PORTRAIT OF THE DAY : DORIS SALCEDO

Portrait of the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo.

Doris Salcedo (born 1958) is a Colombian-born sculptor. Salcedo completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano in 1980, before traveling to New York, where she completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at New York University. She then returned to Bogotá to teach at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Doris Salcedo has exhibited in group and solo exhibitions internationally including 8th Istanbul Biennial (2003), Documenta XI (2002) and XXIV São Paolo Biennial (1998). Solo exhibitions include SF MOMA (1999 and 2005), Camden Arts Centre, London (2001), Tate Gallery, London (1999) and New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1998).

Installtion views at the White Cube, Hoxton Square, London 2007.

Her work is influenced by her experiences of life in Colombia, and is generally composed of items of furniture like sets of tables and chairs. This powerful use of metonymy – employing motifs that do not merely symbolise social relationships but which are materially involved in them – provides the most concise expression of the bond between the individual and the social unit. Single chairs evoke and stand in for single persons, while their being placed around a table is a primary instance of what draws the individual into the social group. In the work from this period, strange versions of both chairs and tables were forced into unnatural and disturbing combinations.

Doris Salcedo makes sculptures and installations that function as political and mental archaeology, using domestic materials charged with significance and suffused with meanings accumulated over years of use in everyday life. Salcedo often takes specific historical events as her point of departure, conveying burdens and conflicts with precise and economical means.

Untitled, 1987. Mixed media.

The research that Salcedo always conducts for each of her projects traces the histories of individuals, gauges the effects of those people’s loss on others, and makes use of extensive interviews with survivors. Yet despite this concentration on specific identities, the artist’s work rarely evokes the singular; it quite literally homes in on the communal aspects of daily life, reminding the viewer of what is lost when an individual is subtracted from the community. Social structure is undermined and social bonds weakened; state force and guerrilla and paramilitary violence both contribute to the chronic destruction of the social.

Salcedo’s work manifests the experiences of those who have witnessed the sudden, violent death or disappearance of a loved one, or more specifically that element of each of the stories that is recognizable to all. This quality Salcedo identifies as the ‘purely human’ aspect. Quoting Franz Rosenzweig she says’art is the transmission without words of what is the same in all human beings.’31 Yet she also comments on the way that death brings out each person’s individuality; ‘when one dies … it is the moment when we become absolutely singular. It is the moment when nobody can help us; nobody can do anything for us.’

Untitled (C), 2004-05. Stainless steel.

In speaking about her work, Salcedo also makes reference to the work of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. From his philosophy she adopts the concept of responsibility for the other, which Levinas terms being-for-the-other (rather than for the self). This idea is indebted to Dostoyevsky whom Salcedo cites as a further influence: ‘without 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.’

Doris Salcedo’s work draws on complex ideas which link her art to poetry and philosophy. Nevertheless, in each instance her sculptures are physical embodiments of actual experiences and testimonies. The power of the work is in its ability to convey the essence rather than the particulars of those testimonies to the viewer. Celan and Salcedo are both concerned with enabling an encounter, through an art form, that facilitates empathy and a shared experience. As Celan said ‘the man whose eyes and mind are occupied with art … forgets about himself. Art makes for distance from the I.’41 Salcedo’s works convey, with extreme subtlety and profundity, the nature and place of testimony within individual and collective experience. They address the predicament of the individual who has witnessed unspeakable events and must continue living. Her work goes beyond pathos, and whilst it seems paradoxical to speak about beauty, or even to use an oxymoron like ‘terrible beauty’, her work has a disquieting elegance and poise. While seeming to confirm the indelible nature of scars left by trauma, Salcedo’s work also points to a singular hope in humanity.

Untitled, 1998. Concrete, wood, steel.

