Doris Salcedo: igniting silence
‘The subjectivity of a subject is vulnerability, exposure to affection, sensibility, a passivity more passive still than any passivity, an irrecoverable time, an unassemblable diachrony of patience, an exposedness always to be exposed the more, an exposure to expressing, and thus saying, thus giving.'1
– Emmanuel Levinas
'What was most unforgettable, though, were the walls themselves. The dogged life that had been lived in these rooms refused to be obliterated. It was still there; it clung to the nails that were left, it lingered on the remaining strip of floor-boarding, it was huddled up under the little that was left of a corner section… Because it's the fact that I recognized it that makes it horrible. I recognize everything here; it passes into me without further ado; it finds a home in me.’2
– Rainer Maria Rilke
The retrospective exhibition of the Colombian artist is entitled simply, Doris Salcedo. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and installed at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (June 26-October 12, 2015), the exhibition was curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn and Julie Rodrigues Widholm (MoCA). Within Frank Lloyd Wright's coiled spiral interior, Salcedo's sculptural assemblages are 'outliers,' installed in the Museum's four disconnected galleries on four different floors. Thus the viewer necessarily walks in and out of each gallery space to reach the next installation. Each gallery is configured differently, causing abrupt changes in spatial relations and effects of lighting, uneasy navigation between clusters of objects and stairways, and a repeated crossing of thresholds to confront fractured topologies in a density of objects and tactile surfaces. All of these bodily, perceptual disruptions are purposeful in slowing us down, causing discomfort in unexpected encounters, and yet, compelling our movement and curiosity forward on an uncertain circuitous trajectory. Once our bodies and our sensibilities are attuned, Salcedo's haunting installations comprised of domestic and found objects, furniture and detritus reveal themselves gradually over time instead of all at once. Patience, concentration and close observation eventually uncover a sense of vulnerability and eerie, mute expression within these exposed, once hidden places. We have arrived belatedly at the scene of unspeakable crimes, but the bodies are absent, only ominous traces remain in hollowed-out fragments, bruised chairs and tables, cabinets and cement-choked armoires.
One of the most renowned sculptors working today, Doris Salcedo (b. 1958, Bogotá, Colombia) has been creating sculptural series and encompassing installations for thirty-years. Her work has been consistently informed by Colombia's recent history as well as the ongoing expansion of global wars, genocide, displacement and unrelenting violence that mark our era. Comporting herself 'toward the victim,' researching and visiting the homes where victims have lived, she walks the streets where people were abducted or murdered either by government forces, gangs, drug cartels or extremists of every stripe. Her sculptures layer both the particular and the general, informed by individual histories and communal drama. Yet her work does not represent the figure or the body. There is no easily consumable narrative and no spectacle of suffering. Since 1948, when the influential leader of Colombia's Liberal Party and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, years of social unrest and escalating tensions between Liberals and Conservatives came to a disastrous head. For more than five decades hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered and millions made refuges by the brutal tactics of right-wing paramilitary forces and left-wing guerrillas.
Thus during decades of research, Salcedo has investigated some of the worst crimes imaginable, including mass murder, rape, torture and dismemberment.
In response, Salcedo's 'poetics of mourning' works against the tactics of planned oblivion and the erasure of these anonymous victims, the 'disappeared ones' whose relatives live in the horrific limbo between profound loss, which is incessant, and a cathartic release from intense grief which never abates. The artist orients herself face-to-face with individuals and their histories, while her work occupies this in-between space where absence makes itself present, poised between memory and oblivion.
'I believe my work is a collaboration with the witness, with the victims, because they give me their testimonies, they give me their words. They give me the very material I'm working with. I'm making a piece for them. Their existence gives meaning to my work.' 3
Salcedo went to college in Bogotá, but she credits her education to Beatriz González, an important Colombian artist working with sociopolitical content who taught at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá. When Salcedo moved to New York In 1982, she earned a graduate degree at New York University. She was most interested in Joseph Beuys's social sculpture, the non-sites and archaeological references of Robert Smithson and the metaphorical sculpture of Eva Hesse and her use of off-beat materials in eccentric ways. Returning to Colombia in 1985, Salcedo witnessed the capital's Palace of Justice become the scene of a bloody military takeover and destructive fire, which left Supreme Court Justices and over 100 people dead. In 2002, on the 17th anniversary of the killings, Salcedo made Noviembre 6 y 7, from the rooftop of the rebuilt Palace of Justice; she and her assistants lowered old wooden chairs of different shapes and sizes during the exact timing of the killing.
