enacted between the artist’s own works and a cast of well-worn artifacts and artworks from the immense combined collection of the Berlin State Museums.

The artist is somewhat of an aspiring archeologist, who has spent months poring through the museum archives to develop a conceptually robust curatorial display, with a research component that delves into the history of all the objects on display, presenting what Castillo Deball refers to as the “biographies of things.” In fitting with the collection, visitors are transported back to the days when Hamburger Bahnhof was indeed a point of entry into the city. Many of the artifacts shown in the show are from the Technical Museum, including an old train timetable stand indicating some of Castillo Deball’s research and an aesthetically sculptural exploded steam train firebox from 1910. By placing these historical objects amidst her own pieces, she recontextualizes their reception and the reception of her own work, in turn. The lines between artistic practice and technical engineering are cleverly blurred, and it’s difficult to know which is which without consulting the accompanying printed matter.

The exhibition is called Parergon, meaning supplementary or accessory in Greek. In this case, it’s unclear whether the supplementary works are the artist’s own pieces or the historical materials. Or, the huge amount of research and storytelling hidden behind the rather modestly presented oeuvre. The philosophical tendency of the exhibition concept alludes to the object-oriented theories of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman. The so-called “Actor-Network Theory” (ANT) espoused by these writers has presented objects as integral parts of social networks, with agency and personal histories. Over the last decade, ANT has become a popular trope in the art world, providing an obvious allure to artists who work at creating and exhibiting objects on a regular basis. While these exhibitions have been more or less successful, more or less banal, the concept has been a recurring focus of artists for some time. What sets Castillo Deball’s exhibition apart is perhaps the sheer comprehensiveness of her research. Her interest in the site (this former train station) and its re-use as a museum for contemporary art, come out subtly in each piece, unveiling a fluid story of industry and artistry, and the confluence of the two.

An enormous floor-to-ceiling textile curtain sets the stage for Castillo Deball’s dramatic interplay. The ‘Mschatta-Fassade’ (2014) is a lightly traced reproduction of the ruins of Qasr al-Mshatta, situated 30km south of the Jordanian capital of Amman. In 1932, the facade was installed in the Islamic section of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where it remains today. The acquisition of this precious artifact is catalogued in detail, presenting the account of a shady deal between the Ottoman and German empires. This story is exemplary of the kind told in the exhibition, about the many layers and agents at work in the history of art and the art market.

While it is quite possible (and fruitful) to read your own stories into this disparate collection of objects, developing their connections – both aesthetic and historical – for yourself, Castillo Deball also offers a supplementary audio guide and newspaper with the exhibition, to contextualize the selected display. The relations weave a complex tale of imperialism, not uncommon to the history of national art collections in European capitals, but here exposed in their raw materiality.


Additional Information

Exhibition: Sep. 20, 2014 – Mar. 01, 2015
Invalidenstraße 50-51 (click here for map)


Alison Hugill has a Master’s in Art Theory from Goldsmiths College, University of London (2011). Her research focuses on marxist-feminist politics and aesthetic theories of community, communication and communism. Alison is an editor, writer and curator based in Berlin. www.alisonhugill.com

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