I went to New York a few days ago as a form of escape. I needed fantasy and beautiful music (The King and I); a good story and a different kind of beautiful music (Fun Home); and I was intrigued by news of the Doris Salcedo retrospective at the Guggenheim. I’d seen a few of her sculptures last summer at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and knew I wanted to see more. I sensed her work might offer me a temporary way around the high pitch of violence continuously audible here and abroad—racist, misogynist, drug-related, random, terrorist, tyranny-driven, conflict-driven—violence that illustrates just how eminently capable we are as a species to objectify one another, to devalue another’s life. The need to address this dark human capacity is at the core of Doris Salcedo’s thirty years of making art.
Prompted originally by violence in her native Colombia—by the massacres and disappearances of thousands whose bodies went to mass graves unaccounted for—and by the effects those violent events have wrought, she has since assumed as her subject matter, or as her point of contemplation, aspects of violence suffered by other groups and populations as well: in Istanbul; Guantánamo; refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East; gang shootings in Los Angeles; to name several. Her materials are shoes and clothing, salvaged furniture, earth, concrete, animal skin and fiber, human hair, sewing needles, and silk thread. For one of her pieces, rose petals were treated to retain their color and flexibility and were then sewn together to create an expansive mantle. Her images are often synecdochic. The shoes encased in a wall, behind parchment, for example, as in the above photo, speak to the fact that the remains of bodies in mass graves can often be identified by the shoes lying nearby. In the photo below, the human hair visible on the surface of the wooden table has been actually stitched into the fiber of the wood, alluding to the physicality of a person no longer present.
Other images are metaphorical, as with dressers and armoires sealed shut with concrete, fragments of clothing trapped within, suggesting the daily particulars of lives cut short. Her sculptures are meticulously hand-crafted, typically arranged in groups so as to form a sort of ritual space. Salcedo’s installations do not merely address the void that surrounds and swallows the identities of victims of violence—her installations defy the void, they turn the void inside out, and create places of mourning, where families and friends of the lost might come to remember. And where we, as museum-goers and onlookers, might contemplate the meaning of violence and the sacred nature of life.
For more information: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view/doris-salcedo