“Sometimes, I feel like I’m eternally displaced.”
– Pepón Osorio, interview (see notes)
I’ve felt drawn to several artists these recent weeks, through class readings and talks, whose work models ways to breach the divides upon which the display and consumption of art so often rest: self and other, life and symbol, process and product. Here I explore the early work of two of those artists–Fred Wilson and Pepón Osorio–and how they induce in their audience a far-from-ordinary sense of identification with the others whose absence their materials are asked to speak.
The display of objects as art so often suggests creative closure. Similarly, the display of objects as artifacts suggests the closure of experience as history. But life–that is, living selves and the living memories of selves–still courses through its material extensions, wherever they are found, and this is a principle that informs both Wilson and Osorio’s work in ways that remain tremendously vital.
Fred Wilson has said, “I would like to think that objects have memories,” and describes his curatorial process as “eliciting memory from an object” (Wilson interview). In this spirit, his 1991 exhibit Primitivism High and Low (1991) and Mining the Museum (1992) upset sanitized displays of permanent museum collections to reveal dimensions of human experience effectively forgotten or willfully ignored in the production of public memory.
In Primitivism, Wilson displayed human skeletons behind glass with the labels “Someone’s Mother,” Someone’s Brother,” etc. “Their anonymity,” writes Jennifer González, brought attention to “the general indifference of those who exhumed them, and signaled the uneven power relations that led to the possibility of one culture’s exhibition of another culture’s dead ancestors” (González, 74.) Within the same room, Wilson installed a headless mannequin in traditional Nigerian clothing, with the label “Friendly Native.” “Recorded voices in French, German and English could be heard emanating from his body, along with confused sounds of battle and hand-to-hand combat.” (González, 74).
Primitivism spanned multiple rooms and involved much more than the above, but I cite these displays (following Jennifer A. González) because they highlight the artist’s gift for calling attention to the silences nested in history as it is often told through curatorial practice (I am inspired in thinking along these lines by Trouillot’s Silencing the Past). Wilson achieves this in Primitivism not by introducing new material evidence, but through an alchemy of arrangement that re-centers the ordinarily invisible human selves behind seemingly known artifacts.
Pepón Osorio’s work also builds around absence, but in a way that suggests an almost uncanny nearness, a sudden familiarity, the continued florescence of bodies that elude the eye. Jennifer González places Osorio in a genre that she calls autotopography, defined “the collection and display of personal mementos” (González, 19.) Osorio’s work also resonates with Cecilia Vicuña’s idea that “every being who feels walks covered in signs.”
Osorio’s En La Barbería No Se Llora (1994) transformed an abandoned building in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of Frog Hollow in Hartford, Connecticut, into a “barbershop,” complete with reclining chairs, cluttered counters, and a brightly painted, tropically themed facade. En La Barbería was the first of a series of installations that Osorio placed “where people are not prepared to see a work of art.” As he explains:
When you go into the specific space or structure our society has devised for exhibiting art, the space preconditions and limits the experience of the viewer. But when you look at art unexpectedly…you look at it with a more visceral reaction (González 180).
Viscerality, despite the absence of bodies, suffuses En La Barbería. The apparently empty chairs of the barbershop are barnacled with an “overpowering” profusion of personal effects (Wilson):
“one chair was decorated with old baseballs and miniature baseball caps, another covered with toy horses and reciepts from offtrack betting, and another with plastic fishermen and a multitude of plastic fish” (González, 183).
These very idiosyncratic signifiers serve to conjure, in an almost mythical way, the uncertain selves of which they pretend to be traces. And this very uncertainty, as Osorio intended, invites imaginative participation on the part of his audience. This seems to me something very different from the banal encounters that Ludmilla Jordanova describes in saying: “Because self and other are mutually constitutive, objectification and identification go hand in hand.” (Jordonova, 250).
I invoke these projects of Wilson and Osorio because for me at least, they each induce a jolting kind of empathy. They do so, moreover, in the least obvious of ways: namely, by magnifying the absence of the other. All those intimate but nameless traces–hair clippings, keepsakes, even bones–draw one’s own sense of self outward in search of an other but withhold constitutive closure, to the point that ontological boundaries start to blur. They deny the presence of a body onto which an otherness, a not I-ness, might otherwise ordinarily be cast.
Jennifer A. González, Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art (MIT, 2008)
Ludmilla Jordonova in Elizabeth Hallam ed., Cultural Encounters: Representing Others (Routledge, 2013).
Pepón Osorio, interview, “Pepón Osorio in ‘Place,’” Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 1 (Art21.org), September 21, 2001. https://art21.org/watch/art-in-the-twenty-first-century/s1/Pepón-osorio-in-place-segment/, Accessed October 19, 2017.
Cecilia Vicuña, “Word & Thread,” in How2, vol. 3, issue 1, Summer 2007. Available at:
https://www.asu.edu/pipercwcenter/how2journal/vol_3_no_1/letters/Vicuñawordthread.html. Accessed October 24, 2017.
Fred Wilson, interview posted on YouTube channel lalululatv: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG4dnxYdFmc, Published on Sep 14, 2016, Accessed October 23, 2017.
“The soul, according to Peirce, is not a thing, with a unitary localized existence, but something more like a word, in that its multiple instantiations can exist simultaneously in different places.”
Kohn, How Forests Think, 107.