Conversations on Performance Event: Andrea Fraser & Simon Leung, Tuesday, May 28

Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

Joshua Serafin at the third TONO Festival
April 30, 2024
By Gaby Cepeda

Review

Before dusk greeted the Cárcamo de Dolores, a pleasantly symmetric monument in Mexico City’s Parque de Chapultepec, a crowd arrived to sit on the stairs facing La Fuente de Tláloc, a massive fountain adorning its entrance designed by Diego Rivera in the figure of the Mesoamerican deity consecrated to clean water. The air was dusty and carried soap bubbles blown by a peddler trying to catch the eye of potential buyers in the audience. This was the setting for Joshua Serafin’s VOID (2024), a mid-week performance in TONO, the time-based, two-week-long annual art festival run by curator and writer Samantha Ozer. Expectations were high, as in its first two editions TONO brought a production value absent from a city that, for most of the 1980s and 1990s, had rich offerings of radical public performance art, happenings, and local festivals.

Photos by Brenda Jauregui & Paulo Garcia

As soon as the sun set, haunting sounds spread through the venue. Serafin emerged like an apparition, dancing slowly but precisely on a small rock plinth to the right side of a stage, which was delimited by slender blue LED lights that flanked a screen and a circle of black sand. To the left of the stage stood guitarist Calvin Carrier, adding his deeply distorted chords to pre-recorded music as Serafin walked offstage in the dark. A video began playing on the screen: blacklight, pearls, black sand, a trio of characters meeting each other, standing in lit-up triangular formations like primordial video game characters. They sat in the sand and offered their jewelry into a pit of dark bubbly water, rubbing each other with the liquid. In the video, Serafin transformed into a siren, a newborn god — perhaps a sexy demon, a cousin to mercurial Tláloc.

Photos by Brenda Jauregui & Paulo Garcia

VOID is the penultimate part of Cosmological Gangbang (2021-2024), an ambitious series of video and performance works that sees Serafin —the young Filipino-born, Belgium-based artist— attempting to rewrite colonial stories, particularly those pertaining to binary impositions on gender and hierarchical organizations of race, that have been forcibly embedded in the bodies of the colonized. At the end of the video, smoke swarmed the stage, and Serafin reappeared behind us with blacked-out retinas. Descending the stairs toward the stage, their body dripped in a sticky translucent substance. As soon as they hit the floor, they started performing furious gestures. Serafin’s background in dance was crystal clear. Their movements were as intentional and committed as they were fluid and evocative, angry but poetic. The phrase “fear is infinite, but so is love” resounded through the air as they gesticulated. Serafin walked towards the center of the stage, where the black-tar pit (later revealed to be concealing black tinted lube within it) awaited them. For some minutes, they performed like a gorgeous vedette from the depths of the oiliest, blackest ocean, toying with the thick, slimy liquid in the pit until they were drenched, flapping it around as if they had wings. Serafin’s performance resembled an under-worldly Cirque du Soleil. And then, in a second, they flipped. As if in a live possession, their body was taken over with twitchy staccato movements. Serafin twirled in the sand, getting in as many quick, messy movements as they could, spinning up and down in their knees, arms in the air. They cursed us in a seemingly indecipherable tongue, and it was sexy as hell.

Photos by Brenda Jauregui & Paulo Garcia

Serafin has a real talent for narrative. The 40-minute spectacle was proficiently paced, with a couple of cliffhangers where they would approach the stairs as if to leave, only to come back down to the pit and twirl some more. “Why did you come here? For a liberation, a confrontation?” asked a disembodied voice, charging the atmosphere further. “Well, thank you for taking the risk.” These words resonated with Serafin’s affect. They were menacing yet impossibly attractive, sweet, like a tricky little spirit. Serafin’s body expertly oscillated between graceful and unwieldy movements, manifesting pain but also possibility in a corporeal emancipation.

As the music wound down and the smoke dispersed in the night breeze, a dog barked from the audience. Serafin charmingly barked back before delicately thanking the audience for coming. They hugged themselves for cover as they did a ballet-jog off stage, looking for a robe in the dark.

Photos by Brenda Jauregui & Paulo Garcia