Visual Arts

Colombian sculptor’s works comment on nation’s violent history

Doris Salcedo ‘A Flor de Piel,’ 2014.
Doris Salcedo ‘A Flor de Piel,’ 2014.

The immense patchwork of roses in Doris Salcedo’s A Flor de Piel (2014) is a delicate, mummified red. Drained of their scarlet, the petals have turned brown and sepia, the hues of decay and memory — or of blood, spilled and old. The artist has previously described the work as a shroud, and indeed, it is a work of art for the dead.

Salcedo’s traveling retrospective — shown first at the MCA Chicago, then the Guggenheim, and now at the PAMM — contains works from across her 30-year career. Born in Bogotá in 1958, Salcedo has developed an oeuvre of funerary sculptures out of everyday objects.

“I’m looking for the trace of the tragic,” she says, “And I find that trace in those objects that have already been used.”

These objects, imbued with loss, mourning, and remembrance, fill the PAMM’s galleries with haunting effect.

Salcedo and her large studio of assistants make elegiac poetry out of cabinets, dressers, chairs, and shoes — deceptively simple works if only glanced at. Look closer and you’ll find the macabre remnants of lives lived. In the series La Casa Viuda (1993-94), there’s the zipper embedded in the cabinet, the shirt peeking out of the poured concrete, the undetectable human bone. The title of the series, roughly translated to “the widowed house,” is an apt metaphor for the aesthetic that Salcedo is after: the implication of bodies, of lives lived and lost.

However, the works are not merely memorials — they are inherently political. As Salcedo remarks, “I think art is political by nature. It’s ideological; it is for or against the status quo. I never thought art had to with imagination — the very opposite, it had to do with reality and real life experiences.”

Besides reading secondhand accounts, the artist conducts research in the field, interviewing victims of political violence and displacement. Much of her research is regarding Colombia’s protracted civil violence: the disappearances, torture, displacement, and murders that have been committed since the mid-20th century by cartels, FARC (the leftist guerilla group), the Colombian state and various right-wing paramilitary groups.

For Miami, which is home to a significant Colombian expat community, this exhibition hits home and is timely considering the stalled status of peace talks between the FARC and Colombian government. There is also the fact that Miami is built upon the legacies of exile and memory.

The series Atrabiliarios (1992–2004) was created from research that Salcedo conducted regarding los desaparecidos (the disappeared), those who have been secretly abducted and killed. Regarding the female targets of this extrajudicial murder method, Salcedo found that often, only the shoes were left to identify the victims.

Atrabiliarios consists of women’s shoes encased in small cubbyholes that have been cut into the gallery’s walls, the shoes obscured behind a milky animal fiber — indicating both the fogginess of memory, and the color of this particular strategy of political violence: when someone is “disappeared,” the perpetrators are attempting to place them outside the bounds of both law and memory, to render them obscured.

To date, it’s estimated that more than 92,000 Colombians have been disappeared in the past 50 years.

Salcedo, who grew up witnessing Colombia’s civil war, has had an interest in the functions and effects of political violence since she was an art student. Besides the brutal tales of violence in Colombia, the artist has researched global violence, including one of modernity’s ghastliest campaigns: “I was always focused on the Holocaust, it was very important for me,” Salcedo says. “Reading about both the survivors and perpetrators was absolutely essential. I had that in the center of my work.”

The industrial nature of the objects that she works with — the many empty chairs, the furniture filled with concrete — hints at the organized, systemic nature of this violence, not just in Colombia, but around the world. “Every victim of political violence in the world — from a Colombian town to the parents of children at Sandy Hook —their experience is important to all of us,” Salcedo says.

In what is perhaps the most striking series in the exhibition, the works in Plegaria Muda — which translates loosely as “silent prayer” — consist of handcrafted tables, one placed upside-down on top of the other. You’ll see blades of grass growing up through the underside of the table on top, and at first, it seems the blades are stretching out of tiny holes that have been cut into the table. But they’re actually growing out of different shades of dirt, which has been painstakingly “painted” to look like the underside of a table.

These domestic objects, where people sit and accumulate years of memories, are in fact the approximate shape and size of human coffins — in effect, they are exposed burial mounds. The works were inspired by the artist’s research into gang violence in Los Angeles, and by her visits to mass graves in Colombia with mothers searching for their disappeared sons.

Though Plegaria Muda and other works get their start from a specific story, Salcedo says that she’s not aiming for particulars in the art works themselves. “I start with the singularity of a life, a specific life. But as you move into art, you are in the reign of the paradoxical. It’s no longer about a specific experience, but it is about the vacuum of forgetfulness, the way we forget.”

What, exactly, is the poetry and power of something said indirectly? The answer, of course, is that there is no answer. This is critical to understanding the poetics that Salcedo is dealing with, the vacuum that she’s describing. “In the dreams of authoritarian rulers, they want people to get a message, straight and clear, and they want them to follow this message. I like to place myself on the very opposite end of this behavior.”

“As an artist, what I think counts is an impotence, not the power, that I experience when I make the pieces,” Salcedo says. “With my work, I do not save anybody’s life, I cannot restore anybody’s destroyed town. I can only look in horror … you look at it, but there’s nothing you can do. It’s not about power, it’s the very opposite.”

Though Salcedo effaces the idea of having power, there is still a certain energy that comes with art, especially when it comes to a major museum-touring retrospective such as hers. But what she’s doing with the art, and what she’s asking of the viewer, is something simple.

“If the viewer generously gives to my work a moment, a minute of silent contemplation, then the memories inscribed in my work and the memories of the viewer can unite, in a brief moment. So the lives that were destroyed can continue — if the viewer wants them to.”

Perhaps, then, there is something to be done after all.