Badge of Honor

Before even entering this most recent installation by Pepon Osorio the viewer is struck by the title, Badge of Honor, which seems to refer to military life more than the underlying issues of family and the Puerto Rican/American reality which one soon discovers are central to this disarmingly strong work. Rather than military honour, the title is actually meant to pay homage to the mother figure of the family documented in the piece and refer to the inverted honour of a son’s pride of having an imprisoned father. But the title remains, for the moment, a lure to draw the curious into an experience quite different from that evoked by its normal reference.

Badge of Honor consists of two adjacent rooms furnished to represent a father and son’s separate realities: the father’s prison cell and the son’s bedroom. The viewer remains outside these environments, a spectator to the gradually unfolding narrative that explores the margins of documentary and conceptual art practices. In a strange resemblance to a heritage museum layout, the visitor proceeds from one “display” to the next, gathering facts and impressions. In this instance, though, we are confronted with a heritage more often kept private, if not hidden. Synchronized video projections appear on the walls of each room. This element documents a conversation between a man who is in prison and his son at home, making the installation an unpeopled set through which a dialogue takes place. Like voices offstage, the video projections of father and son speaking to each other through adjoining walls becomes evocative of all manners of isolation.

It is perhaps relevant to know that this work was commissioned by the Newark Museum in New Jersey specifically in an effort to deal with issues concerning the local largely Puerto Rican community. In preparation for this exhibition the artist began spending time in downtown Newark, familiarizing himself with the neighbourhood, community and community resources. Having spent a number of years working as a family counselor in Harlem and the Bronx, Osorio has had intimate knowledge of domestic conflict. Osorio soon became involved with a support group designed to help families cope with the difficulties of having parents or children in prison. From there, the pain of separation between parent and offspring, most notably fathers and sons, emerged as a theme in the research. Finally a particular father and son agreed to allow Osorio to document a conversation via video of the most unasked yet urgent of questions.

In reconstructing his subjects’ environments, while representing very different realities, Osorio succeeded in translating their mutual state of loneliness and isolation. The prison cell is restrained, simply presented without excessive pathos. A prototypical minimal institutional space, it is nonetheless neat and self-contained. One can count the number of possessions it houses on one hand: a change of clothes, a book, a bucket, old posters. It is a bleak, spare room, made more so by the presence of actual prison gates. In contrast the son’s room is a vision of adolescent excess. A decor which can only be described as “athletic baroque” covers, if not encrusts, every surface. Such things as baseball memorabilia, movie posters and trophy lamps, an ornate bed that is curiously bordered with gold clenched fists (formerly car air fresheners) and a collection of basketball sneakers “to die for,” litter every inch of surface of this room. Though intended to be intimate space, it seems more theatrical for its almost shrine-like display. This sense of superabundance may be part of the work’s fantasy but because of the familiarity of the materials it is real enough to engage the viewer as empathetic participant in the work.

Programa de residencia para artistas en Los Angeles

Programa de residencia para artistas en Los Angeles

Despite the visual intensity of the sculptural elements of this installation, the video component remains the heart of this work. In a very touching and straightforward way the father and son ask each other intimate questions that point out the difficult boundary between alienation and bonding. Interestingly enough, the son’s questioning is consistently more intense, like his environment, than the father’s: “Dad, do you respect me?”; “Dad, how much do you care about me?”; “If you had something really special who would you give it to?”; and finally “Dad, I would be willing to give up anything just to have you home.” This simple, frank exchange is affecting far beyond this particular conversation, embracing all fragmented relations and cutting across the limits of race, class or economics in a strategic yet unselfconscious way.

Between Osorio’s signature aesthetic of excess seen here in the horror vacuuii of the son’s room and the directness of the video documentation, the work becomes both entertaining and confrontational at once. As opposed to the often encoded discourse of much conceptual art or the idealism of social realism, the artist has found a place of his own for bringing awareness to a specific cultural reality. But the understanding the artist seeks is hardly that of the liberal bleeding heart. It is that of someone who is profoundly conscious of the need to purge pain before progress can be made. In an era wherein reserve equals poetry equals myth, Osorio inverts this path while aspiring to touch and penetrate the veneer of appearances within the confines of the museum and gallery circuit. Whether or not this approach has its origins in Latin and South American social realist and political art practices is difficult to assess. Osorio’s activism seems distinct from both traditions in its unquestionably unromantic tone. Although personal, the process of his work remains very public, refusing to wallow in anguish over a lost culture or any other negative issue.

However, Badge of Honor is above all else, a poignant piece about the love between a father and son and all the obstacles that stand in the way of its realization. It is the story of the chronic deterioration of the family found here in one family who struggles with the seemingly unresolvable gulf between dreams and reality. And in this way it is difficult to view the work without it triggering a flood of personal associations. Striking close to home, Osorio’s strategy proves to be a disturbing and eloquent way to penetrate the social surface.

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