Intervention in the Museum of History
artist Gustavo Artigas
Since the first recorded fire in 1539 that destroyed forty houses, flames have played a major role in destroying and reconfiguring, molding and defining the urban landscape of the Panamanian capital. The list is immense and horrifying. From the fire set by pirates that left the ancient city of Panama in ruins in 1671, to the one in 1756 that demolished half of the environs of the new city, up until the recent fire that leveled a block of the heavily populated area of San Miguel.
Beyond the tragic nature of each fire, one can make a fascinating journey by reading the inventory of the Panama City Fire Department. The plain factual reports show the urban coordinates, the customs and the social fabric of different eras: film storehouses, wooden barracks, ancient rental houses, majestic residences, popular theaters, all vanquished by flames.
For that reason the theme chosen by the Mexican artist Gustavo Artigas demonstrated an excellent marksmanship with which to start a dialogue with the Panamanian capital: the simulated but believable fire in a building of great historical significance and symbolic relevance: the Municipal Palace (which also houses the decrepit Museum of History, although hardly anybody knows it). On a peaceful Saturday afternoon and with the complicity of the Fire Department, Artigas filled the Palace with smoke. The reactions of the few passersby at first bordered on indifference. Everything changed when in addition to the smoke, the first flames appeared on the roof and firemen went into action. A social microcosmos formed around the bogus fire: old women wept, vendors of lottery tickets tried to do business in the middle of the unexpected crowd, people offered theories as to the possible causes of the fire, skeptics were sure they were watching a simulated fire, others calculated the destructive possibilities of the fire, like people attending a sporting event, and mere onlookers watched, quiet and serene. Artigas had the unquestionable merit of carrying out a provocation that gave rise to diverse and unforeseen social dynamics, while also providing a commentary on the relationship between memory, irony, and history.
The most ironic aspect is that after the "fire," I had the opportunity to slip into the building while the firemen and organizers were evaluating possible damages. The unused Palace contained a collection of phantom spaces, empty and sad, with an accumulation of dusty pieces of furniture displayed in an absurd manner. The Declaration of Independence reposed in an empty, humid room. And although the fire never penetrated that corner, the bureaucratic neglect, the endemic lack of governmental resources and the generalized disinterest in conserving the living traces of history revealed a space that seemed to be the result of a terrible catastrophe.
I do not know if Artigas had the insight and the time to foresee all this or if he barely sensed it. In any case, and in addition to the dynamics that he knew how to formulate, his work was like an incendiary metaphor of the destructive passage, not of natural catastrophes, but of an alarming bureaucratic negligence, capable of abandoning a building of great historical significance to the damp and dusty ghosts of its own deterioration.