The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies

Katherine Brinson
Curator, Contemporary Art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

From the outset of her career, Doris Salcedo has devoted her creative energies to constructing material gestures of mourning. Drawing on the wrenching testimonies of individuals who have suffered bereavements resulting from political oppression and violent social contexts, she conjures the hollowed aftermath of these unjust killings through objects that are both reticent and searingly expressive. In rendering lives haunted by the past, Salcedo’s work has always evinced the simple fact, voiced by Susan Sontag, that “memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have to the dead.”1 This mnemonic character also exhorts a correction of the collective erasure or amnesia that has denied dignified recognition to the deaths of those who belong to the class of the marginalized and voiceless, and therefore fall outside official narratives of commemoration. Many of the victims that have galvanized Salcedo’s work have suffered the fate, tragically common in recent Colombian history, of being “disappeared”—a vicious tool of social control that leaves relatives in an anguished limbo between sudden loss and any semblance of cathartic grief. Convinced that the gravity and compassion with which we observe mourning practices are central to our humanity, Salcedo quietly but implacably insists that the suffering of these victims will not be effaced. Her affirmation of mourning as an ethical duty reflects the principle that grief, while in some ways an intensely introspective state, must also be a communal impulse in which societal bonds are forged and tended.

In Salcedo’s recent major works Plegaria Muda (2008–10) and A Flor de Piel (2014), her focus shifts from the stymied existence endured by survivors to the creation of ritualistic gestures of memorial. The overtly funerary imagery of the grave and the shroud deployed in these works marks a return to the sepulchral cast of her installation Atrabiliarios (1992–2004), in which worn shoes are enshrined, relic-like, in wall niches. In doing so, Salcedo confronts the paradoxical imperative that, however impossible it might seem to find an adequate index for the ache of bereavement, it must be urgently attempted nonetheless; that “loss must be marked and it cannot be represented; loss fractures representation itself and loss precipitates its own modes of expression.”2 Salcedo’s mode of expression is, of course, visual and material, but in seeking to describe her material evocations of grief and memory—her efforts to achieve a profound cathexis without approaching sentimentality or direct illustration—she turns to a literary corollary. “I think my work should play a role that is similar to a funeral oration,” she explains, “and for this reason every one of my pieces explores possible ways in which to formulate a poetics of mourning.”3

In addition to the eulogy, an apt comparative for the subtle workings of this “poetics of mourning” might be located in the elegy—the poetic form devoted to mourning the loss of a cherished or admired individual. A protest against death’s injustice is characteristic of elegiac lament, but so too is a movement toward consolation and the affirmation of life in the face of loss, reflecting the cultural need to express communal sorrow, but also to gradually attain acceptance. In a canonical example of the genre such as Milton’s Lycidas, the pain of grief is lyrically evoked, only to be salved by topoi of resurrection and a sympathetic natural world. In this sense, the classic elegy reflects Freud’s paradigmatic conception of “normal mourning” as a passage from isolated abjection to reassimilation.4 In their use of organic elements and images of renewal and repair, Salcedo’s recent work suggests a possibility for regeneration that mirrors traditional elegiac consolation. But it would be misplaced to identify a trajectory toward straightforward redemption or compensation in these works. A more instructive analogy lies in the conception of the modern elegy described by Jahan Ramazani, who posits a strain of the genre that enacts the work of “melancholic mourning,” echoing the alternate category established by Freud to distinguish a pathological state of mourning devoid of hope for progressive healing. “The characteristic elegy of our time evinces the astringency of modern death and bereavement,” states Ramazani. “At its best, the modern elegy offers not a guide to ‘successful’ mourning but a spur to rethinking the vexed experience of grief in the modern world.”5

A decade ago, Salcedo undertook a task of mourning that interlaced the legacies of mass killings in two distinct cultural contexts: the proliferation of gang-related shootings in South Central Los Angeles, and the murder of young people from deprived rural areas of Colombia between 2003 and 2009 by members of the Colombian army who were incentivized by government rewards. In both cases, the victims were living in disenfranchised, impoverished conditions that the artist identifies as a state of “death-in-life,” and their actual deaths were accordingly stripped of cultural import or recognition. The installation Plegaria Muda seeks to counter this unmourned state with an act of resistance against the social forces that dehumanize certain members of a community and deem their lives all but worthless in the economy of public grief. As viewers enter the space, they are greeted by a mass of enigmatic structures arrayed in a dense, irregular formation. Each unit is constructed from a perfunctory wooden table, on top of which a matching table is inverted, its legs thrusting perversely upwards. The two tables encase a layer of earth and, startlingly, bright green blades of grass emerge from the underside of the upper surface, presenting a surreal marriage of the organic and the manmade. Salcedo has long been drawn to tables as objects suffused with some of the most intimate moments of family life, using them to haunting effect in her suite of Unland sculptures (1995–98). In Plegaria Muda these familiar domestic objects, echoing the proportions of the adult human body, assume the appearance of coffins or graves.

