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.”
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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. The last two are actually modeled off, respectively, Guatemala City’s Metropolitan Cathedral and its central bank, whose facade features a massive cast mural by Guatemalan artist Roberto González Goyri. (At the Guggenheim, these buildings came to life through the dancers Pedro Jiménez and Kendra Ross.)
Ramírez-Figueroa does not inform his audience of the specific buildings he references. Rather than lionizing local architecture, the performance instead draws focus on the joyous movements of the individual, spry bodies beneath the costumes. What the piece intends to relay, ultimately, is that architecture is only material; Ramírez-Figueroa told me he wants to highlight how the people who inhabit them overtime matter much more. As the performers’ unexpected, deliberate destruction emphasizes, buildings are, at their core, shells for our activity. What do locals lose if resources are devoted to preserving certain establishments?
That stance may seem like a bleak approach to culture, but I saw the performance as a broader invitation for all to question why we revere certain buildings, rather than a simple dismissal of architecture’s value. Ramírez-Figueroa’s particular choice to feature centers of sovereign, religious, and financial powers asks us to consider our relationships to equivalent structures in our own countries — to educate ourselves on the origins and histories of buildings we label iconic, so we may better understand why we celebrate their status or, one day, even mourn their loss.
“A Brief History of Architecture in Guatemala” took place at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on May 5.
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