Doris Salcedo uses commonplace materials to create visually powerful works that bear witness in startling ways to the political violence of the modern world and prompt viewers to contemplate the importance of remembrance and mourning. This comprehensive retrospective features all major bodies of work from the artist’s thirty-year career—most of which have never been shown together before—as well as the US debut of her recent major work Plegaria Muda (2008–10).
The exhibition is on view at the MCA from February 21–May 24, 2015, and travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 26–October 14, 2015, and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, April 20–July 17, 2016.
This essay appears in the exhibition catalogue, Doris Salcedo, edited by Julie Rodrigues Widholm and Madeleine Grynsztejn and published by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the University of Chicago Press, 2015.
The work of Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo has long been a point of fixture for me, on both a professional and a personal level. For more than twenty years, the trajectory of Salcedo’s career has intersected many times with my own, and these experiences have left a strong and lasting impression: my encounters with the hauntingly beautiful and unnerving visual poetics of her work have shifted my everyday experience of the world. Like the most visionary philosophy and poetry, her public sculptures probe both the lone human soul and our shared societal values, offering not answers but a space for reflection and critical engagement.
This exhibition developed out of multiple imperatives: Salcedo’s position as one of today’s most influential yet less known artists creates a powerful need to highlight her art, and a comprehensive survey of all of Salcedo’s bodies of work has never before been mounted. And, while her art in general is timeless in quality, it feels especially resonant with the present historical moment, and certainly in the United States, where gun violence, immigration policy, and income inequality are at the forefront of our national consciousness.1 For these reasons and many others, Julie Rodrigues Widholm and I began talking about a large-scale exhibition with Salcedo during a trip to Bogotá in 2010. Five years on, the sense of urgency and significance around this exhibition has only grown.
The work of organizing this first-ever, major retrospective has reinforced certain observations about Salcedo’s work, culled from many years of working with her. Salcedo’s aesthetic strategies have developed in tandem with her growing interest in the articulation of a civic, public space geared toward the expression of collective acts of mourning. Looking at the breadth of her oeuvre, I see how the primary concerns of her practice have in many ways remained intact even while her formal and material explorations have continued to seek out new possibilities of expression. For example, there is a consistent use of pieces of domestic furniture—some found, including some that once belonged to victims of political violence, and some made in the studio. In Salcedo’s hands, these objects, closely tied to human presence and to the social fabric of the everyday, are dismembered and regrafted together in disturbing juxtapositions. They are made functionless save for their clear conveyance of some destructive process wreaked upon the home. A language of disruption and incompletion materializes first, the irruption of violence, and second, its ongoing aftereffects of irresolution and semilegibility—the symptoms of trauma. Over and again, the sculpted surfaces of Salcedo’s works render a simultaneous and contradictory sense of effacement and emergence, as if participating in the seesaw of forgetting and remembering that often manifests in the wake of shocking and injurious events. While her commitment to embodying these conditions is informed by her lived experience of Colombia’s troubled history, her work of the last fifteen years points to a global contemporary condition wrought by larger social and political forces—war, expulsion, involuntary migration, racism, permanent inequality—that is insufficiently acknowledged. War and its aftermath are everywhere evident today, and so, too, the cycles of grief and mourning that ensue, affective states suffered by individual human beings each in their own way.
Beginning with the firsthand testimony and experience of individuals who have suffered tragedy and loss, Salcedo fashions works that recognize and legitimize the lives lived by these subjects. And by giving physical manifestation to individual experiences of human suffering, she bears testimony to those larger mechanisms of power that have diminished peoples’ sense of both self and the public realm. This process is an integral part of her practice; in research conducted in preparation for a public project here in Chicago, for example, she interviewed mothers who had lost their young sons to gun violence in the city.2 In many of her finished works, no literal connection to a specific individual is recognizable, but the works still communicate an explicit sense of loss and anguish, and of corporeal fragility.
Though anchored in real events, and often incorporating real material traces, Salcedo’s works emphatically elide representation, preferring the visual strategy of an aesthetics held in suspension. It is precisely because of their provisional nature that processes such as sewing and suturing, piercing and puncturing, return in different bodies of work over the years, whether in the impaling of stacks of plastered shirts by lengths of steel rebar (Untitled, 1989–90/2013), the crude surgical stitching that closes off the niches of Atrabiliarios (1992–2004), the follicle-sized holes drilled into the surfaces of each of the works in the Unland series (1995–98) and Plegaria Muda (2008–10), or, more recently, the suturing of rose petals constituting A Flor de Piel (2014). This combination of puncturing and suturing—mending and wounding—visually recapitulates the unresolved nature of the tragedy that is the work’s first source and to which it always indirectly points, never to be resolved but also never to be forgotten or dismissed.
Salcedo’s use of gestures such as stitching, grafting, and patching is also and importantly part of a larger program emphasizing the labor inherent in the making of her works. The sculptures are clearly the results of intense acts of working and reworking. An exhausting process of painstaking handiwork may be the only way Salcedo allows herself to feel that she can bear legitimate witness to pain and suffering, to the “gratuitous and uncompensated work of loss,” as if in solidarity with those who manually labor at society’s margins.3 The visceral and insistent materiality born of this labor—whose rawness is often compounded by the discreet yet highly charged inclusion of organic matter such as hair, bone, and fabric—vigorously grounds the work in the world, and puts the beholder in its immediate and emphatic presence. Perhaps Salcedo seeks this insistent and continuous presentness because she sees it as the necessary precursor to any possible agency on the part of the work’s viewer: in the affective communication that takes place between artwork and viewer—in the rendering and recognition of an injustice—lies the hope for a real space of community and communication.4 This hope has recently driven Salcedo to work in the public sphere, an arc rising formally from the site-specific nature of her gallery installations.
