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There are three things to consider when watching a performance art piece by Rafael Esparza: location, location location.
“The work wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t happened there,” said Esparza, who selected the bridge off 4th and Lorena streets for its role in both shaping stereotypes in Hollywood films such as Blood in, Blood out and My Family, and the realities of its location in a working-class neighborhood in Boyle Heights.
“That bridge has made cameos,” he says. “[We’re] injecting our own narratives into this place that has a double identity.”
“No water under the bridge,” a piece presented last month as part of the Vincent Price Art Museum’s Hoy Space events, was performed by Esparza and Sebastian Hernandez, a friend he met through Aztec dancing.
Under the bridge in East Los Angeles, Esparza is in his element. With the sounds of helicopters flying above and barking dogs below, he ties flowers from their stems to neon string hanging from the bridge’s architecture. As the wind picks up, they sway back and forth.
As Hernandez performs in traditional Aztec dance, moving around broken shards of CDs and empty water bottles, Esparza changes from a gray industrial Dickies shirt to a blue one.
Esparza’s hands are blood red, to which the artist says, he bladed off at the fingertips.
Esparza approaches a section of the bridge and applies pressure on the architecture while sliding his hands, leaving a bloody red impression on the edifice. Hernandez continues to dance without a drummer, something not usually found in traditional Aztec dancing.
Esparza formally started his work as an artist at East Los Angeles Community College and then received a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from UCLA. His work is multidisciplinary, but he says performance art allows him to reach different audiences.
A lack of access to museums and galleries growing up is what influenced Esparza to conduct his performances in various locations. “I was excited to be able to use these [locations] as places to sort of experiment and to build a visual language for my own work.”
It’s a language not lost in translation to the approximately 25 people along the sidewalk watching the performance unfold.
As Hernandez’s dance continues to pick up speed, Esparza taps on the leg of a broken coffee table, finding his own rhythm.
A black Nissan stops in the middle of the street. Two girls poke their heads out to see what exactly is happening. They jockey before the driver speeds off. A few minutes later, another car stops by to view the show. It’s an occurrence familiar to Esparza.
“It happens a few times where people stumble upon it,” says the 32-year-old artist of his performance art.
Recalling a conversation with a woman after the performance, Esparza says, “she thanked me. The lady said ‘Yo no se que significa pero gracias porque me hizo sentir algo.’ The woman didn’t understand what she was watching exactly, but she was touched.
“That’s what art is,” says Esparza, who grew up in Pasadena but considers East Los Angeles home because of his political involvement in the Chicano movement while a student at East Los Angeles College. “We underestimate the awareness of people who aren’t educated in art but everyone has something to say, everyone has something to project out into the world.”