Shortly after returning to her native Bogotà from New York in the mid-1980s, Salcedo created a series of sculptures made from discarded pieces of furniture such as the bedsteads used here. These objects conjure up ideas of protection, care and confinement. Broken and dysfunctional, the beds have been tied together with animal fibre in what appears to be a repair doomed from the outset to failure. The result is a construction whose fragility becomes a poetic metaphor for the human condition. (see caption Untitled,1987)

In the 1990s, Salcedo made a series of sculptures by filling items of furniture with concrete. The resulting works suggest the violation of domestic space and the human body. Rather than an empty space waiting to be filled with worldly belongings or childish fantasies, the wardrobe becomes hermetically sealed and inaccessible. The configuration of armoire and chair is akin to that of a Pietà, the traditional depiction of the Madonna holding the body of the dead Christ on her lap. (see caption Untitled, 1998)

Unland: audible in the mouth, 1998. Wood, thread and hair.

The mutated remains of an accident.

Unland: audible in the mouth, 1998 is one of a series of three sculptures by Doris Salcedo given the collective title Unland. The other works are Unland: the orphan’s tunic, 1997. (Fundació “la Caixa”, Barcelona) and Unland: irreversible witness, 1995–8 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). The three Unland sculptures stem from the testimonies of victims of the civil war in Colombia. Over a period of three years Salcedo spoke to many children who had witnessed the murder of their parents.

Over a period of three years, Salcedo traveled to the northern heartland of Colombia’s civil war and spoke to children who had witnessed the murder of their parents. These testimonies inspired a series of three sculptures given the collective title Unland. Conjoining two fragmented tables, this work suggests the dysfunction caused by extreme trauma. ‘We spend our life around tables and their familiarity helps to draw you in’, Salcedo has said. ‘Yet these objects have been forcibly united… and appear to be like the mutated remains of an accident’.

Unland: irreversible witness, 1995–1998.

Unland: irreversible witness, 1995–1998. (detail)

Doris Salcedo carries out extensive research into the lives of those affected by Colombia’s civil war, a conflict that has lasted intermittently since 1948. She interviews the relatives of the dead and the ‘disappeared’, or comes to know them through the records of humanitarian workers. In the case of the Unland sculptures she travelled to a chaotic and violent region in northern Colombia.

Her sculptures are never an illustration of these narratives, nor are they confessional props. She avoids explicit images and instead tends towards poetic representation, abstracting the experiences recounted to her by using simple materials indicative of the environment and poverty which surrounds the victims. She uses simple wooden or metal furniture combined with clothing or organic substances, including hair and bone. These items, the vocabulary of daily life, are used in such a way that the sculptures can be understood as profoundly intimate objects yet ones that also strike a universal chord.

Salcedo says, ‘In “Unland” I joined disparate sections of old wooden tables together – we spend our life around tables and their familiarity helps to draw you in. Yet these objects have been forcibly united…and appear to be like the mutated remains of an accident.’

Unland: the orphan’s tunic, 1997.

The title Unland was inspired by the poet Paul Celan’s word-invention and use of language, in which words frequently have multiple connotations. When there was no word that sufficiently expressed Celan’s meaning, he coined new, hybrid or fragmentary ones, often using negation to create such words. Rather than simply being landless, having no-land or being without-land, un-land implies loss. The prefix ‘un-‘ denotes absence, lack, reversal, the cancellation of an action or state of being; it indicates deprivation, separation or reduction to a lesser state.21 Unland is a term suggesting dislocation and the loss of that sense of permanence and belonging in which identity is rooted. Unland thus encompasses alienation, the transformation of a secure environment into one that is uninhabitable and inhospitable. For Salcedo it also refers to a place in which it is necessary to continue living even in drastically transformed circumstances.

The phrase ‘audible in the mouth’ is from Celan’s poem An Eye, Open, originally published in 1959 in a collection called Sprachgitter (Language Mesh):

Hours, May-coloured, cool.

The no more to be named, hot,

audible in the mouth.

No one’s voice, again.

Aching depth of the eyeball:

the lid

does not stand in its way, the lash

does not count what goes in.

The tear, half,

the sharper lens, movable,

brings the images home to you.

Shibboleth, 2007.

The token of power.

With Shibboleth, Doris Salcedo has opened a long, snaking crack across the vast length of the Turbine Hall. Fracturing the concrete floor, her new work strikes to the very foundations of the museum.

