In Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s performance “A Brief History of Architecture in Guatemala” at the Guggenheim, the artist invited us to consider why

The ancient Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala is home to a number of stepped temples that have ominously towered over the jungle for centuries. On a recent evening at the Guggenheim Museum, however, one of these ancient pyramids danced freely to the bright chimes of a marimba: it was replicated in the scaled-down form of a costume worn by Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, as part of his performance, “A Brief History of Architecture in Guatemala” in the museum’s atrium. Joining him were two other dancers who also donned representations of Guatemalan buildings that Ramírez-Figueroa had constructed out of corrugated white plastic. Despite their stiff garments, the trio twirled and spun freely, like bulky ballerinas, moving through the crowd before meeting at stage center — where they smashed against each other until their ensembles splintered to reveal their naked bodies.

First Public Presentation in the United States of Three Recently Acquired Artworks by OPAVIVIRÁ!, Amalia Pica, and Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa
First Public Presentation in the United States of Three Recently Acquired Artworks by OPAVIVIRÁ!, Amalia Pica, and Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa © the artist and Proyectos Ultravioleta

Just about five minutes long, the mesmerizing dance was the shortest in a lineup of special performances presented by Latin American Circle, a one-night-only program curated by Pablo León de la Barra. Bookending Ramírez-Figueroa’s piece was Argentinian artist Amalia Pica‘s “Asamble” (2015), a silent procession meditating on democratic communication; and a rowdy, percussive performance of “Kitchen Drumming (Batuque na cozinha)” (2013/17) by Brazilian art collective OPAVIVARÁ!, which had spectators banging on pots with wooden spoons and gyrating across the museum’s rotunda all night.

Although similarly upbeat, Ramírez-Figueroa’s dizzying display reveals in its brevity a somber perspective on Guatemala’s ability to properly care for its built environment, from ancient to modern structures. “A Brief History,” first performed in 2010, draws inspiration from a passage in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s 1955 memoir Tristes Tropiques. The French anthropologist notes that while a centuries-old European church still looks relatively pristine, a temple in Latin America appears neglected. Ramírez-Figueroa wanted to touch upon what he described to me as “this anxiety that many Latin American countries have about trying to preserve our architectural history — which in some cases is thousands of years old — but there’s no way to economically preserve them.”

The buildings he highlights are diverse, and although each is based on specific structures, they also represent archetypes of Guatemalan architecture — presenting a kind of History 101, as the performance’s title suggests. Spectators unfamiliar with the country’s architecture will likely be able to still identify the buildings as a Mesoamerican temple, a church, and a modernist building with a geometric relief.