Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo

Julie Rodrigues Widholm
Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The word imago designated the effigy of the absent, the dead, and, more precisely, the ancestors: the dead from whom we come, the links of the lineage in which each of us is a stitch. The imago hooks into the cloth. It does not repair the rip of their death: it does less and more than that. It weaves. It images absence. It does not represent this absence, it does not evoke it, it does not symbolize it, even though all this is there too. But, essentially, it presents absence. The absent are not there, are not “in images.” But they are imaged: their absence is woven into our presence. The empty place of the absent as a place that is not empty, that is the image. A place that is not empty does not mean a place that has been filled: it means the place of the image, that is, in the end, the image as place, and a singular place for what has no place here: the place of a displacement, a metaphor . . .
—Jean-Luc Nancy 1

In equal measure poetic and political, the work of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo explores the paradox of simultaneously forgetting and remembering the social scars of violent conflicts. In sculptures, installations, and public projects, Salcedo reflects on how once unimaginable suffering becomes abruptly real, conveying how “war just distorts . . . It throws a shadow over your entire life.”2 Her subjects are those affected by large-scale conflict and include not just those who are killed but also their families, who endure the pain and suffering of absence. The work transcends simplistic notions of victimhood to engage more fully with the complexity of personhood wherein “all people remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others.”3

Salcedo’s thinking is influenced by philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy, writers and poets such as Paul Celan, and Holocaust survivors such as Jean Amery. Their works provide ways to process traumatic conditions of violence created by racism, oppression, exclusion, poverty, and humiliation, while Salcedo’s artworks consider these conditions from the distinct perspective of the victims. Salcedo is also influenced by the work of German artist Joseph Beuys, for whom art is inflected with questions of how to heal after social traumas. From the beginning of her career, Salcedo has participated in a central shift of the paradigm of political art by embracing ideas, objecthood, and materiality simultaneously—a substantial and early break from the autobiographical approaches of artists associated with 1980s multiculturalism.

Without representing violence directly, Salcedo’s works make tangible both an assault on the human body, of which death is the most extreme and horrific result, and the neverending grief experienced by the survivor of the dead, the disappeared, the dispossessed. Many of her projects begin with a violent event that Salcedo has witnessed or encountered in the media. Although her research involves the collection of witness statements and personal testimonies from victims and their family members, specific narrative details are unseen in her finished works.4 Her restrained yet emotive works employ forms and materials that relate to the victims’ stories and make use of ordinary objects available to marginalized populations: chairs, tables, beds, armoires, and clothing. The simple unadorned wooden furniture in Salcedo’s work serves as a universal image that is not meant to be specific to a particular time or place. Her subdued palette of browns, grays, and shades of white derives from the use of wood, metal, concrete, and bricks, occasionally mixed with organic materials such as hair, animal fiber, live grass, roses, and silk. Through a laborious process that can take years of research, testing, and production, Salcedo and her team of assistants transform these familiar materials into contemplative objects that transcend the particular details of violent incidents and prompt viewers to consider individual lives lost and families torn apart. Her installations remind us of the risk to humanity when the loss of our most disenfranchised is not properly marked or mourned and when victims become mere statistics or headlines. Locating the effects of war within areas of daily life, both private and public, Salcedo’s work includes sculptures made of deconstructed furniture filled with concrete—symbolic of the relentlessly disrupted domestic sphere—as well as large-scale, site-specific installations and public actions.

Though most of Salcedo’s works are untitled, those that are named are given titles that succinctly imbue the work with poetic impact and evocative associations: Unland, Tenebrae, Abyss, Neither, Shibboleth, Palimpsest, Disremembered. Other titles are in Spanish and resist direct translation into English, for example, Atrabiliarios, La Casa Viuda, Plegaria Muda, and A Flor de Piel. Works such as Noviembre 6 y 7 reference the dates of specific events affiliated with Salcedo’s public actions, including those she calls acciónes de duelo, or acts of mourning.

During the last 30 years, Salcedo—who is from Bogotá and continues to live and work there—has considered what it means to make art during a time of war. Colombia is the country with the longest-running civil conflict in the Western Hemisphere, where 50 years of internal battles between the government, guerrillas, and paramilitaries have together killed more than 220,0005 people and displaced more than four million. Notions of presence and absence on a global scale take on highly charged political meanings when considered in the context of Colombia and other regions of South America, where the violent and widespread phenomenon of “the disappeared” (desaparecidos)6 has created a culture characterized by profound loss. Salcedo’s artwork counters acts of disappearance with acts of reappearance. Her work does not document tragic events through representational means but instead embodies the struggle for presence and visibility, and a quest for agency.

