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Pepon’s Trials in New York


We just got news that Pepon Osorio‘s installation, “Trials and Turbulence,” seen in 2004 at the ICA will debut in New York at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts this month. The show’s opening is Nov. 19, 6-8 pm and runs to Dec. 17.


We at Artblog found Osorio’s ICA installation powerful, moving and eloquent. We’d never seen such a complete transformation of ICA. It was unrecognizable as an art institution, having shape-shifted into a world of social work, the courts and displaced people.

Here’s Libby’s post and Colette’s post. And below is my review from the Weekly which didn’t run in the pages of Artblog back then so I’m putting it in here for the record. (top image is detail of the installation at ICA, part courtroom, part office, part storage area, part barrio with no exit)

“Trials” and Errors

“What’s all this?” asked my husband when he came looking for me at the crowded ICA opening on Sept. 10. He was referring to Pepón Osorio’s jam-packed installation “Trials and Turbulence,” and his question implied a level of exasperation and dismay that caught me off-guard.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Osorio’s piece, which caps his three-year project as artist in residence at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS), is purposely off-putting and claustrophobic. Not only is it meant to provoke unease and exasperation, but its message is a loud “Something is very wrong here.” (projection of video of young woman onto a shower curtain. She was relating her story about being in the DHS system)


From the moment a viewer enters, “Trials and Turbulence” attacks. Larger than life, the installation, which makes use of video and a manic accumulation of objects, turns the Institute of Contemporary Art’s downstairs into a suffocating, confusing space of office cubicles, a court room, a cage with junk and an ominous boarded-up alleyway with no exit.

(image of a social worker’s desk. they are as embattled in some ways as the clients they serve.)

Everything is Kafkaesque here, and entrapment is the metaphor. With color footage woven into stage-set-like environments, the artist has created a 3-D “Sim-DHS 2004” that’s no game.

A cage that seems as big as the Berlin Wall greets the viewer at the door. It holds a mountain of displaced household possessions from clients unable to take care of them. A see-through conference room contains video of a sad young man telling his story. A Victorian-looking glass-walled bathroom imprisons an angry young woman, videotaped narrating her years in foster care. And in perhaps the most haunting video image, a boy trapped behind a rough wood barricade runs but never gets away.

(the wall of stored objects from the displaced people)

Even the viewer is trapped in this weird mirror-image world, lurching from place to place and struggling to invent a narrative or even find a logical progression in the midst of the organized chaos.

Osorio seems to have empathy for all parties–clients, social workers and judges. And that’s understandable, because in addition to being artist in residence at DHS, the MacArthur fellow had a previous career as a social worker. He knows the system–and he hates it.

In fact “Trials and Turbulence” is a metaphor for a demon of a system, one that’s circular, overbearing, illogical and rigid. It’s a system that crushes people, especially children. And the blame seems to rest less on those doing their jobs (caseworkers and judges) than on the laws that set the system up and on the inflexible rules that govern it.

(court scene. the chair in the first row says “Sheriff Only.”)


I haven’t felt such urgency in an installation in a long time. In its full-throttle approach to a social subject and in its theatricality, Osorio’s work is like Bertolt Brecht‘s political plays that entertain while making the viewer feel uncomfortable and implicated at the same time.

(you could climb up to the judge’s desk and when you did you saw these projected images– a baby’s hand with fingers crossed ready to be whacked to order by the gavel, and, below, an image of someone reading the dictionary definition of compassion.)

“Trials and Turbulence” is a call to arms to change the crippling laws that do more harm than good. At the opening Osorio pointed out that his installation lets a viewer put one foot in court and the other in DHS, something not possible in the real world. Every judge and bureaucrat, every City Council member and lawmaker should come to the ICA and straddle the two worlds–and think their way to new laws. More powerful than a book of statistics, “Trials and Turbulence” could be a catalyst for change.


Installation art has a three-pronged hold on Philadelphia this season. Osorio’s powerful and sad exhibit adds its basso profundo to the voices of Olafur Eliasson‘s (“Your Colour Memory”) at Arcadia University and Buster Simpson‘s (“A Declaration of Necessity for the Public Good”) at Temple Gallery Old City. The three concept-driven art installations–all by internationally renowned artists–argue that installation art is thriving. All three exhibits are clear-headed, well-executed and must-sees.