Whereas earlier works by Salcedo suggest the spectral return of the murdered body in traces of clothing, bone, and hair that emerge from the interstices and surfaces of found objects, Plegaria Muda communicates a sense of the body safely interred. In one aspect, the installation evokes the chilling seriality of a mass grave, and yet each individual object is endowed with a tender respect. Those who have remained psychically unburied are given a decorous burial, and thus are symbolically returned to the perpetual cycle of dust to dust. In contrast to the deliberate stasis of Salcedo’s series of sculptures fashioned from furniture stifled with concrete, this work immerses viewers in the sight and smell of the actively growing grass, so that in the place of suffocated absence there is the generative charge and temporality of nature. There is ambivalence, however, in this relentless advance of the life force. The reclamation of the grass is an agent of healing but also of forgetting. When the battlefield and the mass grave are overtaken by pastoral meadows, their horrors are dangerously redacted.

While Plegaria Muda addresses the burden of mourning mass killings, in 2011 Salcedo undertook the equally daunting assignment of paying homage to a specific victim: a nurse who was tortured to death after a long captivity in Colombia, her body dismembered before it could be recovered. Harrowed by the details of the case, Salcedo set out to create an offering to this woman, one that would be adequately inscribed with the depth of her suffering while eschewing a depiction of torment so visceral that it would collapse into an object of visual trauma. For a task she deemed “impossible,” the artist decided on an impossible object: Penelope-like, she would slowly weave an enormous burial shroud—a ritualistic covering that would reinstate the nurturing care of her subject’s profession that had been so brutally inverted in her treatment by her captors. And this shroud would be painstakingly hand-stitched from individual red rose petals that would magically retain their color and supple texture. In its notion of a protective reclamation of the dead body, the resulting work, A Flor de Piel, echoes the indelible iconography of Sylvia Plath’s self-elegy, “Edge,” written just six days before her death. The poem imagines a woman who has reached an inviolable, “perfected” state at journey’s end, figuring her body as rose petals that enclose and absorb the pain of loss:

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night
flower.6

In Salcedo’s work, too, the body itself becomes its own shroud; the woman, once brutalized, is now perfected.

There is, however, an oscillation between beauty and horror in A Flor de Piel that aligns with an abiding ambiguity in Salcedo’s work between actions of damage and actions of healing. The imagery of rupture that was most monumentally imagined in the architectural schism of her 2007 installation Shibboleth, with its connotations of a social fabric torn, is here replaced with the patient, almost penitential suturing of the desecrated body, looking back to the imagery of medical and domestic mending that has been present since the beginning of the artist’s career. But as in Atrabiliarios and the Unland works, the reparative stitch is also a puncture, a violent interruption.7 Similarly, the first reaction to A Flor de Piel is usually one of aesthetic delight, as the lush romantic associations of a carpet of red roses come to the fore. The painstaking labor required to construct such an object inspires wonder, as an act of fairytale logic and devotional beauty that might seem to assuage the profound ugliness of the subject’s death. Gradually, however, these seductive valences are overtaken by more unsettling undertones. The russet petals, with their delicately veined membranes, assume the guise of a human epidermis—the flayed hide of Marsyas displayed as a repellent trophy.8 In this summoning of the tortured body, the work succeeds in locating a material vessel capable of communicating some of the extra-linguistic condition of enduring extreme pain. In her seminal study of physical suffering, Elaine Scarry asserts that the pain of others can only be understood when objectified by a referent outside the bodily experience. Her vivid portrayal of the obliteration of the self during torture correlates with the effect of A Flor de Piel, as its undulating surface engulfs the floor of the gallery: “It is the intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world, a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe.”9 Scarry’s notion of channeling interior agony through an external signifier—she cites the example of Joseph Beuys’s sculpture of a bandaged knife—finds an echo in Salcedo’s proclaimed ambition that her work might communicate the texture of suffering through the eloquent object, and in this empathic thread achieve an experiential transference:

During the brief moment the viewer contemplates in silence the work of art, maybe then the interrupted life of the victim—present in the artwork—reaches out to find the memories of pain inscribed in each viewer’s memory. And in this manner, the violently interrupted life can find a continuation in the life of the viewer, thus creating what Franz Rosenzweig called “eternal life.”10

Salcedo had previously used roses as an instrument of memorial when she joined with a group of Bogotá-based artists to commemorate the death of the Colombian journalist, political satirist, and peace activist Jaime Garzón, who was assassinated by suspected right-wing paramilitary forces in 1999. The artists selected an expanse of wall in front of Garzón’s home and nailed 5,000 red roses upside down to its surface, where they remained in place as they gradually withered and died. In this work, the rose functioned in its traditional role as memento mori, its decaying beauty signifying the entropic body. In A Flor de Piel, however, the petals seem to defy mortal vulnerability. Salcedo, who immerses herself in lengthy periods of research and development before creating each work, collaborated with scientists to find a way to preserve the form of the petals and reinstate their coloration, treating them with a complex chemical sealing process that arrests their organic disintegration. This enchanted suspension of nature’s operations reflects for the artist the status of the unrecovered bodies of the “disappeared” in Colombia. It might also suggest an act of transubstantiation, as the wafer-like rose petals—an emblem associated with the blood of martyrs in Christian iconography—are symbolically transmuted to flesh while simultaneously achieving the appearance of “eternal life.” This gesture toward the Eucharistic chimes with the spirit of religious devotion that is often approached in Salcedo’s work; she frequently describes her projects, with their prolonged gestations and laborious techniques, as acts of faith, her creative process as a “solitary liturgy.”11 This sacramental mood is particularly vivid in the funerary rites enacted in Plegaria Muda, with its title denoting a “silent prayer,” and A Flor de Piel.

