WMariana Castillo Dibal was invited to create an exhibition responding to Roman antiquities in the Mithraeum Collection in London, and it was the local quality and unfinished treatment that first caught her eye. “It’s the opposite The British Museumwhere artifacts were taken in suspicious circumstances from all over the world.” “In Europe, we sometimes forget that we have a history to show.”
It’s common knowledge that mid-century London’s cultural guardians didn’t cover themselves in glory when it came to what many have described as the capital’s most exciting archaeological find. Discovering the Temple of Mithras in 1954, it quickly captured the city’s imagination. This underground building dedicated to Mithras the Bull Slayer, the cult god of mysterious soldiers, was central to the original settlement of Londinium along the Thames. However, despite intense press coverage, and an endorsement of Winston Churchill, its treasures were scattered – or even thrown away – as the building was randomly re-erected in 1962 over the roof of a parking lot. Today it has been carefully recreated at the bottom of the Bloomberg skyscraper, at the original site where archaeologists have since found many other ancient artifacts.
Because of this pandemic, Berlin-based artist Castillo Dibal’s creativity has been shaped by what she drew from archaeologists’ databases, rather than her hands-on exploration of the collection. “It has become more speculative and metaphorical,” she says. The items I looked at are not those associated with the temple and supercharged by its secret. Rather, they are more ordinary finds than later excavations. “It’s utilitarian things from everyday life that were underground, not because of a sacred position, but because someone had already thrown them,” she explains. “Things like cooking pottery, clothes and writing tablets, which were used almost the way we use texting now. Once the message was delivered, the tablet was discarded.” The wooden planks, which were covered in wax and carved, are the first example of a written language in Britain and are considered one of the greatest prizes in the collection.
In its composition, Roman Rubbish, three stacked ceramic towers indicate ways our understanding of the value and meaning of things can change. In one, amorphous ceramics were sometimes polished with a metallic glaze and hung with a hot piece of objects that could easily fall to the ground, including coins, pins, and dice. Another column places conservation work in the center, carefully recreating the pots with the fractions and all. Recent ceramic work expands small amulets – “a penis on one side, a vagina on the other” – as well as toothless combs, indicating how their importance may have grown.
A muslin curtain connects the works, painted with panel scripts and other interpretations of the artifacts hidden in the pockets to make dramatic silhouettes: uncertain shadows cast by the elusive past. One of the clearly recognizable items are the soles of old shoes; A reminder, perhaps, to consider our mark. “Old garbage was sustainable because it’s organic, but now our waste is harder to hide and we’re producing more,” explains Castillo Dibal. “The show asks us to think about the current and future relationship we have with things: what we consider important, what we put in museums and what we throw away.”
Romanian trash by Mariana Castillo Dibal At the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE up to 14 January.
Lost and Found: In the Studio of Castillo Dibal
The textile work in the gallery is based on Roman writing tablets, with texts scratched with wax. “They carried very practical messages for accountability and so on,” says Castillo Dibal. “The engravings are very beautiful and I drew them by hand.”
50 degrees of clay
Castillo Dibal tried to stay close to the different types of clay that the Romans were using at the time: black, gold, orange and terracotta. “There was a lot of trade in Roman times but I think it was locally sourced. A lot of artefacts were discovered at the Mithraium site because the soil was very soft, like a swamp.
Castillo Dibal first created stacked columns for a project in her native Mexico, though the model calls to mind famous ancient examples such as Trajan’s Narrative Column. “It’s a way of telling a story in a sculptural sense,” she says. “You can walk around them and they will change the space.”