In 1946, a mining geologist, Reginald Sprigg, was searching for uranium to fuel nuclear weapons. He began exploring the Ediacara Hills in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges and found imprints of what turned out to be soft-bodied organisms on the undersides of sandstone and quartz. He presumed this biota to be from the Cambrian period that began circa 541 million years ago, which heralded an explosion of animal life marked by skeletons and shells.
While this well-preserved group of unidentified fossils was an extraordinary find in itself, later work established the ancient organisms located in these low hills north of Adelaide were, in fact, up to 635 million years old. However, the question remains about what these fossils, which lacked mineralised parts such as teeth, scales, bones and shells, might be. Jellyfish, maybe? Worms?
“The biggest question is how is it possible that an organism that didn’t have a bone structure still managed to leave a fossil impression,” says Mexico City-born artist Mariana Castillo Deball, whose first Australian exhibition, Replaying Life’s Tape, will ask visitors to consider how the relationship between site and time impacts our view of the natural world. “Because this is almost never the case.”
In 2018, Castillo Deball came to Australia and documented the sandstone impressions in the Ediacara Hills, using ink rubbings and frottage. Her photographs and drawings from the site are presented alongside scientific data within sculptural installations at the exhibition, held at the Monash University Museum of Art in Melbourne.
At the site, large pieces of rock over an area that would have once been a sea bed are preserved to investigate how these organisms behaved. “But they don’t know if they were animals or plants,” says the artist, whose work draws upon museology, archaeology, anthropology and the philosophy of science. “That’s why it’s so difficult to place this period in the tree of life.”
In 2004, the word Ediacara, from local Indigenous language but with disputed meanings, was officially applied to this span of more than 90 million years up to the Cambrian age, overlapping but shorter than the Vendian period which was named in 1952 by Russian scientists, who cite fossil findings from the White Sea region. Discoveries continue to be made about the era: following Castillo Deball’s site visit to the Ediacara Hills, an ancient organic pigment was extracted from fossils in the Sahara Desert. Australian scientists who made the discovery believe the Sahara find represents the world’s oldest surviving biological colours, being 1.1 billion years old.
Before this antipodean work, Castillo Deball’s enquiries into how nature is organised have taken her to projects in São Paulo, Brazil, and to Berlin, where she has been based for the past 10 years. She interrogates naturalist Charles Darwin’s theories from On the Origin of Species on adaptation and how the best organisms are the ones that survive.
She hopes to spark questions about how throughout the history of science, we humans have “tried to impose our own [hypothetical] thinking onto nature, and how we are convinced we are correct when probably we are not, or we have no idea what was happening at that time”.
Does Castillo Deball think the public understands the significance of the Ediacara Hills site? “I think when dates start to be so far back, people lose the sense of distance. When you start seeing 20 million years old, or 600 million years old, it becomes so abstract. The only way is when you see the whole history of evolution and realise we [humans] are absolutely nothing in comparison to all the things that already happened before.”
Was the artist a curious child? What were the influences that made her such a polymath? “I’m not really sure how it started. When I finished high school, I didn’t really know if I wanted to study philosophy, mathematics or art. Then I decided art, because I thought it was the most versatile field where I could use the tools of other disciplines without narrowing into one single area. I also worked for many years in a science museum.”
Castillo Deball still undertakes projects in her homeland of Mexico, despite having left the country 15 years ago. Has her art helped her understand her own identity and how she fitted into the world? “That’s one of the main things the work has done for me, helped me to understand the history of my land and also of the different ways life is understood in general, from a human perspective but also trying to connect with other species.”
There is a contemplative element to her work about the planet’s future, too, connecting with the current geological age, the Anthropocene, and critiquing how “humans are taking over other places which were before happily inhabited by different creatures,” she says.
This article was originally published in the September/October print edition of Art Guide Australia.