Salcedo’s oeuvre diverges from centuries of paintings and sculptures about war that rely on depictions of the figure. Instead, her research, processes, and art refute notions of representation by signaling the futility of such attempts. She embraces the abstract as an essential tool for art making. This is another crucial element of the artist’s work—her decision not to address violence through depictions of battle scenes, victims, or gore, but instead to plumb the emotional and psychological textures of loss, grief, and other aftereffects of violence. The work, by the artist’s own admission, is like a funeral oration.7

Salcedo states, “there is nothing more human than mourning; it restores humanity.”8 The artist approaches this subject from a broad view—her themes include loss of life, self, safety, the familiar, the family, and home. Like Salcedo, the sociologist Paul Gilroy expanded the idea of mourning beyond notions of death when he wrote: “In Latin America, postcolonial life supplies an invitation to mourn the losses involved in subjugation and to imagine what another, less belligerent developmental journey might have involved.”9 Given the difficult conditions of life for the vast majority of the human population, one imagines this invitation could be extended outside of Colombia to other subjugated regions. Thus, Salcedo’s works serve as a catalyst for dynamic internal reflection and public dialogue about trauma and suffering in many times and places.

Indeed, war, violence, and their effects have become a condition of everyday life for many, and a persistent fact of our time: one only has to think of the conflagrations brewing across the globe at the time of this writing in Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and Nigeria, as well as within many American inner cities. Salcedo addresses the omnipresence of war when she states:

I believe war is the main event of our time. War is what defines our lives . . . it creates its own laws. War forces us to generate ethical codes which exclude whole parts of the population; once this happens, we can attack and destroy them because they are no longer viewed as human, and we have used these false ethics as a tool to expel people from humankind. We see civil wars happening everywhere, every day. We read about these terrible events that shape the way we live. What I am trying to show in my work is that war is part of our everyday life.10

The seemingly infinite number of conflicts around the globe and the neverending loss of individuals are echoed in Salcedo’s work through an aesthetic strategy that emphasizes a repetition of forms with subtle variations, as if to acknowledge the individual among the masses. And yet, despite the twenty-four-hour torrent of media images bearing witness to extraordinary pain, suffering, and loss around the globe, Salcedo suggests that as a society we have developed “an inability to mourn.”11 In order to mourn, one must negate apathy toward others and empathetically feel their loss so that it may become our loss as well. Through highly crafted sculptures and installations, her work offers an image and a space to conjure feelings and subsequently a public platform that forges this sense of collective human connection.

Salcedo’s work highlights two particular characteristics of war and grief: in the sculptural work, the relentless disruption to the domestic sphere; and in public actions and site-specific installations, the traditionally private act of mourning in the collective realm. In both cases, the work embodies the victim’s perspective and experience of war. By viewing Salcedo’s work relative to the consequences of fear and hate,12 one is forced to reflect on “the irregular, transitory and sometimes unwanted news of how it is to be another human being”13 whose life has been distorted by pervasive violence. If mourning restores humanity, and Salcedo’s sculptures create sites for mourning, then she creates art that counters dehumanizing acts with humane ones. In the face of the widespread injustice and suffering that accompany systemic violence, Salcedo’s work creates spaces where we can reaffirm life by confronting—seeing, hearing, and acknowledging—the other. In doing so, it is both urgent and timeless.

According to political theorist Fredric Jameson, “History is not something we can know directly; it is available to the scholar only as a combination of traces or wounds. It can be apprehended only through its effects.”14 Within the modern era—defined by industrialization, colonization and decolonization, world wars and genocide, destruction and rebuilding, democracy and dictatorships, excessive prosperity and excessive poverty—it is in part through the work of artists such as Salcedo that we can begin to understand Jameson’s “traces and wounds,” the traumatic results, both physical and psychological, of sociopolitical events.

