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Puncturing the vertiginous pace of New York life is the poetic silence of the Doris Salcedo retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The Colombian sculptor’s works address violence and are renowned worldwide as sites of collective mourning and reflection. The technical virtuosity of her installations make a retrospective nothing less than a herculean task, bravely undertaken in this case by the organizing institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA), and co-curated by Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn and curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm. The exhibition consists of ten installations that span Salcedo’s thirty-year practice, viewable on the MCA’s website. Displaying the works on four different floors of the Guggenheim made the experience feel disjointed, yet it was a necessary compromise in order to provide each installation with a dedicated room.
The Guggenheim’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright building—a tribute to the spiraling ascent of modernity—is momentarily halted by the somber stillness of Salcedo’s exhibition. After leaving the busy, noisy streets of Manhattan, the first room of the show places the viewer in a quiet, cold, and dimly lit room dominated by gray hues and infused with the smell of damp soil. I was immediately transported to a familiar place: the high altitude, foggy Bogotá savanna where I was born and where the artist lives and works. The installation Plegaria Muda (2008–10) consists of a labyrinth of tables stacked one on top of the other, back to back. An earthlike layer separates the tabletops and nourishes a few strands of grass that bravely break through the wood planks. The bright green grass also subtly punctures the muted gray-browns of the wood. The tables’ varied dimensions, along with the slightly tapering layers of soil, evoke coffins, a metaphorical wake for too many to fathom the circumstances. According to one docent, several viewers thought of the piercing grass as representing life or hope after death, but one Colombian spectator connected the grass to the abandonment and eventual erasure of war victims over time. The wall text translates Plegaria Muda as “Silent Prayer,” which softens the connotations in Spanish, as plegaria means a “supplicant prayer,” and muda can mean “silent” or “dumb,” but also “muted.” Therefore, the title evokes a silenced plea; thus the unequal power relations get lost in the translation.
Throughout the exhibition, the wall texts inform viewers about the cases that inspired the artist, yet the works are far from representations of violence. Instead they court reflection and a personal, intimate identification with the organic materials chosen by Salcedo, whether they are animal fabrics, human hair, wood furniture, leather shoes, or flower petals. For Untitled (1995–2008), displayed as objects in a warehouse, Salcedo chose household—mostly bedroom—furniture, evocative of middle-class domestic interiors. One guard spoke about her challenges in ensuring people did not rest their handbags or bodies on the sculptures, underscoring the sense of familiarity. These are not functional pieces; however, they have been thrust into one another and then filled with cement, altering their use from mundane to metaphoric. A docent reflected on the paradoxical quality of some assemblages that clash violently and at once protect or shelter each other. In both cases, viewers made corporeal and narrative identifications that I consider instrumental in connecting the intimate grief of surviving victims with an audience that could easily dismiss the suffering of distant fellow humans. Indeed, Salcedo calls her large-scale public interventions “acts of mourning.”
Salcedo’s works are deliberately made to house built-in contradictions that conjure paradoxical emotions. This effect proved unbearable to one couple who walked away indignant from Disremembered (2014). The spectators’ delight in viewing what at first sight appears to be an exquisite tunic was problematized by their realization that the shimmer was produced by thousands of remarkably thin needles piercing the raw silk. For this couple, the act of aestheticizing pain was infuriating. Nonetheless, Salcedo characterizes the role of art as one of posing questions rather than giving answers. Disremembered presents difficult, painful concerns about the relationship of luxury and terror, beauty and pain.
This productive paradox is a connecting thread traceable through all her works, one that Salcedo activates in both unexpected materials and titles. Her art can rouse conflicting feelings of outrage and aesthetic pleasure, repulsion and admiration, horror and melancholy. For instance, Atrabiliarios (1992–2004)—an installation in which elegant leather shoes once owned by disappeared victims are buried behind parchment sheets and displayed as in a columbarium—is translated as “Defiant,” yet the Spanish word connotes both mourning and rage.
If one accepts Salcedo’s invitation to reflect and ask difficult questions, then her works demand time; they lure the spectator into looking attentively in order to make unsettling discoveries of objects concealed or embedded in each piece, whether hair sewn, bones implanted, or fabric ironed into furniture. Mieke Bal valued this virtue of “duration” when selecting Salcedo as the subject for her book Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010).
Untitled (1989–90/2013) is one such work that solicits detailed inspection. Salcedo installed metal hospital bedframes on the floor and against the wall. The subtle variations of white colors create a sense of hospital sterility but then entice viewers to look closer. Attached to the vertical beds are fragments of shirts and surgical equipment wrapped in animal intestine linings as if trapped in spider webs or silk cocoons. At almost undetectable interstices the fabric suggestively absorbs red rust from the metal beds. Between the beds Salcedo placed hundreds of carefully folded white shirts coated in plaster and pierced by eleven pikes. These stacked shirts recall papers neatly filed in a receipt spike and evoke the profit and dehumanizing bureaucratic mentality of the limpiezas, the social cleansing massacres that underlie the ajustar cuentas or “settling accounts” rationale for war. This installation was Salcedo’s response to the 1988 massacre of banana plantation workers. Untitled thus evocatively juxtaposes sterile medical practices and state bureaucracy with a war that obeys its own terrifying logic.
