REFLECTION: A second look at Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa's "Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow)" after a performance
IVAN SO | MARCH 10, 2019
In 1975, students at El teatro de la Universidad Popular de Guatemala provoked controversy with a satirical interpretation of a Guatemalan play titled, El corazón del espantapájaros (The Scarecrow's Heart), written by famed playwright Hugo Carrillo in 1962. As an act of resistance against the Guatemalan dictatorship, the student work was eventually cancelled, becoming a significant act of censorship during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960 - 1996). Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow), is the third iteration of artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa's interpretation of a poem by Guatemalan poet Wingston González, which itself was written in 2018 in response to Carillo's script. This exhibition also marks the first English translation of the play by María Escolán Nuila, and of the poem by José García Escobar. In January 2019, Ramírez-Figueroa performed live on four separate nights at the Audain Gallery. His performances utilized props and costumes to translate and transmute González's text. The remnants of the props used during the performances remained on display for the duration of the exhibition at the Audain Gallery, alongside two series of prints.
At the front of the gallery, a set of monochrome aquatints were visible from the street. The prints were lined up horizontally and depicted scenes of González's interpretation of Carillo's play as imagined by Ramírez-Figueroa. A second series, of woodcut prints, were installed inside the gallery and seemingly without sequential order. This series showed varying grotesque and violent figures. Unlike the first set of prints that represented characters from the poem and play, the second set of prints depicted unfamiliar characters that seemed to have derived from the artist's mind.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow). Aquatint detail, Audain Gallery, 2019. Photo: Blaine Campbell.
During his time at the Audain Gallery, I assisted Ramírez-Figueroa with four days of performances as part of an internship with SFU Galleries. A compelling aspect of his work was his awareness of the audience and his relationship with the space he performed in. For example, there was a sense of tension evoked by the close proximity between himself and his audience as he moved between and around them. The performances often involved using the entire space and his movements were slow, as if he were in a trance that disregarded the orientation of the audience. Part of my work was to set-up chairs according to the artist's preferences, which changed each day. The seating itself ranged from sitting on the floor, to sitting on props or in chairs.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow). Installation and performance documentation, Audain Gallery, 2019. Photo: Blaine Campbell.
As part of my my work with the gallery, I helped prepare Ramírez-Figueroa's sets and fit him into different costumes during the performances. Traces of each performance were immediately reset for the following day's performance. At the end of the run, the props and costumes returned to their original installation locations, where they remained for the duration of the exhibition. However, following their usage during the performances, some of the objects were permanently altered. For example, an obsidian disc was shattered during the third night and remained in the exhibition in its many parts. The ephemerality of the performances became a history, one that persisted as a haunting of the space. I believe that the short-lived performances explored the ideas of lost history and the fleeting temporality of spaces, bodies and events. I felt strongly about this concept after seeing the objects in the space be performed in a ritualistic and uncanny way. Being present during the performances gave me knowledge about certain objects, in a way similar to how artifacts are presented in museums: to remember the objects' historical function and purpose. I believe that through performance, Ramírez-Figueroa has created an interpretation of the poem in a form that is temporal. Only the final performance was documented (watch here).
During the first night of performances, Ramírez-Figueroa entered the gallery wearing a pair of black pants and a white shirt, situating himself at the center of the room. He laid down on his back with the obsidian mirror beside him and a plastic hummingbird in his hands. As viewers, we became acutely aware of the gestures of his hands as he emphasized their movements through repetition and duration. With one hand moving the birds wings as if it were flying, his other hand tapped against the floor in a rhythmic motion. Eventually, he signalled for my assistance to bring a bale of hay out to the center of the space. He took a moment to sit quietly on the prop before removing his pants and top, slipping into a beige coloured costume. Simultaneously, he began ripping chunks of hay from his seat and gradually filled his entire costume. Using tape, he vigorously wrapped his entire head with hay transforming himself into a scarecrow. The intensity of his movements increased as he rocked back and forth while pivoting slowly in a circle. Rustling sounds from the hay filled the space. He repeated his swaying motion for a minute and then ended the performance by unwrapping the tape from his head and leaving the space. When he left, it was unclear if he would be coming back.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow). Performance documentation, Audain Gallery, 2019. Photo: Weiyi Chang.
Following the ambiguous end of the first night's performance, I was fascinated with the viewers reactions. I remember watching everyone in the space as they switched their gaze towards each other and then back to the curtains where he had exited. After a minute of waiting silently, a wave of applause signalled the end of the performance. I came to interpret this ending as a foreshadowing of the performances that would take place on the following nights. All four performances followed a similar structure: lying down on his back with an obsidian mirror placed on his chest, conjuring a transformation, creating gestures while moving around the gallery space and finally leaving.
Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow) is a fluid work with many layers that does not attempt to convey a single narrative. Rather, his work allows for open interpretations. In response, I was interested in the function of the obsidian, an object that both reflects the viewer and is also associated with magic. The obsidian mirror - which he had termed his obsidian heart - seemed to have the quality of conjuring transformations. English alchemist John Dee owned obsidian and used it to call spirits. In contrast, in Aztec culture, obsidian was a symbol of authority and power owned by royals.
Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow). Installation documentation, Audain Gallery, 2019. Photo: Blaine Campbell
The transformations were literally depicted during his costume changes, which could take between two to ten minutes each, depending on the costume, and which were central elements of the performances themselves. Most of his costumes had been designed to wear in various ways. In reflection, having the instructions be given to me during the performance emphasized the intuitive decisions that were made. The improvisation of each performance was evident in the strategies of the artist, responding and moving along the gallery space with a lack of concern for the audience around him. This speaks to his relationship with performance: there is always space for change and interpretation. As a viewer, I was mesmerized by the simplicity of his movements because their intention evoked curiosity and an urgency to decode their meaning. The unpredictability of his performances reiterates the fact that his interpretation of González's poem was transformed and developed during each night's performance. After attending all four of the performances, it was fascinating to see all the evidence removed from the space and reset to its original installation. I concluded that Ramirez-Figueroa was less interested in translating González's poem, but rather, that he was more interested in the use of interpretation and transformation to develop new interpretations.
For more information about Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa's exhibition, Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow), click here.