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The Philadelphia Inquirer

In A Museum Gallery, The Art Of Social Work; After Three Years Observing Human Services, A Phila. Artist Created Tableaux At The ICA.

By Edward J. Sozanski
Inquirer Art Critic

22 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

The phrase "artist in residence at the Department of Human Services" initially seemed like an incongruity.

What could an artist possibly do with, or for, or at, the Philadelphia DHS? The agency deals with families and children in crisis; art and the DHS would appear to be the strangest bedfellows imaginable.

Yet Philadelphia artist Pepón Osorio found the three years he spent "residing" at the DHA extremely fruitful. A former social worker and a 1999 MacArthur fellow, Osorio creates art from family and community situations.

He collected enough material at the DHS to create three highly detailed tableaux at the Institute of Contemporary Art that address the complex dynamics of foster-home placements, particularly the interactions between counselors and clients.

Observing and listening during his visits to the DHS impressed upon him how social workers and clients develop "conversations" that come to seem like "negotiations," he said.

The key to entering the world that Osorio has re-created at the ICA is recognizing that the residents of this world are, as he says, "extremely isolated" from the daily realities that most people experience.

A native of Puerto Rico, Osorio has lived in Philadelphia since 1999. When he describes his installation, called "Trials and Turbulence," he periodically uses the word negotiation as the key to making sense of it.

For instance, counselors and clients negotiate with each other just as viewers of the tableaux must negotiate the divide between their own experience and the more hermetic world of displaced families and children.

Osorio's detailed, theatrical simulations address family relocation and foster parentage from three perspectives - that of the children, the parents, and the social workers.

Installed on the first floor of the ICA, the tableaux blend into one composite installation with three distinct sections.

Two of these re-create the look and atmosphere of opposite poles of the foster system, the DHS offices, and a courtroom in City Hall. Osorio creates the appropriate moods in these through meticulous verisimilitude, down to family pictures on desks.

The third section is contrastingly stark and primarily symbolic: It consists of a large video projection in a darkened room that is sealed off from the rest of the gallery by a wall made from old cargo pallets. Visitors see the video through cracks, as if looking through a fence around a construction site.

Osorio's purpose is to humanize the bureaucratic but still delicate process of finding homes for children in distress. Surprisingly, objects accomplish much of this. The only animation comes from a half-dozen videos and silent video projections.

Three sound videos in particular make Osorio's installation come to life. Without them, much of what he's trying to say would be missed.

Osorio uses video skillfully and economically; he's careful not to overload the installation with excessive documentary testimony. Instead, he achieves an effective balance between mute objectivity - the re-created DHS office and courtroom - and the sights and sounds of citizens who have come to the DHS for help.

Entering the exhibition, the visitor steps into the DHS "office," but with a striking digression from reality. In the center of the gallery, Osorio has constructed a large cage of wire fencing and packed it chock-full with furniture and other household goods - the actual belongings of several families that have been DHS clients.

As you circle this cage, it quickly becomes evident that the DHS deals with families of very modest means. The furniture is a jumbled, time-worn miscellany, similar to what might be found in a thrift shop. Without needing to say a word, it immediately establishes the social stratum in which the DHS labors.

One also notices points of communion between the client belongings and the personalizing objects in the DHS office section, particularly stuffed animals. To Osorio, these symbolize the fact that counselors occasionally become clients, and vice versa.

Wedged into the center of this piled-up rummage is a small television set playing a tape of a family birthday party. The family appears happy and out of place in this vale of tribulation.

However - and this isn't obvious - the 1-year-old "birthday boy" is the teenager who, as a 16-year-old, appears in a silent video in a corner of the installation walled off as a conference room. The happy 1-year-old has become a troubled teen.

An audio track that plays with the party video tells part of the story. It's a conversation between a DHS caseworker and the teenager's mother, in which the woman candidly discusses problems she's having with her son. "Sometimes you can't tell who is counseling whom," Osorio noted.

As the tapes roll, one begins to realize, as DHS workers do, that cheery domestic facades often conceal troubling secrets.

Those workers occupy cubicles such as the ones that Osorio has re-created at either end of the gallery. I say "re-created" because they're based on photographic records of his observations during his DHS residency.

The most striking thing about these cubicles is that they're personalized to a degree that would appear to make work in them impossible.

Each desk and cubicle is filled to the edges with tangible reminders of family and individuality - photographs, knickknacks, sports trophies, stuffed animals and plants. One desk is so overloaded that it lacks even enough room to sign a check.

This baroque excess makes a point, though - DHS caseworkers are caring, sentimental people, not hardened paper-pushers. Perhaps their decorative exuberance represents an attempt to compensate for the endless misery they must try to alleviate every working day.

The undercurrent of unhappiness, discord and self-doubt that characterizes many foster-home arrangements surfaces dramatically in the courtroom tableau, through the testimony of an 18-year-old African American woman named Adrienne Stinson.

The courtroom looks like the real thing, with one exception - in the center of the room, Osorio has placed a glass-walled cabinet on wheels that's fitted out like a bathroom with tub, sink, toilet, even an upholstered chair.

A shower curtain surrounding the tub serves as a screen for a video projection in which the woman talks about her experiences as a foster child in a dozen homes, a different one every year from ages 6 through 18.

Speaking as if to a judge, Adrienne relates how "I've never met a happy family. I was a dollar-sign to them [foster parents], I wasn't human, I was money. I was lied to over and over."

Adrienne's soliloquy about looking for love from the age of 6 to young adulthood is a moving, eloquent and polished narrative that's easily the beating heart of this presentation.

And it wasn't scripted; it's the edited result of a number of conversations that the artist had with Adrienne, who is now living on her own and attending college.

Why is the video projected in a bathroom? As Adrienne says on the tape, bathrooms in her various foster homes were refuges, places where she could nurse her psychic wounds. The intelligence, eloquence and honesty she projects suggest that strength of character enabled her to survive the foster system.

If you save her exceptional testimony for last, Osorio's naturalistic installation will come together emotionally as well as visually. "Trials and Turbulence" affirms his conviction that even the lives of the dispossessed can produce moving and sensitive art.

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