Pepón Osorio’s new installation at WCMA

Two Massachusetts communities—the blue-collar city of North Adams and its white-collar neighbor, Williamstown—will intersect for the summer in an empty auto showroom at the corner of Union and Canal streets in North Adams. It won’t be a geographical connection, since the physical boundaries of both communities have long been fixed. Instead, the stories of two families and their extended circles — one from each locality — will be joined as one big art installation. The piece, “Drowned in a Glass of Water,” created by MacArthur fellow Pepón Osorio on a commission by the Williams College Museum of Art, opened officially on Saturday at 69 Union St., a former Chevrolet car dealership, and will move to WCMA itself on Sept. 25.

To create it, Osorio spent a year sharing conversations, stories, and meals with about 50 people in both communities, finally narrowing his choice to two families.

The result, he said in an interview at the site on Tuesday, illustrates how much alike, rather than how different, the working class mill town and affluent college community actually are.

“The ways the residents function on a local level is similar,” he said. “They have similar ways of networking” in how they interact, become co-dependent and cross community boundaries.

Williamstown, the home of Williams College, may have “more political, financial and social power,” he suggested, but the challenges its ordinary citizens face are not unlike those of residents in North Adams.

The title of the piece comes from a Spanish expression on how life’s challenges can seem so big that we feel like we are “drowning in a glass of water.” The installation, which pivots on an 18-foot revolving platform divided by a wall that is mirrored on one side, is laden with a dense accumulation of ordinary, often kitsch domestic objects — dolls, toys, dishes, wall-mounted deer heads, garishly upholstered furniture, a wheelchair, a mannikin in a puffed crocheted dress. Video screens punctuate the mounds of found and fabricated objects. As the platform rotates, viewers will see themselves and the surrounding outdoor neighborhood reflected in the mirrored wall.

Osorio said he chose the objects in “Drowning” based on ones he saw in his subjects’ homes or on images that arose in his own mind during mealtime conversations. Some were contributed by the families, themselves, to whom he promised anonymity.  The objects have specific meanings to the families who shared their stories, he said, but will be familiar enough to viewers to also evoke personal associations in them. On top of that, viewers will get to see the installation in two different settings — the auto showroom and the museum — further stirring, and maybe disturbing, a sense of context.

Osorio said he built ties to his subjects gradually by sharing stories over food, something most of us tend to do at mealtimes. Food, in fact, is a backstory to the whole commission. “Drowning” grew out of a symposium WCMA helped organize at Williams on food, culture and community in celebration of the 10th anniversary of Gastronomica, a journal of food and culture, whose editor-in-chief, Darra Goldstein, is a Williams professor. Osorio was asked to create a piece based on the symposium themes.

Cynthia Way, WCMA’s director of education, organized the project and helped to connect Osorio to people in both communities. The artist typically presents his installations first in a community-based setting, like a storefront, and then in a museum.

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1955, Pepón was educated there and in New York City, earning his M.A. degree from Columbia University in 1985. His approach to art grew out of his experience as a social worker in the Bronx and typically focuses on the interactions of people and their neighborhoods, mostly Latino. The WCMA commission was a first for him, he said, in that it took him beyond Latino neighborhoods into more diverse localities.

The project was a first for WCMA too, said Director Lisa Corrin, in taking the institution outside its own walls and into a community beyond Williamstown.  By collaborating with Down-Street Art, a North Adams organization similar to the Store-front Artist Project in Pittsfield, and actually establishing and staffing an art space outside of Williamstown, Corrin said WCMA was helping to redefine the image of public art. “We get to reinvent the Utopian museum,” she said, “We are stretching museum practice beyond place.”

The report appeared originally at

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