Something similar might be said of the concept that underpins Salcedo’s work at Tate Modern. A shibboleth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly.’ It is, therefore, a way of separating one people from another. The word refers back to an incident in the Bible. The Book of Judges describes how the Ephraimites, attempting to flee across the river Jordan, were stopped by their enemies, the Gileadites. As their dialect did not include a ‘sh’ sound, those who could not say the word ‘shibboleth’ were captured and executed. A shibboleth is a token of power: the power to judge, refuse and kill. What might it mean, however, to refer to such violence in a museum of modern art?

Shibboleth, 2007. (Detail)

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.

Abyss, 2005. Brick, cement, steel and epoxyc resin.

The power descending on the viewer.

Abyss depicts her installation created for the T1 Triennial of Contemporary Art in Turin. The pre existing dome shaped brick ceiling of Castello di Rivoli, was meticulously extended to cover the white walls of the room. Using bricks fabricated to mimic those used in the existing 18th Century ceiling, Salcedo created the impression that this brick ‘skin’ was suspended from the ceiling, evoking a sense of power descending on the viewer. By shrouding the walls of the room in this way, Salcedo makes reference to systems of power, and in particular those that are excluded from such.

Abyss, 2005. (Detail)

Abyss which was temporarily installed at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, is likewise a haunting and disconcertingly visceral experience. Entering a low doorway that has been partially bricked in at its top and sides, the viewer feels immediately constricted, his or her body instinctively bending down and closing in on itself, as if preparing for a blow. Once inside, the visitor is faced with a square room whose four large walls are encased in a curtain of brick and cement hanging from the eighteenth-century brick-vaulted dome. Since the curtain walls don’t touch the ground, the space feels as if it were on the verge of collapse, infusing the experience with a crushing oppressiveness. While moving away from the specific histories of Colombia, Salcedo’s work has remained close to the universal nub inherent in those events – issues around power and powerlessness, freedom and incarceration, communicated in material terms.

Installation for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial, 2003.

1,600 wooden chairs stacked precariously in the space between two buildings.

Doris Salcedo in conversation.

In his book Present Pasts: Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory, Andreas Huyssen dedicates a chapter to Doris Salcedo and Unland: The Orphan’s Tunic, presenting her work as “Memory Sculpture.” Huyssen offers a detailed description of the piece, a seemingly mundane table that, when considered closely, “captures the viewer’s imagination in its unexpected, haunting visual and material presence.” A seemingly everyday piece of furniture is in fact made of two destroyed tables joined together and covered with a whitish veil of fabric, presumably the orphan’s original tunic. Upon even closer inspection, hundreds of small human hairs appear to be the thread that is attaching the tunic to the table. Huyssen equates the structure of the tables to the body. “If the tunic is like a skin…then the table gains a metaphoric presence as body, not now of an individual orphan but an orphaned community.” Salcedo’s Unland is a memory sculpture, presenting the past of her own country of Colombia to the international art audience.

During a conversation with Carlos Basualdo, Salcedo discusses her own approach to producing art:

“The way that an artwork brings materials together is incredibly powerful. Sculpture is its materiality. I work with materials that are already charged with significance, with meaning they have required in the practice of everyday life…then, I work to the point where it becomes something else, where metamorphosis is reached.”

Again, in a 1998 interview with Charles Merewether, Salcedo expounds upon this notion of the metamorphosis, describing the experience of the viewer with her own artistic repair or restoration of the past: “The silent contemplation of each viewer permits the life seen in the work to reappear. Change takes place, as if the experience of the victim were reaching out…The sculpture presents the experience as something present- a reality that resounds within the silence of each human being that gazes upon it.”

Salcedo employs objects from the past, objects imbued with an important sense of history and, through these contemporary memory sculptures, illustrates the flow of time. She joins the past and the present, repairs what she sees as incomplete and, in the eyes of Huyssen, presents “memory at the edge of an abyss…memory in the literal sense…and memory as process .”

Text collaged from various sources.

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