A Work In Mourning

Doris Salcedo

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. A version of it was published as “Silent Prayer” on the occasion of the artist’s receiving the Hiroshima Art Prize for Peace in 2014.

The first step I take in the making of a work of art is to orient myself toward the victim to whom I address the piece, and whose experience is a prerequisite for the very existence of the work. The experience of an individual is always my point of departure. But during the process of making an artwork, I must maintain a distance in order to leave that person intact, untouched. And from there, as soon as I begin working, everything enters into the paradoxical terrain of art.

My work departs from the singularity of a lived experience but en route, effaces that experience. As Paul Celan wrote, “The man whose eyes and mind are occupied with art . . . forgets about himself. Art makes for distance from the I. Art requires that we travel a certain space in a certain direction, on a certain road.”1

The experiences I attempt to address are not anecdotes. My work is about the memory of experience, which is always vanishing, not about experiences taken from life. It is the vacuum generated by forgetfulness, an attempt to grasp what is no longer present. The work of art is concerned precisely with that which is not an event. It points toward an event, or, as the philosopher Jean Luc Nancy said, in a work of art, an event and eternity coincide in the intensity of its image.2

View work Acción de Duelo, July 3, 2007

The events addressed within my artworks are in the process of appearing and disappearing, and therefore, they can never be fully present. As Jacques Derrida said, art articulates “what is no longer and what is not yet.”3 My sculptures are the only locus where these distant events take place.

The only concern of my work is what happens to human beings assaulted by violence. In all of my work, I have addressed only one issue: political violence. Nancy has said: “Politics begins and ends with bodies.”4

Because I strongly believe that violence defines the ethos of our society, I have focused on political violence not simply because I am Colombian—which, in a way, gives me a deeper and closer knowledge of its effects—but because of its more than 60 years in constant war.

The epic, mechanized scale of death that has characterized the 20th and 21st centuries has become systematically produced and thoroughly inscribed into our everyday lives. Savage and intolerable conditions are forced upon our society, requiring humanity’s mass absorption of its own utter brutality, which reduces the demise of an individual to their utmost insignificance through desecration. With each life that abruptly ends at the hand of the prevailing instruments of power and capital, the industrial destruction of human beings that perpetuates endlessly expanding cycles of emotional wreckage registers the most profoundly cruel end of a person that humanity can possibly know.

Art, on the other hand, can inscribe in our life a different kind of passage, that is, from suffering to signifying loss. For this reason, the experience of mourning has been the central tenet in my art for the past thirty years. During this time I have remained immersed in mourning, and my work has been the work of mourning, and a topology of mourning. The only possible response I can give in the face of irreparable absence is to produce images capable of conveying incompleteness, lack, and emptiness.

I hope for my work to perform a role similar to that of the funeral oration. Nancy writes that funeral oration “gives the ruined world its dignity as world [and] to the proper name deprived of sense it gives the totality of sense.”5 A work of art as funeral oration explores possible ways in which to formulate a poetics of mourning. Our very humanity resides within the devotion or contempt that we assign to our practices, processes, and rituals of mourning. An aesthetic view of death reveals an ethical view of life, and it is for this reason that there is nothing more human than mourning.

A work of art as funeral oration not only affirms the work of mourning, it is what Nouri Gana calls “a work in mourning.”6 It attempts to give back the sense, meaning, and form that violence took away from its victims, the unmourned dead of the past. Nancy adds that this poetics of mourning also “gives rise to that strange turmoil of crossing through life for nothing—but not exactly in a pure loss.”7

The immensity of mourning defines our limits; it marks a restricted space where there is no access, a border we are not permitted to cross over, a space separate from our lives by cuts, ruptures, and wounds. And it is within these boundaries that I have tried to inscribe my work, marking specific sites for remembrance where acts of mourning can take place.

Through my work, I have tried to explore the relationships that can be established between images of violence and the images and memories we have of a deceased person. This encounter is both a confrontation and an embrace, and all of my work straddles this fragile line. I have tried to inscribe my work precisely at the threshold where this absence makes itself present, a threshold that simultaneously separates and unites these images.

In spite of the fact that I am a sculptor, working with solid matter, I perceive this fragile threshold as something untouchable, like an image or a wound. A recent work, A Flor de Piel (2014), is concerned with this untouchable aspect of a wound. It started with the simple intention of making a flower offering to a victim of torture in an attempt to perform the funerary ritual that was denied her. The genesis of A Flor de Piel arose when I began to wonder: how could I initiate even the slightest movement toward a tormented body, even if only to present a flower offering? At this point I began looking for the most fragile way of touching the untouchable, and the process of making this piece pushed me to find the limits of the fragile and the most delicate within the frame of sculpture. It was at the outer limits of fragility that I encountered a vulnerable body.

