This exhibition culminates Pepón Osorio’s three-year Artist-in-Residence at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS). A former social worker and 1999 MacArthur Fellow, Osorio (b. Santurce, Puerto Rico, 1955; lives Philadelphia) conceived of this volunteer project as a series of interventions aimed at opening up the traditionally closed system. Working closely with DHS social workers, administrators, and clients, Osorio focused on the foster care system to conduct an institutional critique at one of the most vulnerable intersections between private life and public policy.
Osorio writes, “I have had the opportunity to navigate ‘the system’ and been involved in a first-hand exchange with a group of social workers, administrators, and clients that have privileged me by opening doors to the complex world in which they live and work. In return I have created art and brought to the department a different viewpoint.
The show transforms the first floor galleries at ICA into a total DHS living- and working-environment. It is composed of a group of environmental tableaux based on what the artist refers to as “social architecture.” Face to Face (2002) represents the open plan offices at DHS with each cubicle, from its coffee cups and personal mementos, portraying people who work there. These cubicles become extensions of their inhabitants’ personas, spurred on by the occupants’ desires to resist institutionalization and remain uniquely individual – The workspace at DHS is thus conceived by Osorio as “many islands of lives.” Displaced into the gallery space and standing in for the caseworkers’ clients, is a towering cage of an actual family’s possessions.
A second installation, Trials and Turbulence (2004), recreates a family courtroom, where a young adult confronts the judge who determined her placement in the foster care system. The third segment of this exhibition will be comprised of the wooden-skeleton of a house in mid-construction, without the skin of walls and insulation. In the midst of this naked frame, the image of a boy running toward the viewer will be projected onto a rectangular plate of Plexiglas. The inspiration for this work began as Osorio personally witnessed a young boy exploring the site of a new housing development in his neighborhood and getting lost within the looming walls of the structures. In this installation, Osorio reacts to the demolition of the traditional community and its replacement with monotonous housing tracts––a transition within which a child might easily become lost.