Rafa Esparza, bust. a meditation on freedom, near Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Chinatown, April 11, 2015
Between El Pueblo and the Los Angeles River, in an obscure corner of Chinatown tucked behind the bowels of Union Station, sits the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, also known as the LA County Jail. According to an unofficial website, it is “the world’s largest jail”—a 1.5 million-square-foot complex opened in 1997. Its appearance from the outside, however, strangely belies its true nature. Designed in a bland, unassuming, international/brutalist style, the two buildings could easily be downtown government office buildings; a series of extremely narrow slits for windows are perhaps the only giveaway that this is a prison.
“I’ve never been in there, but I have friends who have,” says artist Rafa Esparza. “They all say the conditions in there are pretty bad. It’s the kind of place where you get staph infections. Everyone is always really happy to get out.” We were standing on the street, cattycorner to the prison, and directly across from Bad Boys Bail Bonds. The Men’s Central Jail, which was built in 1963 and has an even worse reputation than the Twin Towers, was also close by.
As Rafa was talking to me, he was standing inside of a wooden crate that went up to his chest, waiting for a block of poured concrete to dry around his feet and lower legs. When it finally did, his friends and family members came and filled the remaining space inside the crate with gravel. They then unscrewed the wooden armature and removed its planks to reveal what looked like a solid column of concrete, inside of which most of Rafa’s body was interred. (In actuality, a layer of concrete bolstered by chicken wire surrounded another wooden armature, inside of which stood Rafa, his newly formed cement shoes, and several bags’ worth of gravel. This project was assisted and supported by Timo Fahler, Nancy Popp, Dino Dinco, Kenny Taylor Reynaga, and Danny Gibson.)
The small crowd of 20 or so family and friends who had gathered to witness this performance immediately stopped chatting, their breath taken away by the sight of Rafa’s bust emerging out of a concrete column. He was wearing a dark button-down shirt and a tie. A hammer and a chisel lay in front of him. After pausing for a few moments to gather himself, Rafa took up the tools and began breaking out of the concrete.
The particular patch of sidewalk we were on was a quiet one, but the general vibe in the area was uneasy. A handful of people loitered outside of Bad Boys. Families drove in and out. Bus drivers strolled by on their breaks. Once in a while, the sound of a siren would pierce the air and make all of us jump, as police vehicles emerged out of the facilities across the street, en route to an unknown emergency.
Rafa diligently chiseled away. First, chunks of concrete would fall. Then, he’d have to break down the wood casing and release the gravel. Then more concrete and more wood. Soon we saw that a large plastic sheet surrounded him, and that beneath his dress shirt, he was wearing a worker’s blue jumpsuit. The process was arduous and took a long time, and the bright sun on this day was still and relentless—Rafa paused occasionally to wipe his brow. A few curious onlookers came by to watch, ask questions, and take pictures. The bus driver, after resuming his shift, drove his bus past and gave Rafa a honk and a thumbs up.
After about two hours, a pile of debris surrounded the artist and he had managed to get one of his feet free. His right foot however, was jammed good inside of the concrete, and it took a long time to chisel it out. When he finally managed it, tumbling free onto the sidewalk, a loud round of applause went up from the handful of people standing in front of Bad Boys, who had been watching with great interest. Rafa wriggled out of his jumpsuit and walked away, exhausted.
bust was a beautifully conceived and realized piece, simultaneously evoking art historical references to classical sculpture alongside grittier references to cement shoes and jail busts, in a visually powerful work that pays poignant tribute to blue-collar workers and the overrepresentation of men of color in prisons. In this work we see the raw transformative possibilities that are still inherent in the medium of performance, enacted by a gifted individual deeply committed to his community and his message. And as the art world increasingly becomes a predictable playground for the wealthy and their acolytes, bust stands as a rare and stunning instance of genuine risk taking by an American visual artist.
Watch this 10-minute video of the performance captured by Dorian Wood: