Philadelphia

Pepón Osorio

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

After completing a three-year volunteer residency at Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, Pepón Osorio elaborately reconstructed its offices in the galleries of the ICA. Face to Face (all works 2004), one of three installations shown here, was assembled from re-created materials from the DHS—desks full of case histories, computer terminals, and sundry office supplies. Claustrophobic and windowless, it made one feel as though lost inside a real government bureaucracy, which metes out death by drab repetition and administrative protocol. Signs of the struggle with dehumanization were everywhere: Caged in a large steel-wire bin piled up with the possessions of a client family, a video narrated the mother’s harrowing story of her suicidal son, juxtaposed with footage of him as a once-happy toddler. Reproduced family photos and inspirational posters taped to the walls above desks personalized otherwise oppressively generic cubicles.

In the next gallery, Trials and Turbulence simulated a family courtroom, complete with a judge’s bench, audience chairs, and an institutional-gray carpet. In the center, an ornate wood-and-glass vitrine borrowed from a forgotten department store held a meticulous diorama of a messy tenement bathroom. On the shower curtain was projected a video of a young woman named Adrienne who volunteered an intimate account of her ordeals growing up in foster care. Adjacent to the vitrine was Run Mikey Run, a large video projection of a boy sprinting away from us but failing to recede into the distance. Barely visible through the cracks of a large wooden barrier built from pallets salvaged from the streets of North Philadelphia, the monumental image rather bluntly symbolized both the desire for escape and its depressing futility.

Framed as institutional critique, Osorio’s installations recontextualize the DHS in order to examine its problems. The maneuver draws on the gallery as a creative refuge in order to humanize a deadening system. But ultimately this strategy was hindered by the artist’s good intentions. Not only did the show present an idealized view of art as a silver bullet, but there was a corresponding misrecognition of the installation’s own point of reference: When presented in a museum, a focus on administrative order and legalistic structure risks revealing first and foremost the art institution’s own banal bureaucracy. While this might recall the early years of Institutional Critique, typified by Michael Asher’s removal of the wall separating a gallery’s display area from its office in an effort to unmask the prosaic business operations behind art’s supposedly ideal autonomy, such allusions are inadvertent. This is the problem. Rather than deploying a reflexive intelligence, Osorio’s project regurgitates an old-fashioned realism in the form of theatrical set design. Museumgoers are surely well aware of the dreary reality of governmental social services, and what was offered here was ultimately little more than sentimental, if earnest, compassion.

T.J. Demos