Doris Salcedo’s mourning for the dead takes material shapes, a menagerie of curious sculptures.
Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, through April 9, 2017.
By Timothy Francis Barry
Does anybody remember protest? I’m not talking about some whey-faced communications major in Western Massachusetts burning an American flag because everybody was upset that Donald Trump won. Do you think he posted social media photos of his ‘protest?’ Did he count his views?
I’m talking about true protest, serious, considered dissent. ‘Peace Pilgrim’ Mildred Norman walking across the United States twenty times, to drive home the idea of ‘give peace a chance.’ I’m talking about Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire, to ask the question Why Are We in Vietnam? Do you remember how he didn’t flinch?
In the realm of the arts, I’m talking about Ai Weiwei, who went to prison in China because he refused to compromise his art. And I’m talking about Doris Salcedo, the Colombian sculptor whose research trips have taken her to guerilla hostage camps, remote jungle torture sites, and to morgues, where she once spent seven months studying the files of deceased children.
Political dissidence through the visual arts can be a tricky call. There’s a strong risk of coming across as strident, obvious, and shrill. Salcedo, like Weiwei, wisely eschews the didactic — they wax subtle. You look at Salcedo’s installations and, at least at first, wonder what she’s saying.
Of course, there is no ambiguity about the tragic social facts on the ground. Salcedo’s mourning thousands of dead innocents littered across the Colombian countryside and cityscapes. Since the ’60s, her nation has been ripped apart by violence; a band of muy bad hombres (and chicas) called FARC have kidnapped, tortured, raped, and shredded whole villages — all in the name of furthering their Marxist-Leninist revolutionary ideals.
Homegrown groups countering the violence haven’t made matters any more humane; the right-wing have nurtured their own paramilitary militias and death-squads. There is also an anarchistic lot called narcotraficantes; it doesn’t matter if it is a judge, general, or witness who crosses them, the treatment is the same: a pimply-faced sixteen-year old spraying AK bullets from a speeding Kawasaki 250.
So Salcedo can’t keep quiet. Her mourning for the dead takes material shapes, a menagerie of curious sculptures. What is one to make of a room full of distorted chairs, hand-carved, made of unpainted stainless steel? These seats are placed “haphazardly and deliberately,” according to the Harvard Art Museums curator and catalogue author Mary Schneider Enriquez. This paradoxical impression (or is that an example of in-your-face contradiction?) is present throughout Salcedo’s installations: there’s a secretive minimalist lyricism that is all the more powerful for its refusal to come out and say what it means.
Born in Bogota in 1958, Salcedo is no primitive. She did graduate work in sculpture at New York University in the early 1980s, where she fell under the sway of German World War Two veteran Joseph Beuys, whose nervy explorations of the after-effects of trauma, through the use of common materials — such as felt, animal fat, flashlights, and chairs as ‘social sculpture’ — has influenced installation art ever since. Enriquez sees the connection in this way: “Like Beuys, Salcedo chooses the weight of materials as the means of approaching a context pervaded by trauma, incorporating particular materials or objects to signify distinct settings, individuals, and experience.”
This approach is plangently yet also obliquely expressed in this show via two untitled pieces from 2008. These monolithic constructions deconstruct and re-combine wooden armoires and wooden tables along with concrete and steel parts. The latter have no business being there, aside from forcing the viewer to think. My takeaway – it is a disturbing vision of destroyed domestic spaces intermingled with coffins.
The three other galleries in the exhibition contain equally mystifying yet undeniably powerful installations. Disremembered II (2014) features blouse-like gossamer wall-pieces — created out of silk thread and thousands of steel pins. The ghostly images suggest the clothing of the missing, the resonating afterlife of victims.
Overwhelming in its presence, and more insistent upon its funereal meaning, is A Flor de Piel (2013) (The Rose Petals). Blood-red (and genuine) rose petals — hand-stitiched together into a wave — make for a striking room-sized floor sculpture. It commemorates a nurse who was tortured to death.
This piece was acquired by Harvard for its permanent collection, after what curator Enriquez described in a telephone conversation as “about a year and a half of making the case for its importance.” Conservation, and the future condition of the work, was a major issue; this is not intended to be an ephemeral piece. The rose petals were treated with chemicals to stabilize them, but they are dried rose petals. “It will be fine five years from now — a hundred years? Nobody really knows,” she admitted.
Indeed, the fragility of another version of A Flor de Piel was tested when, during its exhibition last year in Chicago, a little boy ran across the piece, which resulted in some of the petals needing to be replaced. At Harvard, guards constantly warned viewers kneeling at its edge to keep a safe distance.
The artist appeared here earlier this month, on a panel with curator Enriquez and Harvard University professor Elaine Scarry, whose acclaimed book The Body In Pain deeply influenced Salcedo. Unfortunately for the hundreds of interested attendees, there was lots of philosophy and scholarly commentary but precious little from Salcedo, whose remarks amounted to a few sentences. However, upstairs in the galleries, the unspoken messages of her installations say all the things that it is necessary to hear.
Timothy Francis Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, both in Provincetown.