A terrifying and haunting entanglement of empty chairs hung cascading down the walls. Salcedo had pointed toward a space of bearing witness, a temporary installation of specific duration, an unfinished process of reflection deliberately made in contrast to the idea of memorializing. Taking the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas as her foundational guide, she made manifest 'exposedness' and 'an irrecoverable time,' in the midst of communal mourning. For Levinas, whom Salcedo often quotes and reads closely, the idea of our shared human vulnerability is linked directly with that of responsibility for the Other, how we relate to the Other, an ethical problem. From his philosophy she adopts as her artistic practice the responsibility for the Other, which Levinas terms being-for-the-other (rather than for the self). Levinas' singular philosophical project, which Salcedo addresses as a visual artist, is to interpret existence in light of the birth of ethical meaning.
For Salcedo, how to make the obscenity of torture and murder present without allowing the work itself to become obscene was the paradoxical challenge. The artist does not represent the victims or aesthetisize violence, instead she processes an act of witnessing and mourning, in which ritual through repetition is a key element, affording a sense of dignity in remembrance of the dead for the living. In her sculpture 'Unland: the orphan's tunic' (1997), at the point where two sawed off tables connect there are fine, dense layers of single strands of human hair and silk threads, which were painstakingly hand-stitched by a team of fifteen people over the course of three years. Deliberate and immersive in her process, Salcedo and her assistants drilled thousands of tiny holes into the tables' surfaces before the hair and silk were woven through the holes, which can only be seen up close. The story behind Unland was the witnessing by Colombian orphans of the murder of their parents; in a traumatic response, one of the six year old orphans continuously wore a dress her mother made her until it fell apart. Salcedo's entire series, Unland (1995 – 98), contains three table sculptures, the orphan's tunic being one. Each Unland sculpture is conjoined from two mismatched halves, as if unspeakable realities had been forcibly jammed together to produce a new Unland reality of loss and pain. A word created by the twentieth century poet Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor, Un-land denotes absence, a reversal and deprivation; it suggests dislocation and alienation, conditions that are all too ubiquitous today for refugees escaping the impossibility of living in warzones. Despite Unland's uninhabitable and inhospitable environment, it is a place where it becomes necessary to continue living even in drastically altered circumstances. The reconfigured third table's sutured co-presence functions as a sign of resistance, of opposition in the face of despair. Tables and domestic objects are tied to our human presence and to the social fabric of the everyday. In Salcedo's hands, these objects become uncanny visceral presences, familiar but ominously transmuted. Their gravity and mass, freighted with the burden of history, evoke the intensity of a nightmare. They could be part of a stage set for a play by Samuel Beckett or Hanoch Levin: 'I've got dead people under the table/A lot of dead people under the table,/And under the chairs and the beds and the closets,/The whole house is full of the dead,…’4
Carrying the imprint of our bodies more than any other piece of clothing, the shoes of 'disappeared' women become indexes for 'the defiant ones,' a loose translation of Atrabiliarios (1992 – 2004), in one of Salcedo's most moving installations. Shoes are sometimes the only identifying features of bodies tossed into mass graves. Salcedo displays the shoes (in pairs or singly) in rectangular niches, cut into the walls; but our view is obscured by the covering of cow bladder skin, soaked and dried like vellum, as a screen sutured to the wall over each recessed hollow. This semi-transparent veil becomes a luminescent covering, attached to the wall with heavy, black surgical thread, forming crude stitches. The holes the thread passes through have been drilled at precise intervals, creating tension between the violence of the stitching and a craft sensibility implied by the measuring and drilling. Gathered in the corner of the gallery are empty boxes irregularly stacked and made of the same sheets of cow bladder threaded together. The clean, white walled installation simultaneously evokes a quiet sacred space, a cemetery crypt, and a morgue, with the hidden or half-visible saintly relics displayed out-of-reach in niches.