Salcedo’s response to conflict, comprising interrelated bodies of work and public installations, proposes that art transcends matters of fact and moves toward the ineffable. Her work contemplates the visual and metaphorical forms of presence and absence: it defines absence beyond notions of life and death to include the invisibility of certain sectors of society, the “disqualified, marginalized, fugitive knowledge from below and outside the institutions of official knowledge production.”15 This is just one way to understand how Salcedo’s political concerns undergird her artistic practice. In addition, the paradox of an absent body that makes its presence felt is central to Salcedo’s work, specifically the notion of agency for those who are socially or politically “invisible”—the refugee, the immigrant, the widow, the person “on the receiving end of violence.”16

These concerns are also manifested in the physical construction of the sculptures. Her ambitious sculptures and installations demonstrate the skill and ability of those working in peripheral regions such as Bogotá and serve as a reminder that technically complex and intellectually rigorous projects can be accomplished in developing countries. The works have an uncanny sense of effortlessness that belies the fact that each project requires an extraordinary amount of human labor to overcome the seemingly impossible through innovation, invention, problem-solving, and extremely sophisticated modes of production.

Salcedo’s first solo exhibition took place at Bogotá’s Casa de Moneda in 1985, soon after she completed her studies in art at Universidad de Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano (1980) and New York University (1984). Featured in the exhibition were seven sculptures made with metal rods, wax, leather, and wire that she created while in graduate school. The works include examples of wrapping and embedding materials, techniques that persist in much of her subsequent work. By 1987, Salcedo had begun creating her mature work, including Untitled (1986), for which she was awarded first prize in the XXXI Salón Nacional de Artistas Colombianos in Medellín. A group of sculptures made from altered hospital furniture comprised her work for the Salón. In Untitled, Salcedo welded the head and foot of a white steel cot to black steel shelving that had been deconstructed and reconfigured. She covered 10 small plastic baby dolls in wax and wrapped them with animal fiber around the joints of the sculpture. The dolls are barely visible but suggest a life that is confined and distorted early in its development. Indeed, her use of hospital furniture evokes notions of physical repair and healing. Intentionally avoiding a clear narrative and honing a postminimal aesthetic, Salcedo was thinking of the drug cartels’ forced conscription of poor boys from Medellín as hired assassins, known in Spanish as sicarios, when making this work.17

For the Medellín exhibition, Salcedo also physically transformed the surfaces and colors of found objects. She applied acids to a gynecological chair, while a wooden chest was put outside to weather and dust. These aggressive processes of entropy reference the transformation of life in Colombia that occurred while she was studying abroad, during which time violence seemed to have grown unchecked.18 In an interview at the time of the exhibition, Salcedo mentioned the importance of the symbolic traits carried by her found materials. The plastic dolls, cradles, and children’s furniture deployed in her work suggest the moment of childhood when life should be full of promise but instead is marred by a particular sociopolitical event or condition. What became clear in this early exhibition was Salcedo’s engagement with familiar yet cryptic forms that circulate between the absence of information and the presence of meaning. It also established the significance of presenting her work as installations, an approach she has used to great effect throughout her career, to explore the relationships among individual sculptures, and also between the sculptures and the architecture of the gallery, inclusive of the latter’s social and political structures.

A massacre of workers taken from their homes at banana plantations in northern Colombia in 1988 provided the impetus for a group of 11 untitled sculptures from 1989–90 presented in Salcedo’s next solo exhibition, which was held at Galería Garcés Velásquez in Bogotá. Individual stacks of white button-down shirts solidified with plaster are pierced with varying numbers of steel rebar. In this work, a wife’s act of ironing and stacking shirts, a quiet ritual of everyday domestic life, is reified into a condition of futile mourning. The works appeared in a row along with six hospital cots, four on the floor and two leaning against a wall, which, like her earlier hospital pieces, were wrapped in animal viscera, used to attach shirts onto the grid of the cot like a cocoon. The strong juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical forms, which the artist begins here, is explored throughout her later work, perhaps as a metaphor for horizontal (democratic) social structures encountering vertical (hierarchical) systems.

Salcedo’s interviews with displaced rural Colombian women forced out of their homes in search of safety resulted in La Casa Viuda, a series of six sculptures (one of which, La Casa Viuda V, is no longer extant) made from 1992 to 1995. Doors without buildings, unmoored from their foundations, evoke the loss of home and subsequent lack of shelter that these women and their families were forced to endure. “La casa viuda,” or “the widowed house,” is also a phrase used to describe homes affected by los desaparecidos. La Casa Viuda I (1992–94) is composed of a tall and narrow dark wood door with a frame still attached. The left side of the doorframe transitions from lumber at the top to raw, knotty wood toward the base, revealing the traces of severed branches. The work becomes a throne of sorts, an ennobling gesture that carries a sense of fortitude and dignity in its verticality. What looks like a formal lace dress, perhaps a wedding dress, has been meticulously embedded within the surface of half a wooden bench or stool that is affixed to the door. The neckline is located upside down near the feet, and seems to dissolve into the front and top surface before hanging loosely behind the seat. The memory of being a bride fades into the wood, overtaken by the unalterable condition of widowhood, a state defined by absence.

