Artist Pepón Osorio gives ICA extreme makeover

Pepón Osorio

In his new exhibit at ICA, Pepón Osorio transformed one gallery into a re-creation of a DHS office, complete with family photos and Eagles posters.

Even the show’s co-curator Ingrid Schaffner admits that the first impression of ICA’s new exhibit is hardly inviting. “At the same time that you’re looking into the space,” says ICA’s senior curator, “you kind of want to run away.”

That’s because right in front of you, almost blocking the entrance to the gallery, is a vast metal cage filled with boxes, pieces of furniture, the occasional kid’s bicycle, several TVs and a few floor lamps. It looks like the cast off belongings of a dozen families. And that’s exactly what it is.

In “Trials and Turbulence,” a new installation by Pepón Osorio that inhabits ICA’s first-floor galleries through December 12, visitors are invited to spend some time in the offices of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, or at least a re-created version of those offices, as interpreted by the artist. The metal structure containing the possessions of families in transition (borrowed for the exhibit from DHS storage) is “a giant stand-in for the client,” says exhibit co-curator and ICA Curator of Education Johanna Plummer.

Office cubicles lining the walls of the gallery reconstruct the world of the DHS caseworkers Osorio met during a three-year stint as artist-in-residence at the social services agency. A MacArthur “genius award” winning artist now living in Philadelphia, Osorio is also a former social worker, and in this exhibit he opens a door to a world most of us will never see.

Against the bland backdrop of institutional sameness, the caseworkers’ cubicles are mini tableaux of individuality, every surface festooned with family photos, postcards and cartoons. As Plummer points out, though, this is Osorio’s interpretation, so while many of the personal mementoes on the cluttered desks and bulletin boards were lent by actual caseworkers, “this person may not actually have five snow globes of a bride and bridegroom on her desk.” Still, the impression is that you are getting a voyeuristic peek into a hidden realm, seeing the face behind a faceless institution.

Step beyond the recreated DHS office and you find yourself in a convincing facsimile of a family courtroom, complete with red drapes, institutional gray carpet, 90 chairs borrowed from the First Judicial Court System of Pennsylvania and a recreated judge’s bench. Part of the installation includes an audiotape of a young woman recounting her experiences in foster care and a video image of a judge’s hands flipping through a dictionary, looking for definitions to the words—loss, reconciliation, anger, love—she is saying.

“ They’re speaking a completely different language. By definition, the system doesn’t work,” says Osorio. “I’m opening up private places to the public, like the judge’s bench. And she’s opening up a very private part of her life.”

Osorio chooses installation as his medium because of its power to completely surround the audience. “It’s about transporting you,” he says. “We’re so used to being transported through the Internet, but it’s important to be able to get yourself into a completely different space and environment. You would never expect to come to the ICA and see this. We’re pulling the rug out from under you.”

Plummer hopes that the experience will encourage visitors to take action by getting involved with community and social service agencies. “It opens these doors, which brings an immense weight on you the viewer,” she says. “At the same time, this is a relatively safe environment. You get to walk away.”

For more information, exhibit hours and accompanying programs, visit ICA at or call 215-898-5911.

Originally published on September 23, 2004