The echo of the Holocaust is unmistakable, intonating an elegiac lamentation: 'There is no way you can think of Colombia without thinking of the Holocaust,' says Salcedo, '…loss must be marked and it cannot be represented; loss fractures representation itself and loss precipitates its own modes of expression.' 5
The fracturing of representation is impossibly stitched together by the artist to form a new kind of fervent fluidity, a compressed process of mourning held in abeyance for the viewer to experience and complete in A Flor de Piel, 2014. Variously translated as skin deep or on the surface of the skin, it is also an idiomatic phrase denoting displays of passionate emotions, such as lamentation. The double meaning reverberates in the rose petals minutely stitched together comprising Salcedo's sculpture. The flowing mottled skin of this shroud-like A Flor de Piel ranges across the floor in ripples towards the viewer, suggesting an endless process, wave after wave across the horizon. While aesthetic delight is an immediate reaction suggested by romantic associations of rose petal carpets or waves, the disturbing double evocation of skin and shroud is heightened by the burnt red color of the petals with their delicate membranes. In Latin America, shrouds of roses arrayed on gravesites are associated with the blood of martyrs in Christian iconography, symbolically transmuted to flesh as in a Eucharistic transubstantiation of wine into Christ's blood of redemption; the promise of eternal life. A Flor de Piel honors a nurse in Colombia who was dismembered alive. It references the interminable responsibility entailed in the work of mourning as well as the status of the dead, who live on through our relationship to them and their works. The painstaking labor and utmost devotion required to thread each fragile rose petal with its neighbor comes to the fore. Salcedo sought a way to preserve the dried blood color and suppleness of the roses to create an oscillation in perception between beauty seen from afar and the horror of the profound ugliness of brute power. Salcedo eventually tracked down a combination of compounds used to preserve tissue, which her assistants inserted through osmosis and preserved with a thin layer of wax, sewing the petals together with a thread that would seal the pierced hole with coagulant. A Flor de Piel embodies the very actions of damage and the counter-actions of healing in a shroud that appears both alive and dead. Salcedo thus alludes to the experiences of the bereaved whose loved ones have been declared 'disappeared':
'My work lives at the point where the political aspect of these experiences is appearing and disappearing. We are forgetting these memories continuously. That's why my work does not represent something; it's simply a hint of something. It is trying to bring into our presence something that is no longer here, so it is subtle.' 6
Works related to A Flor de Piel are gathered together hanging from the wall around the corner, Disremembered, 2014. Elegiac rites of mourning enacted by weaving a shroud or burial clothes are suggested by these transparent shimmering tunics made from nearly 12,000 burnt nickel-plated needles and raw silk. Seductive from a distance, the tunics seem like angels' garments hung on the wall waiting for the angelic return. But when we look closely the shimmering silk reveals tiny interwoven pins designed to torment any wearer. Our perception of these sculptures oscillates between the visible shinny silk and invisible reflections of the nickel-plated pins, embodying once again a fragile beauty accompanied by a paradoxical threat of innumerable pinpricks of pain: a garment that harms instead of protecting. Provoked by the ubiquity of daily gun violence routinely plaguing Chicagoans trying to live their lives in peace, Salcedo's work has lately questioned whether there is a growing lack of empathy in the public sphere, in which one person's loss is not even registered by others. The artist looks to Levinas' philosophical writings on ethics as 'epidermal' vulnerability: the idea of vulnerability linked directly with that of responsibility for the Other, a responsibility that is not a matter of free choice since 'responsibility for the other precedes every decision, it is before the origin,' as Levinas writes. 7
Salcedo echoes this pre-cognition that every tragedy or death diminishes each one of us: '[W]ithout responsibility an idea of community is impossible. That is why I try to keep in mind the famous line from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that is also so close to what Levinas writes and which seems to me a good model to emulate, a proposition that we should all make our own: “we are all responsible for everyone else – but I am more responsible than all the others.”' 8