Over the past thirty years, Salcedo has created a number of series, comprised of sculptures that, though created to stand alone, are also conceived as parts of carefully devised, larger installations. After their inaugural exhibitions, these bodies of work have, more often than not, been shown separately from each other, and some series have never been reassembled: recovering their original presentations is one of our goals. The exhibition begins with some of the artist’s earliest works from the 1980s, all untitled and composed of discarded objects and materials that the artist salvaged from an old hospital in Bogotá. The installation of these works from 1987 is one of those being re-created for the first time. The same is true of another installation of early works: found hospital beds wrapped in animal fibers and fabric, along with stacks of white cotton shirts pierced through the chest by steel rebar. Salcedo’s largest and perhaps best-known body of work to date is the group of untitled sculptures that fuse domestic furniture with concrete and steel, made between 1989 and 2008; of these, the exhibition presents the largest selection seen together in more than fifteen years. The installation of these works, powerful in and of themselves (designed around different groupings with the occasional outlier, and varying rhythmically in size and scale) is always configured in situ, and in such a way as to require visitors to navigate among closely fitted works seemingly casually arrayed, as if still in the process of being installed. La Casa Viuda (1992–95) is a body of work in five parts, which surprisingly have never been shown together in their entirety; the exhibition sets out to rectify this lapse, presenting four of the five remaining parts. Similarly, the three works that make up Unland are reunited for the first time since 1998.
This exhibition also marks the US debut of both Salcedo’s immersive installation Plegaria Muda and the largest iteration of A Flor de Piel, a floor piece stretching roughly 40 feet in length and composed entirely of treated rose petals sewn together by hand. Finally, and particularly exciting, we are thrilled to include the newest works to come out of Salcedo’s studio, collectively titled Disremembered (2014), which continues themes that run throughout Salcedo’s oeuvre but explores new materials: nickel-plated steel sewing needles and raw silk.
Given our goal of exhibiting all of Salcedo’s major bodies of work, the question of how best to represent her monumental site-specific, often ephemeral public interventions was a primary concern. These works are highly complex and physically and conceptually sensitive to their contexts. Our solution was to create a documentary featuring these massive undertakings, including Untitled (1999–2000), a series of three public interventions in the streets of Bogotá in commemoration of the murdered Jaime Garzón, a popular political satirist in Colombia; Noviembre 6 y 7 (2002), a durational piece lasting 53 hours wherein empty wooden chairs were lowered from the roof of the Colombian Palace of Justice in Bogotá on the 17th anniversary of a siege and resulting massacre that took place there; Untitled (2003), commissioned for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial and composed of some 1,550 chairs stacked between two buildings in an empty lot; Neither (2004), in which Salcedo first completely merged artwork and architectural perimeter; Abyss (2005), an encroaching installation commissioned for the Castello di Rivoli, Turin, as part of the T1 Triennial of Contemporary Art; Shibboleth (2007), a major intervention in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London, that involved creating a 548-foot crack in the floor of the hall; Acción de Duelo (2007), a public, participatory intervention in Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá; and the proposed but—as of this writing—unrealized Palimpsest (2013–present).
We hope this film establishes the importance of the public site-specific works in relation to those Salcedo makes in her studio, and indeed, their contribution to her larger oeuvre cannot be overemphasized. In addition, the film shows how each public work is tantamount to a public hearing of events and concerns that government bodies, authoritative organizations, even whole cultures refuse to acknowledge. In these public works, Salcedo’s role as an artist also takes on the complex facets of what it means to be a citizen, performing acts of willful remembrance and commemoration while simultaneously exposing the lack of official address.
Public action lies at the core of these large-scale, site-specific projects. Through them we come to understand Salcedo’s concern with expanding notions of what constitutes civic space and the civic itself, and of the importance of the public arena. These ideas, of course, convey an interest in the political, which is and always has been a fundamental aspect of Salcedo’s work. But perhaps more significantly, these ideas suggest a sense of responsibility—the public responsibility—to directly confront what many willingly veil or actively forget. In this way, and to cast her practice in a slightly different light, Salcedo’s work is not so much a work of memory as a work against amnesia. Through these projects she gives voice to the voiceless, form to the formless, and power to the powerless. We live in an age of radically divergent access to a collective arena. For Salcedo, who has personally witnessed a disintegration of public life and space and has long devoted herself to materializing the conditions of displacement and exclusion, lending voice and visibility to those who are denied access to the public sphere is a central task.
Many of these ideas are explored in the pages of this catalogue, which accompanies the exhibition. Rather than reformulate past arguments, the volume’s insightful essays move the conversation on Salcedo’s work forward, casting new light (and new shadows) thanks to the advantage of historical hindsight and the new perspectives gained in planning this retrospective. Julie Rodrigues Widholm, in “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” introduces the aesthetic strategies in Salcedo’s work, analyzing key installations and the artist’s varied material choices to illuminate Salcedo’s philosophical, humanist, and sociopolitical concerns. Katherine Brinson, in “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies,” draws upon religious and elegiac themes that figure in Salcedo’s recent works. Finally, we are delighted to include a version of a text written by the artist on the occasion of receiving the 9th Hiroshima Art Prize in 2014. It conveys the philosophical and social concerns of the artist’s oeuvre in her own words.
As the essays by these esteemed scholars attest, the time is ripe to look back at the career of one of the most vital artists living today. Through her works and in response to them, it is possible to learn something about ourselves and our communities, and the spaces in between. Even if only for a moment, this process of recognition brings together the individual and the community, and underscores a shared humanity, fraught as it may be.