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The most important exhibition of the season is quietly taking place in the tucked-away tower galleries of a major New York museum. Doris Salcedo, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and currently installed at the Guggenheim Museum, is an understated yet searing indictment of violence. A Colombian artist who creates impossible sculptures out of furniture, hair, grass, and the fabric of everyday life, Salcedo carves out spaces for mourning tragedy.
All of Salcedo’s projects are grounded in research and specific stories. She interviews victims of trauma and incorporates their voices into universal objects of grieving. For the Unland series, Salcedo worked with Colombian orphans who witnessed the murders of their parents. She created three tables; each one is conjoined from two mismatched halves, like two different realities forcefully jammed together to produce something new. The point at which the tables connect in “Unland: the orphan’s tunic” (1997) is defined by fine, dense layers of single strands of human hair, which were painstakingly hand-stitched by a team of 15 people over the course of three years. This laborious process of creation is a hallmark of Salcedo’s work.
Installation is another essential aspect of Salcedo’s sculptures, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the gallery of Untitled works (1989–2008), a series of wooden armoires, chairs, tables, dressers, and bed frames that are filled with concrete and metal rods, transforming functional objects into impotent structures. Walking through this claustrophobic space feels like exploring a nightmarish discount furniture store. The closely packed sculptures convey a sense of frustration and existential absurdity. Close looking reveals traces of lost lives — a glimpse of fabric, for instance — embedded within the concrete. The works bring the viewer into the space of mourning, a world in which the ordinary objects of day-to-day life have suddenly been rendered unfamiliar and foreign.
While many of Salcedo’s series are grounded in Colombia’s violent past, every piece speaks to the universality of violence. If you think living in a First World country absolves you from these realities, think again. Indeed, two recent projects stem from the artist’s research in the United States. “Plegaria Muda” (2008–10) arose from Salcedo’s investigations of gun violence in Los Angeles in 2004. The work consists of dozens of coffin-sized tables stacked in pairs with living blades of grass, delicately yet heroically growing through minute cracks. Filling the gallery with the smell of fresh earth, the living plants provide a poignant contrast to the deaths they seek to memorialize.
Salcedo is also at work on a US-based installation, Palimpsest (2013–present), a technically complex project inspired by interviews with mothers who have lost their sons to gun violence. In an unassuming park in Chicago, the ground will emit water — symbolic tears — that will form into letters spelling out the names of these murdered men. While Salcedo’s sculptures induce a palpable sense of unease, her site-specific works such as Palimpsest pack a gut-wrenching punch. These projects are where her most powerful critiques reside.
A 25-minute video, “Doris Salcedo’s Public Works, 2015,” documents the artist’s site-specific, temporary projects, such as “Shibboleth” (2007), an enormous 548-foot crack in floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and “Abyss” (2005), an oppressive extension of a brick ceiling in the Castello di Rivoli, Turin. Unfortunately the film is located in the museum’s basement, so most visitors will overlook this part of exhibition entirely. While incorporating ephemeral artworks into an exhibition is a challenge, I would have liked to have seen a greater effort to steer people toward this material. In the documentary, Salcedo notes, “Public art interacts with people in a way that museum pieces cannot.” To walk away from Doris Salcedo without any knowledge of her site-specific pieces is to miss an essential part of her practice.
The final piece in the show is perhaps the most dramatic: an enormous shroud of rose petals strewn across the floor. “A Flor de Piel” (2014) appears like a river of blood. The hundreds of hand-stitched together petals are a tribute to a nurse who died from torture. Beauty and horror are intermingled in an arresting vision, a haunting call to attention.
At a time when mass shootings and police brutality are at the forefront of the American national consciousness, Doris Salcedo is particularly timely. Salcedo uses art to confront violence and enforce our remembrance of humanity’s worst forces. What are the rest of us willing to do? To paraphrase one of the curator’s writing in the catalogue, what is our responsibility to expose what many actively try to conceal and forget?
Doris Salcedo continues at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 12.