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“The forces at work here are brutal.” That is how Doris Salcedo, perhaps Colombia’s best-known contemporary artist, described the long-standing political situation of the country during an interview that was held in July in Bogotá’s main public square, Bolívar Square. A few months later, the plebiscite took place in which Colombians voted against the peace agreements between the armed insurgency and the government that would’ve ended a war that has lasted half a century. The margin of difference between the voters was only 0.4%. The vote, which has further divided an already highly polarized society, was the result of a Brexit-like campaign of disinformation: lies and emotional blackmail on the part of a newly formed right-wing political party headed by Álvaro Uribe, the former president and politician largely invested in the continuation of the war.
Last week, Salcedo returned to Bolívar Square to unveil a public intervention, “Sumando Ausencias” (roughly translated as ‘Adding Absences’), which responds to the halt in the peace agreements. The project was carried out in coordination with the Museo de la Universidad Nacional, and, like Salcedo’s previous interventions on the site, was approved by the local authorities. She has made public interventions twice before on the same site, in 2002 and 2007, referencing political violence: the assassination of the magistrates in 1985 known as the “Holocaust of the Palace of Justice,” and then the kidnapping and assassination of a group of congressmen in 2007.
That Salcedo would decide to make yet another intervention in Colombia’s most historically significant square — long a site of political contestation and home to the city’s first public monument, a statue of Simon Bolívar — is not surprising, given not only her status but her decades-long devotion to the topics of remembrance, mourning, and memorialization in the context of Colombia’s war. The now widely publicized intervention — every major newspaper and magazine in Colombia shed light on the gesture that also received international coverage — consisted of sewing together over 2,000 pieces of white cloth, creating a gigantic shroud that covered the square with the known names of victims of the violent conflict, written over with ashes.
At the same time that the intervention received unanimous praise from the press, it also drew criticism from local artists and political activists alike. Some critics have perceived the work as opportunistic at a very sensitive time, and by others, as shedding light on the artist rather than on the reality of the victims. The execution of the piece also proved difficult: Activists in the square who had recently set up a “Peace Camp,” which involved a number of internally displaced people, and demanded the government and rebels maintain the agreement, were slightly displaced in order to make space for “Sumando Ausencias” (although Salcedo’s piece is already gone and the tents have relocated to the original site). Moreover, local press apparently had limited access to the site and the artist, unlike major international outlets.
For the piece, Salcedo issued a public call for volunteers, which consisted of mostly art students, chosen for their manual skills to sew the different pieces of cloth (though many other citizens took part in the action as well). After the fact, some volunteers remarked that the artist did not address herself to them directly and complained about their skills. There was also controversy over the sources used to acquire victims’ names; different organizations were claimed as sources, but nothing was ultimately confirmed.
Art student Isabel Zuluaga, who participated in Salcedo’s intervention, penned a letter to the artist in which she insisted:
I can’t deny that I saw it initially as a very powerful act, for I was informed beforehand about what we would do and I knew that each one of the names corresponded to a victim or disappeared. However, shortly afterwards, your haste to have I don’t know how many names a day, stripped the situation from its solemnity. Clearly we didn’t have to work so slowly and many of us were being paid to be there, but a simple gesture such as addressing yourself to us in order to produce a collective reflection would have been enough to bring your work to life.
For those familiar with Salcedo, it’s hard to tell whether it was the seriousness of an act of mourning or hubris. María Belén Sáez, the cultural heritage director at the Museo de la Universidad Nacional, and with whom Salcedo collaborated for this intervention insisted, however, that there had been a consensus between the people in the peace tents and the team of the intervention.
Sáez also remarked that there are different types of political action and participation, differentiating between art and activism, the goals and intentions of Salcedo’s intervention and the Peace Camp. This is indeed very consistent with Salcedo’s practice, perhaps one of the most serious thinkers about mourning and political memory in contemporary art, and who has for long espoused the view that art doesn’t have true political impact:
I don’t believe that the reproduction of an image can stop violence. I don’t think that art is capable of that. Art doesn’t save. And I don’t believe there is such a thing as aesthetic redemption, unfortunately. In art you can’t talk about impact. And even less about social impact; and absolutely nothing about political impact at all; and a much reduced, weak impact in the aesthetic. What art can do is to create an emotional bond that could transmit, to some extent, the experience of the victim.
It is true that this type of silent mediation with and through art exists, even if it’s something of a rarity nowadays, but it’s impossible to make a gesture on such a scale as “Sumando Ausencias” and not expect from the public a highly politicized reading, especially during such a sensitive time.
Yet the lasting power of a gesture like this is not to be underestimated. José Roca, the artistic director of Bogotá’s FLORA arts center (and formerly at Tate Modern) remarked online that, while criticism is always welcome as a safety valve, to criticize Salcedo for opportunism is to not acknowledge her decades of engagement with political violence in Colombia:
In a country where oblivion is a policy of the state, Salcedo re-inscribes these events in the public eye through strong symbolic acts, such as the chairs sliding down from the Justice Palace […] García Márquez inscribed the banana massacres in the collective consciousness of Colombia through literature, at a time when the government was diligently busy with dispersing the evidence, Salcedo has done the same with other violent events, and in many cases achieves this through inviting others to constitute themselves as participants in the act of public inscription. There’s nothing opportunistic; in fact, it couldn’t be more sincere. Had she not done anything, the same people would disdain her lack of commitment.
Perhaps what these reactions, very far from engendering a dialogue, signify, is not only that art in times of crisis can become much larger than itself, but that they are symptomatic of a country traumatized and still largely at war. The journalist César Augusto Londoño, known for having uttered the now immortal phrase on live news broadcast, “shit country,” in the aftermath of the assassination of the comedian Jaime Garzon in 1999 (Salcedo completed three public installations with flowers in the streets of Bogotá following the event), reflected early this year on the state of war in the country:
We have to lay down our weapons. Not only in the countryside or in the disadvantaged parts of our cities. We have to lay down our weapons in the media, on Twitter. Here we judge without knowing, lightheadedly and comfortably. And I believe that dialogue is how we get to understand that there are many ways to live together without actually being in agreement.
The aftermath of the plebiscite was a great example of both ‘camps’ attacking each other mercilessly, while at the same time speaking in the name of peace.
As Roca mentions elsewhere, perhaps some things could have been done differently in the context of Salcedo’s intervention; for example, the inclusion of the peace tents and the belatedness of the action, which could have come earlier and even before the plebiscite in order to awaken a sometimes dormant public. But Roca’s reflection goes one step further: “It doesn’t mean that it is not important to make the gesture now. Probably it is now when it is even more urgent to do.” Colombian art critic Halim Badawi echoes this sentiment when he questions the political coherence of some critics, in the face of the historical moment that the country is undergoing. When questioned about the political dimension of her intervention, Salcedo spoke with clarity: “We are trying, then, to think that the world of the dead is not beyond, far away from us, but rather it is here and it is part of our lives. And from here, we are working on it.”