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Issue 139

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa: Shit-Baby and The Crumpled Giraffe
by Noor Bhangu

The final sculpture in Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa’s colourful garden of feces was of a baby, whose position as the sole producer of shit was somehow annulled by his posture of indifference – as if the public process of ejecting such bodily fluids had not yet entered his register of shame and was, therefore, not worthy of consideration. In Shit-Baby and The Crumpled Giraffe, the titular shit-baby sat unbothered at the end of the exhibition’s circuit, which included a sexless stork in a pair of no-name hightops, a towering giraffe with her head inches from the ceiling, fecal droppings that had just missed their intended chamber pots and an airborne shit-serpent, hovering like a warning at the entrance.

The exhibition, curated by Jenifer Papararo, had travelled from Kunsthalle Lissabon (who had originally commissioned the work) to accompany Plug In ICA’s exhibition of Przemek Pyszczek, entitled Białystok. Childhood memory and nostalgia, Papararo articulated, were uniquely taken up by both artists to deliver commentary on the current political climate and aerate the violent conflicts that had unfolded between each artist’s past and present.

For Ramírez-Figueroa, both childhood memory and nostalgia are linked to the history of the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), which resulted in the exile of his family to Canada via Mexico. He was only a child when, upon witnessing the escalating violence enacted by the US-supported Guatemalan government, his family was forced to escape. The artist has come to inhabit the war as a paradigmatic landscape in which to enrol his own body as a means of thinking through the effects of colonial violence, censorship, displacement and loss of culture. Previous installation-based works, such as Corazón del espantapájaros (Heart of the Scarecrow) (2016), point to this habitation quite explicitly: a play by the Guatemalan playwright, Hugo Carrillo, was repurposed by Ramírez-Figueroa to reference a 1975 student-led production that faced one of the harshest censorships during the civil war for its critique of authority. Having seen Corazón del espantapájaros at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – where it was included in the group exhibition, A Universal History of Infamy (2017) – I found that Shit-Baby and The Crumpled Giraffe was devoid of both a categorical connection to the Guatemalan Civil War and the artist’s penchant for maximalist theatre.

Much has been written about the Guatemalan Civil War and the ways in which it exists as both an event and a lens in the world of Ramírez-Figueroa. Walking through Shit-Baby and The Crumpled Giraffe, it was neither war nor the diasporic imaginary that drew me in but the artist’s sincere indulgence in the subconscious, the dreamy and the seemingly faraway. Here, shit-baby is a reference to Freud’s case study, “Little Hans,” in which a young boy is traumatized by his desire for his mother (the crumpled giraffe) and his fear of his father (the horse). But shit-baby is not Little Hans – at least not yet. He is at the anal stage, which according to the psychosexual developmental ladder devised by Freud, is a rung where pleasure is derived from the act and power of desecration. The anal stage eventually leads to the phallic stage. Interestingly, the figure of the horse was absent in the exhibition and with it disappeared all threats of punishment that might have regulated the child’s restless bowel movement. In anticipation of the phallic stage, the giraffe was given prominence and depicted with a pink sliver of a tongue to thicken the underlying feeling of desire, gone unnoticed by shit-baby and, in fact, further suppressed by the presence of the sexless stork, whose only role seemed to involve collecting shit in an already full and soiled bundle. As noted by Lindsay Taylor in her review for Art Review, the artist read Freudian case studies as works of fiction rather than foundations of psychoanalysis.1 The more Ramírez-Figueroa takes up fiction, the more we are able to appreciate fantasy as an active agent in his work, which beneath the spectacle is very much bound to the real.

Thinking via Freud, Ramírez-Figueroa creates a mise-en-scene that materializes shit-baby’s unconscious – or his own at the time of diasporic movement. The drama, delinked from the artist’s usual maximalist approach, is soft in that it is half-dreamt and half-remembered. And given the ephemeral nature of the setting – save for the fecal matter, which is impeccably rendered and presents itself as real – it is not surprising to see that paint just barely saturates each subject. What appears, then, are characters not solid enough to represent their Freudian origins but who, in their gentle resemblance to children’s toys, attempt to spare their maker the weight of the next phase: shame and trauma. In contrast, the shit-droppings assume a destructive role which, under the guise of smallness, threaten to activate the discomfort of recognition. In bringing together these opposing agents, Ramírez-Figueroa points to an unconscious mind, battling between a desire to conceal and a willingness to acknowledge trauma.

Ramírez-Figueroa has often shied away from materializing blood on the body. Frédérique Bergholtz and Susan Gibb summarize Matthew McLean when writing, “even when the performance involves physical harm (be it the pinning of feathers into his arm, or sewing buttons into his skin) no visible blood is shed.”2 Whatever is at the heart of this reticence towards including blood – be it an act of disrupting the dominant imagery of war or a self-preservation method of disengaging with the colour of trauma – it simply does not transfer to the substance of shit. If we can momentarily look past its serpent-like iterations, then shit is the one form in the installation that most closely resembles its organic one. Through this, it is given agency to move between the fantastical and real-life dimensions of the project. Shit cuts through the bullshit narratives constructed to theorize, and thus understand, the movement from war to post-war, childhood to adulthood, and personal to collective. In the end, Shit-Baby and The Crumpled Giraffe may be fully concentrated neither on the Guatemalan Civil War nor on Freud’s Little Hans, but nonetheless espouses something urgent. It offers, rather than prescribes, ambiguity as a coping mechanism for engaging with histories that can never be righted and traumas that will always persist.

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