There is a state between and beyond the human and superhuman that is rarely seen, felt or experienced in everyday life. It is a space that simultaneously holds the construction of an idea and the deconstruction of a belief. If we are lucky enough to be exposed to and have the ability to see these moments, we can move beyond the mental and rational and become witness to a holy instant. It is during these times that true genius is accessible to us.
Enter the realm and stagings of Rafa Esparza, an architect of these moments. Rafa is a 31-year-old multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. I recently had the honor of seeing him perform his new work, "El Cuate," at an infamous dance party called Mustache Mondays, located deep in downtown Los Angeles. The Spanish word "cuate" has varied meanings. Foremost it means "twin," but it can also mean "friend," "buddy" or "guy." The piece was an outgrowth of a work Rafa presented at SOMARTS as part of "This Is What I Want," a queer performance art festival curated by Doran George, Tessa Wills, Anna Martine Whitehead, Jesse Hewit and Rachel Dichter. In Rafa's words:
It was a piece about my construal of what a home is, layered and obfuscated with the phenomenology of masculinity in my family. It was personally a very heavy and loaded project, and was the first time that I brought in a mask, as a physical object, a prop, into my work. A few weeks after I had time to meditate on that piece, I kept coming back to the mask that I wore (which was an identical replica of my face). I have to say that I was a bit haunted by it, and I knew then that I needed to work with it some more.
As an observer of Rafa's work, I noticed most pronouncedly that his command of his body and spirit, as well as his ability to construct objects, grant his art a power, which freezes the viewer in time. His use of profound gestures captivates us visually and produces a transporting effect, the power of which is demonstrated in his ability to produce these results in the most unlikely of places. One does not expect to enter into these mystical realms or trip into a new state of consciousness in the middle of a nightclub, particularly when its raw energy is in full force (music throbbing, lights pulsing, bodies dancing). Yet at this party, in this club, with the presence of Rafa, the night held a perceptible and overarching sense of wonder and a feeling that anything could happen. Perhaps mystical moments should be expected and commonplace on dance floors in clubs. I myself made the decision to move to Los Angeles on a dance floor in a club in West Hollywood last spring. Nonetheless, as suspected, there was something distinguished about this party that contained Rafa.
Paper Magazine named Mustache Mondays "one of the best parties in America." The night is produced and curated by Nacho Nava, who has dutifully designed a masterful platform for performance artists, DJs and luminaries alike. This blending of culture has generated an unparalleled queer art intelligentsia scene that has become the place to be in Los Angeles on a Monday night.
When I first came upon Rafa at Mustache, I was struck by the fact that he was completely untouchable in a physical sense. His body was contained inside a transparent curtain that resembled a space laboratory, and his face was hidden under a mask. At times he was cutting his finger with a razor blade and using his blood to mark the curtain while walking around the inside of its barriers. At other times he was sitting with his head back, pouring what looked like olive oil into his throat mask. Further aspects of the performance included Rafa dressing and undressing in plaster-of-paris duplicates of his body. All the while his blood dripped onto the stark whiteness of the objects he had constructed. The performance ended parenthetically, with Rafa unscrewing, one by one, the light bulbs that lit his way. With the last bulb unscrewed, he was bathed in a shroud of darkness, thus waking the viewers to the absence of "El Cuate" but distinctly leaving us in a state reverence.
Upon seeing Rafa's blood, I immediately was hit with an unearthly feeling of closeness to him. I wondered if everyone else in the club felt the same. When all was said and done, I was left with a pronounced awareness: Blood binds us all together. Human and animal. In blood we are all created equal. And in Rafael's brave action on the floor of a disco, I saw the transcendence of the mediocrity and commonplace as he courageously cut himself and revealed his insides to us.
There were many layers and aspects to his performance that I do not have the language to capture. I will leave you with the words of Lord Alfred Tennyson, words that express a universal sentiment to what we all feel at times, words that I found through the inspiration of Rafa's "El Cuate":
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
and all the wheels of Being slow.
Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack'd with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a fury slinging flame.
Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.
Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.
Photo Credit: Andrew Hunter