The installation of La Casa Viuda I and La Casa Viuda III (1994), often within tight doorways, underscores how these abandoned doors are missing their architectural support. In La Casa Viuda III, a small bedframe’s headboard and footboard span either side of a narrow corridor. In La Casa Viuda II (1993–94), a similarly narrow but paler wooden door is attached to a wooden cabinet that is open on one side to reveal its interior, empty except for a few shelf supports. On its exterior, plaid clothing and a zipper are visible along with a piece of bone that is delicately inlaid into its surface. The traces of an absent architectural structure, perhaps an exterior wall, are suggested in La Casa Viuda II by the broken L-shaped line of wood on the floor. La Casa Viuda IV (1994) continues the formal exploration begun in La Casa Viuda III, with two small portions of a dark wooden headboard and footboard, a single bed, extending like arms from part of an architectural remnant also inlaid with white lace and bone and missing its glass windows. The work borrows a gallery wall for its support, emphasizing its itinerant nature. Salcedo’s material investigations continued with La Casa Viuda V (1994) (which was later destroyed by the artist), and La Casa Viuda VI (1995), the last work in the series, comprises three freestanding sculptures made of a shorter horizontal base and taller vertical door. A pair of doors are huddled together and set apart from the third sculpture, which contains a child’s toy metal chair, held by the curvilinear support of two human ribs. The chair’s disturbing form and heart-wrenching emptiness remind us again of how violence upends families through a loss of familiarity and innocence.

For nearly 20 years, from 1989 to 2008, Salcedo explored various visual permutations of concrete-filled wooden armoires, dressers, beds, and chairs—household furniture that was donated, purchased, or found, and then rendered dysfunctional by infilling with concrete. Some of the works included furniture and clothing provided by victims and families she encountered during her research, as material evidence of those who are absent. Through years of refinement the concrete surfaces in these works have become smoother, more monochromatic, and more controlled while the furniture components have become larger and more complicated.

Salcedo’s work includes many examples of different objects that are joined or embedded—sometimes seamlessly, sometimes jarringly—within or partially inside or outside of each other. Metaphors for episodes of violence, these works are out of joint and dislocated. This vocabulary of opposition is most notable in the concrete furniture pieces—her most expansive body of work spanning the largest period of output—for example, Untitled (1995), in which an armoire intersects a bed frame, creating a strong sense of vertical and horizontal forms. A chair fades, or perhaps emerges from the surface as if to demand presence in Untitled (2007). Other sculptures in this body of work include soft and pliable white floral fabric, once clothing, that has been made rigid with concrete, forever entombed and only partially visible. They are like memories inevitably receding yet constantly recalled by the smallest detail: a shirt, a chair, a smell.

In Salcedo’s sculptures and installations, familiar household elements used in everyday life become specters of the familiar, suggesting transformations that occur when one’s life is irrevocably altered. Sociologist Avery Gordon has described those instances “when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive . . . as haunting . . . The whole essence of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, your attention.”19 This ghost furthermore “is a symptom of what is missing. It gives notice not only to itself but also to what it represents . . . usually a loss, sometimes of life, sometimes of a path not taken . . . and we must reckon with it out of a concern for justice.”20

This sense of haunting and displacement, however, could pertain equally to a different and profound experience of the world brought about by suffering, trauma, or loss resulting from the fear of, and hostility toward, difference, otherness, and the unknown. Salcedo’s work gives presence to those who cannot escape oppressive states of being that prevent a fully lived, humane life because they live on the economic, geographical, and political peripheries. Salcedo locates art as a contact zone for difference: “The experience of the victim is something present—a reality that resounds within the silence of each human being that gazes upon it. It is because of this that the work of art preserves life, offering possibility that an intimacy develops in a human being when he or she receives something of the experience of another. Art sustains the possibility of an encounter between people who come from quite distinct realities.”21 As such, one may consider through Salcedo’s work how certain critical and empathetic faculties can be useful in negotiating encounters with the unfamiliar.

