Pepón Osorio’s collaborative, intimate, community-driven investigation of Caribbean and Latinx culture was the framework upon which I rested my undergraduate career: after watching a grainy, 2001 Art21 video about the Puerto Rican artist, I knew that I had to write my senior thesis about his work. For over four decades now, Osorio has made his name as a multidisciplinary installation artist dedicated to representing nontraditional art-goers and their stories. He has historically shown his conceptual art in unconventional neighborhood spaces like basements and storefronts in order to best serve those whom his work reflects.
Osorio’s art blazes with an aesthetic quality that challenges writing to describe the maximalism for which he is famous. His artwork is beautiful, thoughtful, and devotional: each piece is a tribute to his loved ones, to working-class Latinx families, and to a deeply Caribbean sense of humor. I have been asking myself about the terms “Latinx” and “Caribbean,” and I found a sense of admiration and solidarity in an artist who is able to profoundly articulate the question: How do we construct a Latinx body?
The exhibition My Beating Heart/Mi Corazón Latiente at the New Museum is Osorio’s largest survey yet and is the first opportunity to see twelve of his works take up residency in an institutional context and in conversation with one another.
I wanted to start by saying that this is not a retrospective. Many people think of it as a retrospective, and it isn’t. I need probably two museums filled for a retrospective. I mostly accepted this exhibition because people have only been able to see the work in multiple locations and separately. Very seldom do they get to see the most important work connected under one roof. Also, to bring the work so that students, young historians, and younger generations—I sound like a grandfather (laughter)—are able to see it in person as opposed to in magazines. And to shift the audience at the New Museum a little bit. I’m interested in audiences that are not necessarily interested in the arts but see some cultural, spiritual, and physical connection to the work.
That’s something that I picked up on instantly. I’ve been four times now, and every single time I have visited, there have always been people speaking Spanish in the galleries. It has been so rewarding to hear and be a part of, and it is representative of what your work asks and who your work brings.
Yeah, I don’t think that there has been so much Spanish spoken at the New Museum. It’s really great.
One of the guards was telling me how he loves your work and how wonderful of a person you are.
Even though my work is deeply conceptual, it’s also accessible, and I have been able to balance those two places. A lot of the guards were in awe knowing that I was just a normal person. They were prepared to see the traditional artist that doesn’t speak to anyone, and there I was, hugging them. Interestingly enough, at every exhibition that I have, I give out things.
Puerto Ricans make alcoholado, which is a mixture of herbs, mostly from the Caribbean. It is a healing liquid. When you have a bruise, have respiratory problems, have a cold, you either smell it or wear it, and then it relieves. At the very end of installing this exhibition, I gave alcoholado to everyone. I made these tiny bottles, about one hundred of them.
It is about not being completely satisfied with what the artwork does. We always think about private collections, art as being contained in these places of power. What I wanted to do with this is spread out—democratizar, democratize—the artwork in a way that people in the museum, assistants who work with me, and people I’ve crossed paths with during this exhibition get a chance to get a bit of that.
First of all, I’d also never seen your artworks in person. So seeing Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?) (1993) was like seeing a celebrity. It reminds me of your bottles of alcoholado and the notion that your completed work is still ongoing. When I encountered Scene of the Crime (Whose Crime?), the newspapers in the installation have different headlines than when it has been exhibited in the past. Do you think that the artwork is ever finished?
What I noticed with this exhibition is that there is a shift in the thematic role of the work. The work began with a focus on the personal. The attention was given to the family, and the focus was on that dead body, its surroundings, and, really, the majority of the people passing judgment over what they saw there.
Fast forward to 2023, we began to look at the skepticism and this lack of trust with the police department we have. Also, the femicidio, femicide. So it shifts from the personal to the collective as well as how we all have witnessed history through our own eyes but also through the eyes of the police department. There’s a tension there. It’s up to us, as members of society, to begin to create some sort of awareness. The responsibility that I had to bring awareness to in those pieces is now secondary to the collective awareness that we have of that work.
The work responded to a very specific time, and it was completed in that sense. But it’s not completed in the sense that it has multiple readings and meanings to it every time it is shown.
I’ve been thinking so much about your love of people, and something that strikes me about your work is your love for women.
I was raised by two very strong women, my mother and my caretaker. I have always been very close to women, including obviously my wife, who is a very strong woman, Merián Soto. I have been surrounded by that reality that makes me question, all the time, my role as a male person. I raised both Marcelo and Gabriel, our sons, to really look out for and respect women. Women have a very important place, and that is always shifting based on ignorance, a male ignorance. I respect women a lot. The reason why my work comes from that voice is because the childhood voices of my mother and caretaker still echo in my mind today, even though neither is physically present.
One way or another, there are three important vertientes—currents or threads—in the work that I have noticed by putting it all together: health, women, and death. They’re always present. These three things, and it doesn’t matter what I do, it comes back to them. Sometimes when I’m making work, I realize three-quarters in: Oh, here we go again. I can’t do anything that is not indirectly related to those things.
How do you practice alignment in your daily life? How did making Convalescence (2023) heal you?
I practice healing and spirituality, often through rituals. I have a morning ritual that I do. I am at ease with myself because I know that the spiritual forces are going to help me out. Not because of my offering, but because of my daily connection to them. I think that healing is an endless process.
I made Convalescence because during my treatment I would sit in a place and people would come and talk to me. It’s so awkward because no one will talk to a dark-skinned guy who is six feet, two inches. Very few people on the street will come up to me and say, “Hey.” But contrary to that, I sat there and people started talking to me. So all these conversations that I had during the treatment were accumulating. Lots of people facing life-and-death situations. Which made me think, Why would they want to tell me? Maybe I was the last person who heard this story.
When your life is threatened, it’s extremely difficult and challenging. The last thing you want to do is make art. What you saw at the New Museum is one quarter of the larger installation. I wanted it to introduce the concept of healing and my work that began to shift a little bit from what I used to do. At the end, I wanted to incorporate seven stories. So, yes, I did heal. I was able to look at the future in a brighter way. Luckily enough, I am in stable condition now.
How do your smaller works like Si mal no recuerdo (If I Remember Correctly) (2023) or Reparación (2022) fit into this practice of community engagement present in your installations? How do you see them interacting with the larger works next to them?
I saw the exhibition as a rubber band that expands and contracts; it opens, and it closes. I wanted people to be able to have that one-on-one connection with the work, as opposed to people standing in front of Scene of a Crime (Whose Crime?) and having a sort of collective experience.
I was interested in people looking at Badge of Honor (1995) from an institutional point of view. There’s a lot of space; this is a luxury that I had at the New Museum because when I show the works in a community setting, in a neighborhood, you don’t have that much space. I was also shifting to see what the responsibility of the institution was in relationship to those topics.
Reparación and Si mal no recuerdo are about capturing you on a one-on-one level. And also a lot of questions of who I am. Who am I in relationship to all this? Complice is someone who’s a witness. That’s what it is. I wanted people to feel that they were witnesses on many different levels, not in only one of the works.
Pepón Osorio: My Beating Heart/Mi corazón latiente is on view at the New Museum in New York City until September 17.