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Midway through an hour long performance, Sebastian Hernandez stood, wearing only a thong and heels, on a glass tabletop being held up by three practically nude performers in tightly coiled fetal positions. With a microphone in hand, Hernandez declared themself a gamechanger within the context of Los Angeles art history. The performance was commissioned by NAVEL, and was presented as part of No Cruising—a multi-day event organized by Chris Tyler. Titled Pistil, it was performed by the artist alongside three additional performers (Nareg Nikolay Karamyan, Miguel Reyna, and Chen Di Xuan). This declarative moment by Hernandez would later be encapsulated on Instagram as emblematic of their performance: it presented the paradoxical drives at work in this highly sexualized display of trans femme brown bodies. Exposing a split desire to be intellectually historicized and sexually objectified, Hernandez measured their cultural value against a backdrop of euphoric exhibitionism.
Within the confines of one’s safe community, claiming space and historical agency is a cathartic exercise, particularly in a political climate dominated by xenophobia and sexual repression. Hernandez’s performance began inside NAVEL’s glass-enclosed backroom, where the performers invoked voyeurism as a theatrical ploy by openly indulging in onlookers’ stares while strutting around wearing pore-cleaning face masks, crop tops, and lowriders. When the main lights switched on and the dark synth music started, the performers paraded out, blowing up balloons, tossing them into the crowd, and popping them with their stilettos. For almost 20 minutes, they indulged in a techno-infused rave of four, vogueing and pulsating their bodies against the floor and each other, while progressively stripping down to only their thongs. In any other context, this sensual live performance would have been perceived as a striptease. However, at NAVEL, an institution which fosters experimental collaboration and diverse viewpoints, Hernandez’s performance felt more like a healing ritual. The queer-centric crowd shouted and snapped in approval at this trans femme celebration.
As the music dissipated, Hernandez, Karamyan, Reyna, and Chen grabbed a circular glass tabletop which they carried around, at one point lifting it above their heads like Greek caryatids. Hernandez’s three sweaty muses then crouched to the floor, positioned themselves head to groin and laid the heavy glass table top upon their intertwined bodies for Hernandez to step atop and read from a pre-scripted four-minute monologue.
“Assigned male at birth. Here I am making a highly compromised work of art. Still, in this safe space called an art institution. Still, too uncomfortable to do something like this out in public… What is in my immediate future? Being the first indigenous queer trans femme, queer indigenous trans-woman to make Los Angeles art history.”
Physically standing upon the shoulders of others to declare one’s cultural value in a society that consistently diminishes, ignores, or misidentifies one’s existence is powerful. Predetermining one’s impact solely on the basis of identity, however, limits the scope of interpretation. The critical intent seemed inverted as Hernandez literalized in language what we had just witnessed energetically.
The performance was framed in the press release as being in response to the Cooper’s Donuts riot of 1959. Believed to be one of the first gay uprisings in the United States, a small riot in downtown Los Angeles ensued when a group of drag queens, transgender women, gay, and lesbian customers threw donuts, trash, and coffee at police officers as they attempted to arrest LGBTQ customers for presenting as a gender other than the one represented on their government IDs. Sixty years later, laws and cultural perceptions have dramatically shifted, and yet societal discrimination, familial rejection, and police harassment remain, particularly for trans and queer people of color. Seen in this light, the promenading of the four queer performers felt revelatory, as if they were impersonating the defiant attitude demonstrated by the Cooper’s Donuts customers decades ago.
While holding energetic space for historical trauma through one’s own embodied experience is a critical form of resistance, Hernandez’s performance rode a fine line between overindulgent sexual display and ritualistic group care. For the final act, the performance accelerated into sexual overdrive as the performers spread gelatinous material over one another while kissing, moaning, and sliding across each other’s bodies. Under a flashing green strobe light, Hernandez strapped on a half-cut papaya between their legs while the others vigorously licked, sucked, and munched on it. By this point, my experience as a viewer toggled between easy arousal and skeptical amusement, making it difficult to integrate the larger historical connection, or mythical proclamations of the artist. As I considered Hernandez’s earlier announcement in which they predetermined their cultural impact on art in Los Angeles, I was left feeling that the sensuality of the acts being played out were undermined by an anxiety to label, define, and contextualize. In the act of myth-making, artists risk overexposing their ambition, restricting the interpretation of their work and alienating their audience. Hernandez’s unfettered, choreographed group play was evidence enough of the defiant attitude they pose as an artist.
Julie Weitz is an LA-based artist working in video, performance, and installation. Her experimental work considers the psychological and somatic impact of digital media on our sense of selfhood and social identity. Weitz has been featured in Artforum, Art in America, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Bomb Magazine, L.A. Confidential, Photograph Magazine, Hyperallergic, and on KCRW.
1. An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the organizer of No Cruising. It was organized by Chris Tyler.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 17.