A person exiled, whether from his or her home or country, inhabits a liminal state. Inspired by Jewish Romanian poet Paul Celan’s neologisms, Salcedo coined her own term, unland, to describe the sense of being displaced. She used this as a title for a series of sculptures that she made after meeting rural Colombian orphans who had witnessed the murder of their parents. In Unland: the orphan’s tunic (1997)—one of three sculptures that form the complete Unland installation (1995–98)22—parts of two tables, one covered in white silk and one made of brown wood, join together at the seam. An abundance of strands of human hair have been sewn through holes drilled into the surface of the tables. The work suggests that something broken has the potential to become healed through contact. Each table that is missing legs depends on another for its stability. The work recalls observations by Trinh T. Minh-ha: “Difference is not otherness. . . . difference implies the interdependency of these two-sided feminist gestures: that of affirming ‘I am like you’ while pointing insistently to the difference, and that reminding ‘I am different’ while unsettling every definition of otherness arrived at.”23 Although the transitions between materials in Salcedo’s work nearly always remain evident, the effort to connect, even via the most delicate of fabrics or hair, reveals meaning in the joining together of disparate entities in a moment of fragile coexistence.

In Salcedo’s hands, sewing, or puncturing, is a gesture of repair and healing as well as wounding. She used surgical thread for the first time to suture shoes in wall niches behind stretched and dried animal fiber in the haunting installation Atrabiliarios (1992–2004); and more recently had hundreds of thousands of rose petals sutured together to create a massive undulating blood-red shroud on the floor in A Flor de Piel (2014). Puncturing carries strong resonances in Salcedo’s work: iron rebar pierces white stacks of work shirts, and—seemingly against all odds—grass pushes through tiny holes in table surfaces in Plegaria Muda (2008–10).

Plegaria Muda, which translates loosely to “silent prayer,” is a variable installation composed of wooden tables handmade in Salcedo’s studio to look weathered and aged. Slightly different types of tables created for the installation, and approximately the size of a human coffin, are inverted atop another with what appears to be a thick layer of soil between them. Grass seeds are planted within this layer and blades of grass grow through tiny holes perforating the surface of the overturned table. The installation—configured to fill a gallery space with a vast field of table-graves—was inspired in part by the discovery of mass graves in the Colombian countryside. It was also informed by the murder of 2,500 confirmed cases of poor young men, lured to their deaths by false job offers. Their bodies were deceptively presented as captured guerillas killed in combat by Colombian army units seeking bounties. Salcedo, who accompanied a group of mothers of these disappeared to find their bodies, suggests in Plegaria Muda that a crucial part of the grieving process for the families of victims can occur only when the bodies have been identified and properly buried. The delicate blades of grass growing from within, seeking light and life by pushing through the surface of the tables, evoke both a renewal of life and the painful cruelty of continuing as if everything were normal when it is not. Plegaria Muda was also informed by Salcedo’s research into gang violence in Los Angeles in 2004. From this research into “social death” or “death-in-life,” a condition in which people are not considered fully human nor afforded the same rights as others, she began to explore the oscillation between victim and perpetrator.

In a world full of visual “noise,” viewers are confronted by various modes of silence evoked by the gravitas of Salcedo’s work because in essence there are no words to adequately address victims’ experiences. Salcedo’s distinctly subdued forms emphasize how silence, modesty, and quietude have proven to be effective strategies within many political art practices. Her work is not activism. In fact, to the contrary, the artist speaks about her work as hopeless actions that cannot change reality, and in its silence symbolizes our inability to solve profound crises. It resides firmly within the realm of art and resists overt political statements in favor of more abstract artistic cues.24

While Salcedo engages with many facets of political and aesthetic silence, her attention to the quiet dimensions of collective mourning can be seen most directly in her large-scale, site-specific public interventions that become ephemeral sites of remembrance. Such sites have been a central focus in her work during the last fifteen years. Her first such project, mounted between 1999–2000, which she calls an acción de duelo (act of mourning), commemorates the murder of the prominent Colombian journalist, political satirist, lawyer, and peace activist Jaime Garzón with three separate but related actions. Only days after his death, Salcedo and her collaborator Victor Laignelet created a single row of fresh red roses nailed upside down to a wall a block from Garzón’s home; a second action a few days later included multiple rows of roses on the same wall, and on the one-year anniversary of his death a third action occurred: a 4.5-kilometer path of single roses tied together that began at his home and ended at the site where he was killed. Here the relationship between time and memory becomes an important area of investigation in Salcedo’s work.

