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.
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.