What will future archaeologists find when they discover your flat in 3000 years, perfectly preserved in ash after the terrible 2024 eruption of the Muswell Hill volcano? Flatscreen TVs and thousands of tote bags and reusable coffee cups and hidden jazz mags?
Be careful what you leave behind, is what I’m saying, because people like Mariana Castillo Deball might be around. The Mexican artist has taken inspiration from the beautiful Roman era Temple of Mithras – the ruins of a 1,800 year old place of worship right in the heart of the City, now open to visitors with contemporary art installations shown alongside it – to create an exhibition all about ancient trash, the rubbish that those Romans left lying about.
Three pillars stand around the space, made of stacked clay recreations of vases, amulets and combs found downstairs in the temple itself. A curtain covered in drawings of Roman writing tablets divides the room, and the wall at the back is carved with designs and faces.
Castillo Deball is elevating these everyday bits of discarded Roman life – left abandoned right here 1800 years ago – into a celebration of human creativity. All these little aesthetic gestures – the carvings and patterns – have lasted centuries. She’s showing how art, and life, isn’t meaningless and forgettable: it survives, it endures, it’s beautiful. She’s showing how objects can tell endless mesmerising stories of identity and history. Even the rubbish.
But does the art here tell you anything that the ancient objects themselves, which are on display nearby, don’t? No, not really. The narratives and meanings would still exist if Mariana Castillo Deball hadn’t made this installation, and it’s not like she’s uncovering anything new, so it all ends up feeling a little futile.
But the next time someone tells you contemporary art is rubbish, you can show them this and say yes, it literally is, and there’s nothing wrong with that.