A few years after, Salcedo staged Noviembre 6 y 7 (2002), and later Acción de Duelo (2007), both of which addressed traumatic political events with temporary large-scale public artworks. At 11:35 am on November 6, 1985, 35 M-19 guerrilla rebels stormed the Colombian Palace of Justice in Bogotá. In an attempt to demand that then-president Belisario Betancur stand trial, the rebels took 300 hostages. The Colombian army launched a full-scale brutal assault in an effort to retake the building from the guerillas. More than 100 people died, including guerrillas and hostages. An additional 12 people joined the ranks of the disappeared. Eleven Supreme Court justices were killed before the siege ended 53 hours later on November 7. Seventeen years later, as a public response to these events and their aftereffects, Salcedo enacted Noviembre 6 y 7 by slowly lowering 280 wooden chairs from the roof of the Palace of Justice starting at precisely the date and time of the siege, and over the same duration and tempo as the original event, as if the building (reconstructed in 2000) was besieged again by this memory.

Salcedo uses the dates of this siege to title her artwork, locating the piece as an incontrovertible record of a historic event, not unlike Goya’s Second of May 1808 (1814), which commemorated the human toll of war. As she has stated, her work is not rooted in imagination or fiction.25 Facts and testimonies offer a path beyond the numbingly anonymous statistics of loss, disappearance, and death, into a pyschogeography that connects the personal to the universal. Although she used specific dates in the title of Noviembre 6 y 7, no dates or documentary images are visible in the artworks themselves to tell the stories of those who died. The charged history of its site, along with the work’s title, are the contextual clues that point to the meaning of the work.

This action was a major transition for Salcedo toward the large-scale public projects that continue to occupy her. Salcedo’s artistic research into the siege of November 6 and 7 began in the mid-1990s, however, and was first utilized in her installation Tenebrae Noviembre 7, 1985 (1999–2000),26 which was also the first time she used raw materials (lead and steel), instead of found objects.27 Here, lead chairs are overturned, their legs and backs elongated to reach across the entire room from wall to wall, creating an impenetrable barrier of diagonal lines on either side of a doorway. The work is an early example of how the architecture of a space becomes an integral part of Salcedo’s works. Noviembre 6 (2001) was another sculptural translation of the violence of this event using empty, distorted chairs fabricated in steel, lead, wood, and resin to stand in for those lost that day. Slightly anthropomorphic in their arrangement, one chair is presented off to the side, alone, while the others are grouped together in a tight huddle.

Salcedo’s ambitious site-specific responses to political events and socioeconomic histories are often realized in seemingly impossible material feats. The untitled installation for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial (2003) contained 1,550 common wooden chairs piled within the space of a vacant lot between two buildings in the city’s Persembe Pazari neighborhood. Its uncanny flat facade belies an internal chaos that signifies the collapse of logic and order. She envisioned the installation as “a topography of war,” a mapping of life turned upside down by conflict, with people caught in the violent crosshairs of opposing viewpoints. Various hues of simple brown are intertwined in a solid mass of chairs, a reflection, perhaps, of how Istanbul itself is a charged site of divergent perspectives and diverse peoples from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. With this work, the image of the wall, the fence, or blockade became a visual and conceptual focal point within the artist’s practice to examine how, “‘space is a fundamental category for any form of power’ as stated by German curator Anselm Franke,” and Salcedo elaborates “architecture represents its potency, its social order and its objectives.”28

Neither (2004) also relied upon a specific architectural space, this time to delineate a sense of being inside barriers to freedom.29 Drywall with wire fencing inlaid at varying depths surround the viewer. The diagonal patterned fencing appears and disappears, at times darkening into a geometric shape near the ceiling and floor. The work represents an important shift toward spatial immersion within Salcedo’s installations. The fencing extends into the viewer’s space most directly as it frames the entrance to the gallery, an invitation to experience an essentially empty space. Neither reflects the artist’s ongoing research into concentration camps and detention centers, such as Guantánamo Bay, specifically what she considers “those aspects of society that make possible the existence of spaces where absolutely inhumane conditions are accomplished. . . . And the perverse ambiguity that characterizes these spaces, where destitute human beings are included in territories that represent their absolute exclusion from society.”30

