What will future archaeologists find when they discover your apartment 3000 years from now, perfectly preserved in ash after the terrible 2024 eruption of the Muswell Hill volcano? Flat-screen TVs and thousands of hidden tote bags, reusable coffee mugs and jazz magazines?
Be careful what you leave behind is what I say, because people like Mariana Castillo Deball might be there. The Mexican artist was inspired by the magnificent Roman Temple of Mithras – the ruins of an 1,800-year-old place of worship in the heart of the city, now open to visitors with contemporary art installations displayed alongside – to create an exhibition all about ancient waste, the waste that these Romans left lying around.
Three pillars stand around the space, consisting of stacked clay recreations of vases, amulets and combs found on the ground floor of the temple itself. A curtain covered in Roman tablet designs divides the room, and the back wall is carved with designs and faces.
Castillo Deball elevates these discarded everyday bits of Roman life – abandoned here 1,800 years ago – into a celebration of human creativity. All these small aesthetic gestures – the carvings and the patterns – lasted for centuries. She shows how art, and life, is not meaningless and forgettable: it survives, it endures, it’s beautiful. She shows how objects can tell countless fascinating stories of identity and history. Even the trash.
But does the art here tell you something that the ancient objects themselves, which are on display nearby, don’t tell you? Not really. The stories and meanings would still exist if Mariana Castillo Deball hadn’t made this installation, and it’s not like she discovered anything new, so it all ends up feeling a bit futile.
But the next time someone tells you that contemporary art is rubbish, you can show them that and say yes, literally, and there’s nothing wrong with that.