New York

Pepón Osorio

It is difficult to deny the initial power of Pepón Osorio’s installation Badge of Honor, 1995, and it’s not much easier to disentangle the various elements that produce that impact on later reflection. Much of this difficulty has to do with the lingering effects of finding that one had walked in on an intimate conversation between a Latino father and his son, which Osorio staged by building a bleak prison cell and a teenager’s pop icon–encrusted bedroom on either side of a wall. Against the far wall of the cell was a large black and white video projection of the father, while on the facing wall of the bedroom was an analogous video projection of the son.

Why, the father asks, couldn’t the son come home on time? Why, replies the son, does the father spend so much time in prison? Mesmerized both by the intensity of these seemingly genuine interrogations and the study in contrasts made possible by the two spaces, one hovered at the interface of the installation—and remained divided between two modes of engagement: either eavesdropping in the ghetto-touristic manner made almost instinctive by TV, film, and sociological studies, or taking in the formal boldness of Osorio’s installation.

Nuanced but also a bit awkward, the video dialogue had the feel of the real thing—that is, one conducted by an actual father and son. And it turned out that the father was in fact an inmate in New Jersey’s Northern State Prison. While perhaps somewhat too grim, too void of personal touches, the prison cell in which his image appeared seemed to have been built with great attention to details of dimension and materials. The son’s room, its walls teeming with heroic images from kung fu flicks and sports, the floor tiled with mirrors, the bed abutting an altar bearing family photos and an upholstered Puerto Rican flag, was as hyperbolic as the cell was muted.

Badge of Honor was divided between this fidelity to the social realities of poverty and incarceration and a kind of baroque, magical-realist exaggeration. And between the crack of this divide rose the specter of ethnology, the question of whether we were standing before a kind of natural-history museum diorama, and the degree to which the politics of such representation inevitably vitiated the tenderness and good intentions of the realism and muddled the boldness of the installation’s staging.

“It should come as no surprise,” wrote Joseph Jacob, curator of the Newark Museum, where Badge of Honor was installed after its debut in a vacant store in downtown Newark, “that Pepón Osorio has a background in sociology and as a social worker.” On the whole, Badge of Honor moved me, but its theatrics of confession did so in a way I feel obliged to resist—in precisely the way I want to resist the divisions within our social order that make Osorio’s disclosures news, and social work necessary.

Thad Ziolowski