Salcedo followed this investigation of spaces of isolation and exclusion, and how architecture is a manifestation of social structures, with Abyss (2005), a site-specific work at the Castello di Rivoli for the first edition of the Turin Triennial in Italy. After repeated visits to Turin—the capital of the Arte Povera movement in the 1960s and the site of postwar Fiat manufacturing—and researching various histories and social policies within the region, including the royal use of Castello di Rivoli and the large-scale influx of workers from the south, Salcedo was inspired to use brick as her material, a reference to a brick-clad migrant detention center that resides visibly, yet, for many residents, invisibly, in the center of the city, and by extension, contemporary slave labor in Italy and Europe. In her studio in Bogotá, Salcedo created brick walls that extended one of Castello di Rivoli’s 18th-century vaulted brick ceilings toward the floor. Quite unusually, the resulting installation appears to be built top down, instead of bottom up, seeming to float only two or three feet from the ground, and allowing small slivers of natural light to punctuate the space. These purposefully uncomfortable spaces created an empathic physical experience of oppression and near-entombment approaching the perspective of those for whom the crushing weight of power and domination is inescapable.

The exertion of power that deprives a person of his or her humanity and the seeming indifference of museum space, with its implacable geometry, are addressed in Shibboleth (2007), Salcedo’s Turbine Hall Commission at Tate Modern, London. In the work, absence takes the form of a 548-foot-long crack in the vast hall’s concrete floor, a physical fissure or void that evokes social and economic chasms based on race, language, or culture. Salcedo created a distinctive negative space, a monumental puncture in the museum’s surface. The term shibboleth refers to a word or custom that is used to distinguish an insider from an outsider, and Salcedo writes, “Social death is the legacy of racism, and it means removing a person from humankind; it is to deprive a person of humanity.”31 Or, as Jean-Luc Nancy explained, “At the extreme limit of the ‘crime against humanity,’ we must learn to discern not only persecution and liquidation on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, and so on, but persecution and liquidation also on the grounds of the representation of an attack on authentic presence: I exterminate you because you infect the body and the face of humanity.”32 Earlier in the same year as Shibboleth and four days after the announcement on June 29 that FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) murdered 11 members of the state parliament from Valle, Colombia, who had been held hostage for five years, Salcedo responded with Acción de Duelo, placing 24,000 candles in Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar, with the assistance of hundreds of people.

Salcedo’s recent large-scale work in progress, Palimpsest (2013–present), is a proposal for an outdoor work that gives presence to those who have been killed by gun violence in the United States. This project began with research into violence and areas of “social death” in Chicago. Salcedo interviewed mothers in the city who had lost children to gun violence. Their conversations about the pain of their grief informed Salcedo’s project, which developed into a proposal for a site for collective mourning of victims of gun violence in the United States. In this work, Salcedo significantly uses text for the first time, specifically victims’ names. In the artist’s words, “Palimpsest seeks to actualize the act of naming the victims of gun violence as a way to establish contact with painful and, maybe for this reason, neglected memories. Naming the victims is a way to acknowledge the immensity of the loss suffered not only by their families but also by all of us as a society.”33 As proposed within a vacant city lot, rows of victims’ names emerge in water from underground onto a gray custom concrete-compound surface, a persistent yet ghostly presence. As the watery names form, they obscure a layer of names painted faintly on the surface. One can imagine that on some days environmental conditions such as wind and rain would dishevel the names formed in water. Salcedo says, “both remembering and forgetting are equally present in Palimpsest. A work of art must be able to take in its center opposite experiences.”34 Salcedo’s most recent work, Disremembered I (2014), reflects a shift toward different materials, and embodies this contradiction in a tunic that is impossible to wear. Sewn with raw silk and more than 12,000 needles, it is simultaneously soft and hard, appearing and disappearing. Salcedo has made a symbolic hair shirt, and perhaps a call for penance, for those whose indifference to victims brings additional pain to those in the fragile state of mourning.