View work A Flor de Piel, 2014

The realization of A Flor de Piel represented the most difficult challenge I have ever encountered: trying to preserve rose petals in a stage that is neither dead nor alive. I treated them so they remain suspended between the animate and the inanimate. I knitted a shroud made of rose petals that are sutured to one another. To me, making this piece represented the unattainable aim of shrouding bodies torn away from life and never properly delivered to death. It is a delicate and almost insubstantial piece. Not quite an object, it stands removed from the world of objects, and in a way, what defines this piece is our gaze, our relationship with it. It is a thin, ephemeral shroud; it is an interface that allowed me to come near the broken bodies of torture.

The body of a disappeared, tortured person remains among us. Nancy reminds us, “one should not submit the dead entirely to death. . . . They are well and truly in the world, in molecules or in atoms caught up in different combinations, different crystallizations; they are also in the community . . . that shares this small part of being . . . .”8 Their presence is insurmountable, it looms large over our reality, and for this reason the expansive nature of this piece is one of its essential features. A Flor de Piel makes possible the idea of coming close to touching while making evident the impossibility of a caress, of healing, and of saving from the abyss of death.

The industrial production of violent death lies beyond the scope of art. Marie-José Mondzain writes that death cannot be represented because it is the ultimate profanity, and as such it escapes all symbolization. Death is not representable, and for this reason, in art “it is substituted, not by the category of emptiness but of a hollowing out.”9 Its content, argues Mondzain, should be emptied out to allow it to appear anew in the time and space of the sacred.

Perhaps what art can represent is the death of death. The impetus for another work, Plegaria Muda (2008–10), began in 2004 when I embarked on a trip around southeast Los Angeles. I researched official reports stating that over the course of a 20-year period, more than 10,000 young people had suffered violent deaths on the streets of LA, and during this time, I began to wonder if art could represent a death of death. As I focused my attention on the violence caused by gangs, of particular interest was the murky relationship between the role of killer and that of the victim. I realized that this perverse swapping that flowed between these roles was possible because both of them inhabit a specific grey area within our society, the space that some writers have called “social death” or “death in life,” which is experienced by people living in deprived areas under extremely precarious conditions. The consequences of these conditions are so profoundly tragic, that one can easily see the connection that exists between this so-called social death and the subsequent violent, anonymous, physical death that is carried out by members of these communities. The conditions that generate this social death are similar all over the world, whether in Los Angeles or Bogotá.

View work Plegaria Muda, 2008–10
Plegaria Muda, 2008–10

In Plegaria Muda, I try to articulate a series of violent events that have determined the unstoppable spiral of mimetic and fratricidal violence that equally marks out gang violence, internal conflicts, or civil wars all over the world.

Plegaria Muda is my response to events that occurred in Colombia between 2003 and 2009, during which time 2,500 young people from deprived areas were murdered by the Colombian army and then presented as “unidentified guerrillas: discharged in combat.” For months, I accompanied a group of mothers who were searching for their disappeared sons, and identifying them in the graves where they had been abandoned. The death of each of these young men generates an absence and each absence demands that we take responsibility for those who have been forcibly made absent. Since our relationship with them does not end with their death, the only way that they can exist is within us; our relation with them does not end with their dead, it lives on as grief. Hans-Jost Frey argues that in the face of death, the end of our hope survives as mourning, as a sign of the infinite incompleteness of our relationship with the dead.10

Plegaria Muda, 2008–10

Colombia—the country of unburied dead—has hundreds of unidentified mass graves where the dead remain nameless. For this very reason, I inscribed the image of the grave within this piece, creating a space for remembrance, a graveyard that opens up a space for each body. Nancy defines injustice as “the mixing, breaking, crushing, and stifling of bodies, making them indistinct (gathered up in a dark center, piled up to eliminate the space between them, within them—assassinating even the space of their just death).”11 Plegaria Muda highlights each tomb individually despite the fact that not one of them bears the mark of a name. Each piece has been sealed and has an individual character, as if a funerary ritual has taken place. The implacable and obsessive repetition of the tomb emphasizes the painful repetition of unnecessary deaths.

I hope that my work can cross through history to make present the extreme experiences that lay forgotten in the past. Emmanuel Lévinas argues that “The totality of being in which shines forth as meaning is not an entity fixed for eternity but requires the arranging and assembling, the cultural act, of man”12 and I would add that it requires an artist to think across and beyond disaster.

  1. Paul Celan, “The Meridian,” from Collected Prose, trans. Rosemarie Waldrop (New York: Routledge, 2003), 44.
  2. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 10.
  3. Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 2006), 30.
  4. Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 73.
  5. Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bettina Bergo (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 100.
  6. Nouri Gana, Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 125.
  7. Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity, trans. Bettina Bergo (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 103.
  8. Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, trans. John McKeane (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 91.
  9. Marie-José Mondzain, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary, trans. Rico Franses (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 143.
  10. Hans-Jost Frey, Interruptions, trans. Georgia Albert (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 75.
  11. Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, trans. Richard A. Rand (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 47.
  12. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi, eds. Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings (Studies in Continental Thought) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 42.