ChicagoReva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago
November 16, 2018 – January 13, 2019
The tōnalpōhualli (“count of days” in Nahuatl) was one of two main Aztec calendars. Unlike the 365-day solar calendar, the tōnalpōhualli was a 260-day cycle designed to balance power and ritual attention among the Aztec deities across twenty 13-day periods (trecenas). Like virtually all systems of pre-Columbian knowledge, this calendar, and the texts and materials that recorded it, were almost completely obliterated by Spanish colonial rule. Many, if not most, of the records that survived are held in European institutions today.
Mariana Castillo Deball takes one such record as a point of departure for her installation and exhibition Petlacoatl. The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, a pre-Columbian manuscript depicting the tōnalpōhualli, is currently held by the World Museum, Liverpool. Drawing inspiration from this rare, lushly detailed and hand-colored document, Castillo Deball has orchestrated a material and spatial reinstantiation of the tōnalpōhualli. In her installation, a sequence of notched metal forms loosely directs a path through the galleries; the notches count 260 days, while cork-like insertions mark the breaks between 13-day trecenas.
The title of the exhibition is the Nahuatl word for “mat woven of snakes pointing in all directions,” a symbolic omen that sometimes appeared in Aztec records. Castillo Deball has rendered her own version in watercolor and ink, one of a dozen deft drawings that dot the installation’s path. Others depict gridded dots that loosely diagram the syncopated rhythm of tōnalpōhualli’s timekeeping formula. The rest show varied perspectives of the life-death-rebirth deity, Xipe Totec, as represented by artifacts now held in Western museums like The Art Institute of Chicago. Xipe Totec was usually depicted wearing the flayed skin of others, and his name is the origin of the word ixiptla, which describes the Mesoamerican belief that representations were in fact material instantiations of that which they represented.
Beyond the specifics of her references, Castillo Deball’s installation of objects and drawings shifts attention towards spatial, visual, and bodily forms of knowledge and away from written language, the main weapon of Western rationalism and a major locus of colonial struggle and erasure. In so doing, Castillo Deball stages for the viewer what is less an encounter with than an embodied experience of a different mode of understanding time through space—an epistemology deliberately marginalized and degraded in the so-called Enlightenment. The densely layered experience is further enriched by a series of modular tile sculptures on the floor, which function as a sort of metonym for the vast Mesoamerican architectures, infrastructures, and urban centers erased by Spanish conquest. The assemblages’ scale and modularity suggest we might still be able to access these histories through other, more immediate means.
Petlacoatl continues a line of inquiry Castillo Deball developed earlier this year, with her exhibition in tlilli in tlapalli, at the Museo Amparo in Puebla. Working in tandem with chemical researcher Diana Magaloni, the artist analyzed the pigments from the Florentine Codex, a key ethnographic record of Mesoamerican society made by a Franciscan monk in the 16th century, currently held in Florence. Meeting the premise of ixiptla at its surface, Castillo Deball proposed that the pigments themselves channeled the power and presence of the deities and thought systems they depicted. Her installation recreated the codex’s temporal circuit using the plants and minerals from which the original pigments were derived; it also featured murals abstracted from colonial-era maps.
As an artist consistently engaged with questions of museology, archaeology, and the means by which knowledge is produced and preserved, Castillo Deball poses urgent questions about context. Indeed, the great challenge of her work is that the objects, images, and installations—exquisite though they may be—are often proxies for broader systems or foils for thinking about what is not there. As such, it is perhaps the fissures in her earnest premises and the questions they raise that are most productive for thinking through systems of knowledge and belief in which she’s interested. Can we truly access a spatial epistemology erased centuries ago in the present moment, through presently conditioned bodies? What are the ethics of presenting pre-Columbian systems and objects in such a radically decontextualized framework? Petlacoatl is at best provisional, at worst unresolved, but its demands for extra-textual literacy and respect for the agency of artifacts are as timely now as ever.