Entering the last gallery, the viewer is confronted by long rows of enigmatic structures massed in dense line-ups through which we must navigate between narrow pathways leading out the other side. Plegaria Muda (2008 – 10) or Silent Prayer conveys at first a puzzling quietude among a minimalist landscape of austere wooden tables on top of which are inverted matching tables thrusting their legs up in the air. The two tables sandwich a layer of earth from which emerge verdant blades of grass popping up from the underside joint of the upper table. It is an oddly discomfiting and uncanny sight, marrying the manmade with sprouting organic life. By walking through this table barricade we feel with our bodies that the proportions of the stacked, inverted domestic objects are the same proportions as our bodies; in our sensible interaction we discover our relationship to these coffin-shaped structures which gradually transmute into grave sites with young shoots of grass sprouting forth. The impetus for Plegaria Muda was two-fold: the ongoing gang violence in Los Angeles which affects poorer socioeconomic communities and perpetuates more violence and the deaths of 2,500 young men killed by the Colombian army to fill a 'quota' for captured guerillas, reflecting the perverse reality of a fluid interchange between victim and perpetrator. Salcedo was determined to create an environment through which viewers must pass and experience as if interred bodies, as a form of resistance against the social forces that dehumanize specific members of a community. We encounter the chilling seriality of mass graves as if at a national cemetery, but by closely looking we see the tender respect embedded in each nestled object. Each 'burial' and act of mourning performed by Salcedo and her assistants returns the body of a loved one to the earth within a ritual of crafting and planting life. In nature, grass would eventually cover the mass graves erasing these horrible deaths, facilitating forgetting and redacting the violence of the death. Within the installation, the trivialization of the victims' deaths in the wider culture is countered, without spectacularization or direct political commentary. As Salcedo reminds us, '[T]he etymology of the word 'experience'… comes from the Latin word experiri, which means “to test” or “to prove,” and from the Latin word periri, which means “peril” and “danger,” and also from the Indo-European root per, which means 'going across.' So experience means 'going across danger.' 9
The artist writes: '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
The Doris Salcedo retrospective ends in the Guggenheim's new media theater with a 25-minute video, Doris Salcedo's Public Works, 2015, a documentary of the artist's many site-specific, temporary projects, which provide a full picture of the artist's oeuvre and her underlying philosophy of engagement and responsibility: Untitled (2003), at the 8th International Istanbul Biennial and composed of 1,550 chairs stacked between two buildings in an empty lot; Neither (2004), referencing the US-run Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; Abyss (2005), an oppressive extension of a brick ceiling evoking slavery and confinement, installed in the Castello di Rivoli, Turin; Shibboleth (2007), an enormous 548-foot crack in floor of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall; Acción de Duelo (2007), a participatory intervention in Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá; and the ongoing project Palimpsest (2013 – present), proposed for an empty city lot, from which drops of water would emanate, the water gathering to form the names of the victims of gun violence. 11
'I always quote Paul Celan, who said that a poem is like a letter you write. You say, “Dear…” and you address that to someone. You write the letter, you put it in a bottle and you throw it in the sea. If that letter reaches the person to whom it has been addressed, that's OK, but it's a wild chance.' 12
- Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Dordrecht and Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1978), 50.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, THE NOTEBOOKS OF MALTE LAURIDS BRIGGE, trans M.D. Herter (Norton, New York: Capricorn, 1958), 46-47
- Salcedo quote in an interview: http://www.art21.org/texts/doris-salcedo/interview-doris-salcedo-variations-on-brutality.
- Hanoch Levin, 'Shitz' (1975), Plays, vol. 1, (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1988), 367.
- Salcedo is quoted in an interview: http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/art-and-design/2015/02/doris-salcedo-mca-chicago/photos/.
- Salcedo is quoted in an interview: http://whitecube.com/channel/in_the_studio/ doris_salcedo_in_the_studio_2012/
- Emmanuel Levinas, 'Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony', in Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (eds.), Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, Bloomington, Indiana 1996, p.103.
- Salcedo is quoted in an interview: http://www.paris-la.com/portrait-of-the-day-doris-salcedo/
- Salcedo is quoted in an interview: http://www.art21.org/texts/doris-salcedo/interview-doris-salcedo-variations-on-brutality
- Salcedo is quoted by Katherine Brinson in http://www3.mcachicago.org/2015/ salcedo/texts/the-muted-drum/
- Salcedo video on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/120164736
- Salcedo is quoted in an interview:http://theartnewspaper.com/comment/ reviews/exhibitions/158255/
DEBORAH FRIZZELL Ph.D. is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where she teaches modern and contemporary art history and theory.