Salcedo’s work compels a critical reading of the seemingly familiar, a place at the edge of seeing and knowing, which slowly fades into the unfamiliar, with a constant oscillation between the two. As an exemplar for the merging of the political and the poetic, Salcedo’s sculptures and installations are crafted slowly over time and finely tuned to honor the act of making and the slow process of looking. Jean-Luc Nancy writes, “Connotation borders on denotations, and, embroiders its borders. It is there that the image arises. . . . Making an image means producing a relief, a protrusion, a trait, a presence. Above all, the image gives presence.”35 In Salcedo’s work, her sculptures point and sense instead of depict. They demonstrate that victims of violence and oppression are so much more than a shibboleth of difference. Absence and presence, visibility and invisibility on a global scale are often reflected through schisms of perceived knowledge. The marginalized or discounted populations for whom the production of knowledge is made invisible, made disappeared, are defiantly made present within her work. Salcedo negates apathy toward others and instead invites us to experience empathy, reminding us of our common humanity through our bodies and our everyday rituals: folding clean shirts, sitting in chairs around a table, caring for our delicate skin. Salcedo asks us to consider how the rituals and spaces of mourning, which is to say how we honor death, might also unite us in honoring life.


  1. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 67–68.
  2. Susan Sollins, “Doris Salcedo: Variations on Brutality,”, April 2013,
  3. Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 4.
  4. When speaking about the interviews with trauma survivors that shape her work, Salcedo frequently uses the nouns witness and testimony as if to suggest a context in which justice is being sought, even though the artist has made it clear that seeking justice is not the impetus of her work.
  5. “Colombian Conflict Has Killed 220,000 in 55 Years, Commission Finds,” The Guardian, July 25, 2013,
  6. This term refers to “forced disappearance,” in which victims are abducted, and often tortured and murdered. Such disappearances leave no body to prepare for burial or evidence of the victim’s death.
  7. Doris Salcedo, acceptance speech for the 9th Hiroshima Art Prize (Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hiroshima, July 18, 2014). See also Salcedo’s essay.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Paul Gilroy, “Brokenness, Division and the Moral Topography of Post-Colonial Worlds,” in Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth, ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume (London: Tate Modern, 2007), 28.
  10. Sollins, “Doris Salcedo.”
  11. See Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich. The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior (New York: Grove Press, 1975).
  12. Curator Achim Borchardt-Hume uses the work of French philosopher Jacques Rancière to make this point; see Borchardt-Hume, Salcedo: Shibboleth, 21.
  13. Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty: A Reckoning (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 144.
  14. Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 102.
  15. Gordon, xviii.
  16. Doris Salcedo, Hiroshima Art Prize lecture, July 19, 2014.
  17. Doris Salcedo in discussion with the author, May 20, 2014.
  18. Ibid., July 31, 2010.
  19. Gordon, xvi.
  20. Ibid., 64.
  21. “Interview with Charles Merewether 1998,” in Doris Salcedo, eds. Nancy Princenthal, Carlos Basualdo, and Andreas Huyssen (London: Phaidon, 2000), 137.
  22. For a comprehensive description of all three tables, see Tanya Barson, “Unland: The Place of Testimony,”Tate Papers 1, April 1, 2004,
  23. Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Questions of Images and Politics,” The Independent (Film and Video Monthly) 10, no. 4 (May 1987), 21–23.
  24. Addressing political silence was the main thrust of the work of Gran Fury, who came to the fore in the 1980s at the same time as Salcedo. The collective’s SILENCE=DEATH campaign drew a connection between the AIDS crisis and the Holocaust, even appropriating the pink triangle that was used in Nazi concentration camps to mark gay prisoners. But the message was clear that the political silence surrounding the AIDS crisis in the 1980s directly affected the ability of patients to receive life-saving treatment. Furthermore, given the then-shameful silencing of lovers, public mourning became a form of activism. See Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2013), 132.
  25. “Segment: Doris Salcedo in ‘Compassion,’”, October 7, 2009,
  26. The evocative term tenebrae, Latin for shadows or darkness and also the title of a Paul Celan poem, refers to a Christian ceremony held the week before Easter Sunday to commemorate Christ’s death before his resurrection.
  27. Doris Salcedo in discussion with the author, July 31, 2010.
  28. Doris Salcedo, Hiroshima Art Prize lecture, July 19, 2014.
  29. Originally presented at White Cube London, Neither is permanently housed in a custom pavilion at Inhotim in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
  30. Salcedo, “Proposal for a Project for White Cube, London, 2004,” Salcedo: Shibboleth, 109.
  31. Salcedo, “Proposal for a Project for the Palace of Justice, Bogotá, 2002,” in Salcedo: Shibboleth, 82–83.
  32. Nancy, 41.
  33. Salcedo, unpublished proposal for Palimpsest (2013–14).
  34. Ibid.
  35. Nancy, 66–67.