WCMA’s ‘Drowned Man’ mirrors local households by sculpture

In the midst of a carnivalesque pile of junk – tacky figurines, overturned furniture, plastic deer heads mounted on the walls – stands a female mannequin in a gigantic hooped skirt fantastically crocheted in swirls of red and white. Her head is inclined, and she wears a cluster of crocheted red roses in her hair. She holds her arms out as though she had raised them to be led into a dance but, disappointed in her hope, let them fall while still grasping a cheap pair of silver heels.

She embodies all of the shattered expectation at the broken heart of the installation Drowned in a Glass of Water by Puerto Rican artist Pepón Osorio. The work had been commissioned by the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the publication Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.

Osorio was asked to create an artwork that would explore the ways by which people from the local community are nourished. In doing so, he met with families from Williamstown and North Adams and listened to their stories over meals. “It wasn’t necessary for the work of art to be about eating,” said Lisa Corrin, director of WCMA, in an interview with the Boston Globe. “Symbolically, it’s about breaking bread and getting to know each other.”

The installation spins slowly on an 18-foot turntable. A wall splits the side that portrays the Williamstown family from the one portraying the North Adams family. An orange stretcher lies in the middle of the depicted Williamstown yard and an inverted glass container lies beside it; the glass holds a golden heart suspended above ashes, hinting at the father’s death from hemorrhage. In the hollow of a nearby tree, there is a film reel of a woman who eerily and unceasingly lifts a spoon to her lipsticked mouth and swallows, though there is nothing in her silver spoon. Despite the tranquility of the scene, a haunting sense of emptiness hangs heavily over it, emphasized by the rumpled white sheets draped over the foot of the stretcher.

On the North Adams side of the divide, wooden figurines of geese – meant to be tacked onto the wall in semblance of flight – lie on a lamp table as though they had been shot down. The rest is a chaotic jumble of household objects, as the scene depicts the aftermath of an eviction notice received by the North Adams family. Large wooden spokes reminiscent of tumbleweeds are scattered through the setting, and, though spiky and dangerous-looking, they seem to represent the care and affection from the mother figure – a mannequin in a crocheted dress completely covered in Band-Aids from the neck down – as she tries to survive, much as the hub of a wheel enables a vehicle to keep rolling.

However, the mannequin of the daughter, who is also covered in Band-Aids, is positioned on a sofa in such a way that it appears that she has kicked over several chairs and a table to block off the interaction with her mother. The little girl holds numerous male dolls in her arms, signifying the absence of a father figure, and the strings of a marionette dangle in her lap. The marionette, appearing to tread water in a plastic bucket, has the tearful face of Pepón Osorio.

More than just a shared wall connects these two families. There is a small plastic swimming pool on the North Adams side that is completely filled with empty gel capsules, possibly antidepressants. On the Williamstown side, the inverted glass container containing the husband’s static heart resembles a bell jar – specifically Sylvia Plath’s, which she describes in her only novel The Bell Jar as suffocating. In the novel she writes, “I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.”

On either side of the wall, the family from North Adams and the family from Williamstown both feel as though they are drowning in their own glass of sorrows – the scene of the former actually has bathroom mats lying over the entire floor in a desperate attempt to keep from slipping and losing their grasp on everything. A mirror several inches wide rotates in the center of the wall, occasionally startling viewers with the sudden sight of themsleves juxtaposed between the two families. The work poses the question: How do I see myself reflected in these stories? It is like that moment when you are riding a merry-go-around and catch a glimpse of yourself in its mirrors, and the subsequent shock of recognition when you realize that it is you in the midst of all that surreality, in that garish noise, that empty carnival of life.

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