Dim lights. Birds call in the room’s corners. The visitor first embraces the vastness of the space before walking around the structure at its center. Here just before the solstice and the start of summer, the liturgical symbolism of my steps emerges as I’m lucky to experience this sans crowd.
B’alab’äj (Jaguar Stone, 2023), Édgar Calel’s large-scale installation, occupies the SculptureCenter’s entire floor area. Consisting of rocks, candles, soil, wood and hoes, it pays homage to the sacredness of indigenous art, incarnated in Calel’s intimate practice of Naoj, a Mayan concept encompassing an ethos of “knowledge-wisdom-understanding.” His invitation, as I received it, is one to join a cyclical, uncluttered path.
The flickering flames of real candles warm against a stone. Some of them have left burn marks against the rock—a tarnish that reveals a presence, the passage of time in the tension between ephemerality and endurance. There’s also a mix of consuming objects (candles), living substance (soil) and natural masses (rocks). Tools are also part of the installation proper and some are kept in an adjoining room, as an annexed antechamber more than a storage place. Air and warmth connect the installation with various embodied, representational and abstract dimensions—human and nonhuman. For instance, in the transposed earth that is slightly elevated above ground level and the invisible but present sky, which the birds evoke.
Candles are lit and replaced daily, keeping with a spirit of gratitude. The installation is part ritual, material and anthro-ecological. The shapes of the furrows draw the outline of a word, a call that Calel’s grandmother would repeat to feed the birds with maize. This localization is significant to the artist and the meaning of the work since B’alab’äj or Jaguar Stone refers to a stone located in a corn-abundant valley in Calel’s hometown in Guatemala’s central highlands.
In incorporating this chant, Calel, born and based in Chi Xot (San Juan Comalapa), Guatemala, melds poetry and musicality with a living, organic landscape. This isn’t Calel’s first time doing just that. He previously incorporated the same onomatopoeic call—kit kit kit—in his first solo show, Pa tu run ché (From the treetop, 2021), as well as in other works, which suggests an attachment, a lasting echo. The chant inhabits an essential connection between the land and human-animal relations. Language and exchange take place anytime and everywhere. By placing the words in B’alab’äj, he tells us that corn signifies the centrality of agriculture and land-caring. It’s a nourishment, an aura and a companion that is weaved into the layers of the soil just like it is nested in Calel’s memory. The plot of soil is contained—protected—within this chant.
As a result, the work’s devotional and ancestral qualities permeate what the installation symbolizes: a genealogy. In Calel’s case, as a Kaqchikel artist, it is indigenous and Mayan. The Kaqchikel people are one of the largest Mayan groups of Guatemala.
“I have always wanted my work to be related to the place where I was born and where my body first learned to vibrate in the world—I carry a culture within me,” Calel said in a 2020 interview.
The Mayan cosmovision explains the order of the world, an entity divided and united between heaven, the earth and the underworld. It’s a philosophy and belief rooted in dualities and complementarities, which establishes an interconnected and interdependent relation between human and non-human worlds, the living and the dead, the material and the spiritual, life on earth and the cosmos.
The cosmovision encompasses ceremonies, cardinal directions, seasonal changes and energetic properties. This Mayan tradition-knowledge is also one of resistance to many ills, not just in terms of spiritual continuity but in the political underpinnings of rights that have been often infringed upon, such as during Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996) and in more recent times.
Calel’s previous work Ru k’ox k’ob’el jun ojer etemab’el (The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge, 2021) also explored in installation form the pluralities of Mayan offerings. Produce is carefully placed on multiple rocks that resonate with rituals of creation myths. The rocks find their complementarity and completeness in an archipelagic layout. Individual offerings are part of a larger whole—like the living itself, the various Mayan peoples or the various Kaqchikel municipalities (municipios).
Not all this knowledge has been consigned in writing. Discussions about translability, syncretism and intertextuality, which typically center a mainstream, Western-dominant view of art’s expressions and functions, escape Calel’s practice. Assigning a mercantile value to this work that so intrinsically transcends commercialization is tricky at best. This conundrum came to the fore during Frieze London in 2021, when the artist and gallery came to an agreement on a temporary custodianship with Tate for thirteen years—a length of time that corresponds to a significant number in Mayan tradition.
“These stones are not just stones. These fruits are not just fruits. Together they form altars and become a sacred site for rituals. When placing a fruit or a vegetable atop a stone with the proper intention, these elements become an offering to our ancestors and the land and a way to thank them for their wisdom, experiences and guidance,” Calel said of The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge.
Calel is represented by Guatemala-based Proyectos Ultravioleta gallery, which showcases its artists in various art fairs, such as Frieze New York and the Armory Show. Calel has participated in a number of solo and group shows, which most recently include the ongoing Liverpool Biennial (2023), the 58th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh (2022) and the 11th Berlin Biennale (2020). His works have been acquired by several institutions, featuring in the collections of the Tate, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Spain and the National Gallery of Canada, among others.
Indigenous art has often been tokenized, ridiculed and/or transformed into consumable aesthetics in extractive and exploitative cultures—a hierarchy mostly inherited from colonial practices. Because of this, one could apprehend at first the uprooting of this reconstituted and reimagined Mayan altar in Queens. I feared fetishism, vulgarization, exoticism or voyeurism. But none of these concerns resonate when engaging with the artwork.
The SculptureCenter’s venue beautifully lends itself to contemplation and immersion. The visitor can walk around the installation without preying on or desecrating the integrity of the site. It’s as if, through the offering of dwelling in space and time, Calel has unearthed a cave for us or brought the sky a little closer. In that, Calel’s intentions are, I believe, respected and honored.
B’alab’äj (Jaguar Stone) is on view at the SculptureCenter through August 7.