Pepón Osorio, you started your artistic career in the USA… What drove you to make installations?
I came to the USA in 1975. I left Puerto Rico to finish my baccalaureate. I was not planning on making a career in art. I knew I was somebody creative but I did not think that creative ideas could be transformed into art… I started working on this when I met my wife, Merian Soto, a dancer and choreographer. We started working together. I worked on what I witnessed in dance and transformed it into scenography and installation, keeping the context of movement. From there came my theatrical work, which addresses movement. I never considered the exhibition space as the place where I could express my ideas.
From 1975 to 1985, I worked on recreating the materials of the island (Puerto Rico) with sugarcane, earth in the USA… Back then, I did not know the artists who were working from earth. I created a small island, it was like recreating the world of my island within the life and environment I had in the USA. I was recreating natural environments that brought me closer to the island. I missed it. I missed its natural elements, the heat and the nature.
In 1985 I broke up with this approach in my work to get closer to the island, I finished university and I started doing social work. From working with earth, I switched to artistic work. I redefined myself as Puerto Rican and in relation with the Puerto Ricans in exile. I went back and forth between New York and Puerto Rico. I started working on what eventually would become what I am doing today. I plunged into the social complexity of my country. I learned a lot on its interior life and the way the domestic space is created. I got interested in the rooms of Puerto Rican houses in the USA –especially those living in the South of the Bronx. I saw myself as Puerto Rican and was transforming as such. It was as if I was reborn, a Puerto Rican rebirth. I missed the food, the people, the language.
You did not want to go back to Puerto Rico?
I was linked to a certain romanticism of the island, I needed to connect with the landscape, the people, the island… But I did not miss the Puerto Rican social reality. I could not live there, I only go for the holidays. I have a love and hate relationship with the island and its social aspect- but not with the people.
Was living in the USA a key element for your art?
I started understanding Puerto Rico from a distance. It is with the distance between New York and Puerto Rico that I got closer to the island… When I was there, everything seemed homogeneous to me. But in New York, I met Jews, African-Americans, English-Americans, Dominicans, people from the Caribbean… I finally understood that complexity. It was a lot more complex than what I was living in Puerto Rico, and I realized that my identity was also complex: my duality as a middle-class Puerto Rican from African descent; my knowledge of what popular culture is in Puerto Rico. It was acknowledging I was belonging to a class I recognized, one I knew and sometimes I was creating popular culture. In Puerto Rico, I was not seeing it because I was in the middle of it. But with distance I started understanding the complexity of my existence. Little by little, I realized that I wanted to create an artwork in which I would start voicing a series of ideas and theories which started from this space where we were creating popular culture. It was the idea of creating a “neo-popularism” because I knew the subject well and at the same time I knew it (like somebody) from the outside.
Before, I had integrated the space of performances, with dancers, with artists from the 1980s in Soho, New York. I put a distance between all that and I stayed at the periphery when I began to formulate my intention to create an art with a more concrete form. I was at the periphery, compared to Julien Schnabel for example, who was the center of art in the 1980s. I started disguising myself from the periphery. I alienated myself from this world and created one based on something with which I was familiar: the Puerto Rican popular culture. It was both like getting closer to and resisting a world.
The middle-class or upper middle-class Puerto Ricans in the USA did not know popular culture the way I knew it, because they were breaking up with that culture. I am an academician of popular culture, a visual theoretician of my culture and identity. I created artworks linked to my childhood. I brought the past into the present while looking at the future. My artwork is in sharp contrast with this individual completely colonized but who is searching strength in the colonization process. I know more than those who colonized me.
Your artworks are monumental. Why do you feel the need to work in large format?
My work has huge dimensions. I dreaded about presenting small artworks, fearing people would not see them and they would disappear. I was afraid of seeing my artworks exhibited in corners. I thus started working on something big. Very big. Museums never attracted me. It was different from where I thought I was. A museum was a foreign space. Contrary to a common belief, for me it was not the best place to exhibit. I have been outside the visual art circuit (1984-1989) because back then I was working on performances with my wife. Every artwork I was creating was meant for the stage of her shows, but they always had a link with popular culture. I was using theaters and their rooms as exhibition spaces. I was not exhibiting, I was not presenting my artworks in galleries. The dynamics of exhibiting in a theater interested me a lot, the fact that somebody was attending a play and despite the distance with my artwork, it lived on its own. I was not only working with the performance space but also the place where people would sit.
My work became popular in 1990, on the occasion of an important exhibition in El Museon del Barrio, with a retrospective on the work I had achieved since 1985. And also at that time I was discovering interest in my work within the gallery. I used the gallery and the museum space as an active space which the spectator, the viewer, livened up with his presence. I loved the fact that people interacted with the artwork, like for example in my installation El Velorio: AIDS in the Latino Community. It always interested me to work with emotion and playing with that emotion. The most important for me was succeeding in connecting the spectator to my reality, which is very psychological and emotional. El Velorio triggered a very strong reaction because the community was affected by the theme of AIDS. It was crucial to link my work to a group of people who did not go to the museum that often.
This artwork, like Escena del Crimen, el Crimen de Quién?, has been especially conceived for an exhibition at the Museo del Barrio.
I have always been interested in recreating a space where I would extract a room of a house to put it in the museum space. To create a domestication of the museum, to create a domestic space in a space inadequate for that. Hence, it was difficult to reach the right balance between the museum and my place of origin. I have always felt like an invader in the museum, but I was not part of it. I created this piece in the KadE but I do not think it belongs to the museum as such. I invade spaces. I invade them and after they get inhabited I leave. I am like a squatter. Up to a certain point, it is what I do in my work: a large theatrical artwork.
Are these invasions sincere stories or artistic constructions?
My work is a lot bigger than life, it is like an exaggeration of life. It is such an exaggerated world whether the people who react to it are smiling or show little enthusiast. Whether they love or hate it. A lot of people ask me if all this is true… Yes, my work is always based on a reality, on real facts or stories. I create a sense of reality with fantasy, where the story is made to break the sense of reality.
What can you tell us about your piece exhibited in Who More Sci-Fi than Us? It is a detail of your installation Drowned in a glass of water of 2010.
It has a story. I went to Boston in the USA and to two villages close from one another, I met two families. One had a lot money and facility, while the other was poor.
The piece was based on something true but I altered reality. I have always been interested in altering reality a bit because when somebody tells you a story, it is never told like it actually is: it is embellished a little. I thus decorated the story by exaggerating it to make it more interesting. You do not search for good stories, they come to you, as well as the characters.
There are two sides in this piece. It is a mobile piece. Until May, it has been in the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York. On one side, there is a swimming-pool, on the other, a doll. The two families have a common denominator which links the stories: this denominator is health. The two families came to tell me these stories during my visits to these families- a process which lasted for a year. The two families did not know each other. The doll was in the house of the poor family. I represented the character of the housewife. I incorporated the objects of her house in this character and its surroundings. This person is in great physical and spiritual pain. That is why you can see little priests around it. I like creating metaphors, images that speak for themselves, that leave enough room for interpretation. I receive tactile and physical images that I visually translate.
What made you disconnect one room from the other?
The doll works on its own, it can be taken off but it would be a little abstract to take it out of its context, of its real story. The piece works, it can create a new meaning, it is more sensational, but the story is less present… It is just an object. I like the idea of an artwork speaking to you…
The people I work with are people with a strong spiritual and emotional connection; they are always in tune. It is something that I look for in people.
By Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credots : Pepón Osorio when we met in Amersfoort © Uprising Art