Mythopoeic Acts: Mariana Castillo Deball’s Newspaper Works
Mariana Castillo Deball’s contribution to this magazine is a series of contour drawings made by perforating pages from daily European newspapers. Crude, geometric, and, in their hypnotizing symmetry, conjuring shapes cut out of a sheet of paper that has been folded in half and then unfolded to allow the drawing to become complete, Deball’s works represent fantastic animals morphing into humanlike beings. They unfold as animals and humans becoming one sign—a heraldic symbol, perhaps, for our new and tenuous ecological world order—as we cut their barely discernible outlines from pages printed with news, images, and headlines.
The visual language Castillo Deball has adopted here, with its suggestion of performance—the performative use of her drawings, that is, which we can tear out of their pages, following the border tracks of perforated lines—is similar to traditional motifs employed in pre-Columbian Mexico for centuries. In Mesoamerica, paper was made of the bark of specific trees or the skin of deer—the outer shells of living plants or animals. After the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, imported European paper meant that the indigenous tradition of paper manufacturing mostly died out. In some remote places such as San Pablito, an Otomi village on the border of the Puebla and Hidalgo states, bark paper production continued, and the paper was used for sorcery. The shamans would cut out shapes and practice white and black magic rituals, in order to cure an illness, neutralize an enemy, or bring rain, prosperity, love, and crops. The cut-out papers were not works of art to be looked at but objects imbued with functions and meanings. Their singular role was fulfilled at precisely the moment that the object itself perished—sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificial animal, buried in the ground, or burnt in a ritual of sorcery.
There is a lot to learn here, both for our general thinking about contemporary art and the perennial question of what it can do, apart from merely representing the aspiration to transform the present, to bring things back into place. Perhaps the idea of “doing things with words”—here, indeed, with paper—can offer us, the contemporaries, a way out of visual art’s learned helplessness, the gradual demise of its significance for society as it has become less than fetish and no more than an investment, asset, or piece of apparel. Its value must be destroyed in an act of expenditure with no expected return. Only then can some of art’s original sense of restoring balance in the world—a mythopoeic act—be achieved.