At the time of writing, Salcedo is absorbed in the development of a new work: a public project, as yet without a site of realization, which deals with the troubling proliferation of mass shootings in the United States. Titled Palimpsest (2013–present), the work proposes the creation of a plaza in an empty city lot, from which drops of water would emanate, gradually joining together to form the names of the victims of gun violence. The water disperses or is swept away by the feet of pedestrians or the weather, only to eventually reform with the obdurate recursion of grief. In each case, the watery text emerges over the barely legible trace of a different name, elucidating the frustratingly cyclical nature of such tragedies. Salcedo here harnesses the visual power of the given name, in which an image of the letters provokes a jolt of recognition akin to seeing a photograph of the loved one. This direct marking of identity—a departure for the artist, but one she felt to be a necessary corrective to the trivialization of the victims’ deaths in the wider culture—is tempered by the impermanence of the medium, recalling, perhaps, the poignant epitaph requested by John Keats, “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water,” with its suggestion of lost youth and the transience of human achievement.12

In causing the ground to weep, albeit in an urban rather than pastoral setting, Salcedo’s vision for the work draws on a classic trope of elegiac poetry in which the land itself laments the fallen protagonist. The freighting of inanimate objects with a sense of human sorrow has long been a defining characteristic of Salcedo’s sculpture, but the recent presence of organic elements such as grass, flowers, and water brings this pathetic fallacy closer to its traditional definition. John Ruskin elucidated the phenomenon as the perception of the world colored by subjective emotions, and significantly, his famous exemplum of the poetic phrase “the cruel, crawling foam” focuses on the experiential distortions of mourning:

The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impression of external things, which I would generally characterize as the “Pathetic Fallacy.”13

Salcedo similarly conjures the wholesale transformation of the world through the lens of loss. The concept for Palimpsest originated in a series of interviews she conducted with American mothers who had lost children to gun violence. The figure of the bereaved mother has always been of central importance to the artist, and in her conversations with these women she was struck anew by society’s indifference to their daily suffering. As the artist points out, “unlike mourning, melancholia does not pass,”14 and the eternally weeping stone of Palimpsest embodies their melancholic myopia, functioning as a figureless Pietà.

This refusal to minimize the magnitude and resilience of grief does not, however, render Salcedo’s elegiac objects nihilistic. Judith Butler points out that the communication of such emotions, far from inviting resignation or despair, “may be understood as the slow process by which we develop a point of identification with suffering itself” and as such “can be a point of departure for a new understanding if the narcissistic preoccupation of melancholia can be moved into a consideration of the vulnerability of others. Then we might critically evaluate and oppose the conditions under which certain human lives are more vulnerable than others, and thus certain human lives are more grievable than others.”15 The same stance of opposition forms a fundamental tenet of Salcedo’s practice. She unabashedly articulates the desire that her works should not represent mourning but rather facilitate an experience of mourning itself, and that within such an experience, our essential communality might be continually reaffirmed.

NOTES

  1. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador, 2003), 115.
  2. Judith Butler, “Afterword: After Loss, What Then?” in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, ed. David L. Eng and David Kazanjian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 467.
  3. Doris Salcedo, unpublished proposal for Palimpsest (2013–present).
  4. See Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, vol. XIV, ed. James Strachey and Anna Freud (Toronto: Hogarth Press Limited, 1957), 243–58.
  5. I am indebted to Jahan Ramazani’s illuminating study of the elegy, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy From Hardy to Heaney (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), ix.
  6. Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper and Row, 1981 [1960]), 272–73.
  7. The traditional mourning rite of weaving a shroud or burial clothes is also the foundation of a 2014 body of work by Salcedo titled Disremembered, in which she constructs tunics from thousands of burnt needles. From a distance the object appears to be woven from a shimmering silk but closer inspection reveals it to be a garment that would torment the wearer. As in A Flor de Piel, a disjunction is present between the constructive elegiac act of weaving and an imaging of the excruciation of loss.
  8. This reading is supported by the work’s title. Translated literally as “On the surface of the skin,” it is also an idiomatic phrase that denotes the display of passionate emotions.
  9. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985), 35.
  10. Doris Salcedo in discussion with the author, June 20, 2014.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Keats requested that his grave be marked with no name or date beyond this phrase, but his friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown had the stone erected in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome engraved with the text: “This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821.”
  13. John Ruskin, The Complete Works of John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. III (New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1905), 155.
  14. Correspondence with the author, June 20, 2014.
  15. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 30.