While Untitled’s initial impression of hospital and bureaucratic sterility gives way to the underlying horror of war, A Flor de Piel (Skin Deep) (2014) inverts the sequence by progressively revealing beauty despite a gruesome initial sight. At first the spectator is confronted with a red cloak lying on the floor of a high-ceilinged room. Strategically folded to appear like a blood-soaked cloth, the dramatic scale points to the aftermath of a massacre. Through attentive viewing, one discovers that the cloak is made up of carefully preserved, sewn-together rose petals. Revulsion makes way for the appreciation of the fragile beauty and admiration of the painstaking labor. The expression “a flor de piel” refers to the tangibility or visibility of certain emotions. One woman activated this title by shedding tears when her son translated the docent’s story of the tortured nun who inspired the work. The affective charge of the petal cloak is unresolvable and contradictory: outrage upon learning the fate of the victim, admiration for the labor involved, pleasure in the delicate rose petals, and pain regarding the threads that pierce them. This emphasis on process, both in material practice and affective unfolding, parallels the process of mourning. It is also a form of honoring the victim through the patient, meticulous effort devoted to her memory.
Scholars, critics, and curators often describe Salcedo’s work as “giving voice to the voiceless.” Perhaps overstating art’s reach, her visibility in the art world has indeed added a potent voice to a larger concert that has brought attention to the plight of millions of Colombians ravaged by war. Over the span of her thirty-year career, Salcedo has witnessed the emergence of victims’ organizations in Colombia as significant political actors. According to a key official of the Victims Unit, the creation of the most comprehensive reparations program for transitional justice in the world—Colombia’s Victims and Land Restitution Law 1448 of 2011—was in no small part due to the pressure placed on the government by these victims organizations and their international alliances. In fact, while Doris Salcedo was on exhibit at the Guggenheim, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands with Timoleón Jiménez, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), at peace talks in Havana where they agreed to end the war by March 2016. The presence of victims’ organizations in the Havana summit contributed immensely to their progression by effectively challenging either side’s claim to moral authority. The solidarity among the victims of public, paramilitary, and insurgent forces has delegitimized violence as political or economic tool.
Salcedo’s artistic career is a part of this struggle to make visible the pain and suffering obscured by failed strategic, economic, and political rationalizations for warfare. When so many utopias have lost credibility, human rights have become the “last utopia,” to cite Samuel Moyn (The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Traveling to three large U.S. cities, the Doris Salcedo retrospective challenges audiences to confront difficult questions in their own societies. Indeed, Salcedo proposed a public work in Chicago, Palimpsest (unrealized). As in all of her works, Salcedo’s artistic process began with extensive research on a particular violent event. She interviewed mothers who had lost their children to gun violence. To honor the memory of these young men and children so quickly dismissed in the public sphere, Salcedo designed a plaza where their names would be inscribed, continuing the memorial tradition so powerfully activated by Maya Lin with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. In this way, Palimpsest would open a space to dignify these lost children, acknowledge their families’ grief, and allow visitors to reflect on these losses. However, Salcedo complicates this practice. As the title suggests, layers of names would be superimposed on top of each other, thereby destabilizing their legibility. The first layer consists of faintly painted names of victims who died ten to twenty years ago. A second set of names of more recent victims emerges as water filters upward, blocking the previous list from sight. The desire to fix memory is thus frustrated by both the emergence of new names and their subsequent evaporation into thin air. This visual-textual volatility condemns victimization first through what Salcedo calls “social death,” then physical death by gun violence, and finally erasure from collective memory. The work remains unrealized; a fact that challenges us to think about whether the human rights discourse is permissible, perhaps safe, when dealing with distant realities, but becomes complicated when it requires a close interrogation of our own society.
Since many of Salcedo’s public interventions cannot be duplicated in a gallery, the MCA produced a short but powerful twenty-five-minute documentary film, Doris Salcedo: Public Works, which includes a description of the plans for Palimpsest. Screened on the lower level of the Guggenheim, the video demonstrates how Salcedo and her studio partners work together as a “chorus” to materialize the artist’s impossible visions through “an act of faith” or “a belief in the impossible,” in the words of one partner. By the end of the exhibition tour, Salcedo and her studio partners will have spent at least a month at each venue working laboriously with museum staff to stage each installation and achieve a specific mood. This dedicated team and the exhibition itself joins movements such as Black Lives Matter in the growing opposition to rationalized warfare and gun violence, and responds to Judith Butler’s question “Whose lives are grievable?”
Ana María Reyes
Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, Boston University
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