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‘It’s important to bring dirt into museum and gallery spaces’

What we learned from Rafa Esparza and Ron Athey in conversation at Frieze Los Angeles

Rafa Esparza grew up painting and drawing but was more familiar with the murals and crafts within his family and community than with contemporary galleries or museums. As he got older, he nurtured a relationship to performance by joining his East L.A. neighbors’ sweat lodges and ceremonies, questioning their creation myths and rigid gender roles while enacting their ancient traditions. The modern institution would become more alienating, so he went back outside.

“The work I was making was so much about who I had really strong ties with… So I decided to exit those spaces and do more site-specific work. Maybe they could access something I was doing in Elysian Park or on a sidewalk in Boyle Heights,” he explained of his deeply resonant, poetic public actions. Past performances include molding adobe bricks with family members to line a gallery floor, and leading an informal procession through Santee Alley, a festive stretch of industrial Downtown Los Angeles lined with stalls selling deeply discounted, counterfeit, or wholesale merchandise. “My work has to change when it goes into a museum or gallery, or any space like that… I feel like my work has to address that—it’s a reminder that all of this built environment sits on land.” He paused. “It’s important to bring dirt into those spaces.”

Ron Athey arrived at performance by a less organic route. Raised to become a Pentecostal minister, he found himself interning at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla as a teenager, where we worked the guillotine on Friday nights and ingested Class A drugs on the beach after his shifts. He had become known for his often painful, self-inflicting performances that included bloodletting, self-penetration, and scarring, weaving in glossolalia and references to French poet and playwright Jean Genet’s letters to Jean Cocteau and Georges Bataille’s The Solar Anus, and the AIDS (and, later, the “Post-AIDS”) body.

While Esparza and Athey may run some surface parallels in their work, in conversation, their intentions quickly ran off in separate directions. The two Angeleno artists do, however, share a sense of hot-blooded visceral theatricality and spiritual embodiment. They’ve also internalized their artwork: neither of them has maintained a traditional studio practice, so instead they carry it within themselves, in action and ritual.

Athey noted the parity of platforms—he’s as happy to perform at a small DIY space as he is within the white walls and blonde-wood floors of New York’s MoMA—Esparza views the community as the institution embodied, and so museums are secondary. “I never saw them as validating spaces,” he reflected. “I think we validate each other’s work all the time.”

Athey's and Esparza's conversation took place on Febraury 15 as part of the fair's Frieze Talks program. Head to the program page to learn about other talks and events at the fair.

Jennifer Piejko is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

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