Rafa Esparza and Dorian Wood's emotionally-charged performances, involving nudity and body cementation, broke barriers in the parking lot of USC's Graduate Fine Arts Building for "Live Artists Live: Simultaneity."
Audience members for this Visions and Voices event on Saturday, January 13 encircled Esparza, who could only be seen from his shoulders up. The rest of his body, sealed in a zig-zagged slab of cement, reminiscent of Chacmool, remained immobilized until he took out a hammer and started chipping away at his sculpture.
Dating back to ancient Latin American civilization, a Chacmool was a pre-Columbian sculpture often interpreted to have been used as an offering table to receive gifts. In Esparza's performance, his position as a Chacmool communicates the all-too-familiar image of hardworking Latinos offering their labor for any chance at an American life.
As he told Bomb Magazine in 2016, Esparza's fascination with using hard, industrial surfaces, such as adobe and concrete, stems from his desire to connect with his father – a Mexican adobe laborer who built his own home prior to immigrating to the United States.
Esparza commanded the audience's attention as he continued to pound away at his concrete encasing, leaving the audience filled with intense curiosity.
His emergence remained a mystery, however, because the audience was led into the streets in search of Dorian Wood. Word eventually got around that the performance artist, Wood, would be at his grandfather's house on South Hill Street for a procession back to the parking lot. His grandfather, a pianist, had helped him get his musical start performing his first recital at the age of five, warranting this parade in his honor.
Wearing a long white satin gown with a sign with the numbers of his grandfather's home address suspended around his neck, Wood emerged from the darkness and headed toward us. We swarmed around him, but his eyes stayed stared straight ahead, indicating no sign of greeting. Parting through us, Wood took the lead on a sensuous stroll down familiar streets. As burning incense filled the air, he provided spiritual sounds with shaker instruments and an eerie music loop.
Every once in a while, he'd halt the group and passionately belt Spanish lyrics into the quiet nighttime streets of University Park. Impressively, Wood never once broke his forward-facing gaze during his march. With the diligence of a soldier, he shook his instruments in-and-out of fast and slow beats. Ratta-tat-tat, ratta-tat-tat, ratta-tat-tat – the sound of the clapping beads hypnotized us. We walked entranced by Wood's artistry.
As sweat beads poured down his face, Wood communicated his commitment to his performance as an expression of his reverence for his grandfather, who had criticized his work with brutal, yet loving honesty. But honesty doesn't offend Wood. Rather, as he told the L.A. Weekly in 2016, he loves his grandfather even more for it. Honesty is what Wood is all about.
Once in the parking lot, Wood boldly shed his angel-like white gown and lay shamelessly nude in the concrete remains of Esparza's artwork. Although shocking, the gesture was oddly comforting. Wood's vulnerability as a corpulent, queer man of color encouraged audience members to find their own self-acceptance.
Simultaneity governed this event, and as Latinos in fine art, both Wood and Esparza revealed their own dichotomy of identity.
This past October, Esparza told Pacific Standard that as he succeeds in pristine museum spaces, he makes it a priority to remain connected to his Latin roots by creating art that brings attention to brown laborers who have physically laid the foundation for American society. By breaking out of the Chacmool, a sculpture associated with sacrifice, Esparza powerfully declares that Latinos need not offer more.
Similarly, Wood has faced a crisis of identity that stems from his Anglo name and Costa Rican roots. Growing up in America but later moving to Costa Rica for his teenage years, Wood told Remezcla that his Costa Rican peers saw his American upbringing as a source of shame.
During his performance, Wood wore a pure white gown, yet only echoed Spanish words–his existence in both white and brown spaces demonstrates a struggle to find balance in one's identity. Wood's final unapologetic nude display reflected a desire to escape labels–to simply exist as he is.
Both Esparza and Wood's artistic courage illuminates the struggle of simultaneously existing in multiple spaces yet being expected to be confined to one.