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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — One approach to making work about mourning is to represent its subject or object in order to elicit a similar grieving process in the viewer. Doris Salcedo is more interested in replicating the indefinite, affective qualities of mourning — its weight, intangibility, absurdity, and reliance on personal associations. In The Materiality of Mourning at the Harvard Art Museums, curator Mary Schneider Enriquez chose to focus on four of Salcedo’s sculptural installations made since 2000 that differ substantially in their material properties — oscillating between permanence and ephemerality, isolation and accumulation — but together comment on sacrifice, violence, and the burden of memory.
When I first enter the gallery, I am struck by how empty it is. The walls are unadorned, and the only occupants are two large sculptures, both “Untitled” (2008). Four bureaus are stacked on their backs like vulnerable beetles in two piles. On top of each stack is a worn table, inserting its negative space into the positive space of the bureau bases. One table has been stripped in some areas of its paint, and both are gouged. Filling the chests are not clothes or possessions but massive blocks of concrete, interrupted by hairline cracks. It is as if the substance of infrastructure has replaced the space for intimacy; the concrete seeps into the cracks of the wood and settles like dust in its joints. Imperfectly aligned yet permanently adjoined, the sculptures are heavy but still hovering.
The next room could be mistaken for a disorderly classroom in which metal chairs have been strewn about. Like schoolchildren, some chairs form trains and huddles, while others sit alone. And like the furniture in the first room, these chairs are dented and gouged, with abused legs and seats torn apart as if made of paper bags. Most chairs have been fused together with new seams, but their gross rearrangements seem improbable given that they are made of steel.
Despite the suggestion of human occupation, even the work’s title, “Thou-less” (2001–02), implies an absence. In fact, this work was the first by Salcedo not to include found materials. Each chair fragment was cast from a single wooden chair, which was made into wax and then reformed into a composite steel sculpture, finally hand-carved to include wood grain. Far from abandoned, then, these sculptures have been through a careful, laborious process of translation between media.
Salcedo’s emphasis on labor is evident throughout the show. In the next gallery is “A Flor de Piel” (2013), which translates colloquially from Spanish as “Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve.” The large hand-sewn tapestry of preserved rose petals is gently creased and folded on the floor. From afar it could be mistaken for a digital print of cancerous blood cells or splotchy skin, but its earthy scent and subtle sheen (like that of onion skins) disclose its organic nature. Still, the corporeal associations are not incidental. Rose petals, too, have veins, and the “scars” of black and maroon threads are what bind them together. Salcedo created this “shroud” as an offering to a nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death in the artist’s native Colombia. Salcedo’s method of art production parallels that of mourning — both are infinitely expandable, decaying but lasting, time-intensive but abruptly triggered. “A Flor de Piel” is a silent memorial.
The final works in the show could be the shadows of those mourned for. I hesitate to approach, not wanting to puncture their lustrous mirages. Each of the four pieces remains strangely indiscernible — soft, fragile, and sinister, they are made of steel pins edging out from soft silk netting like prickly stubble to form tromp l’oeil creases. Though clearly unwearable, the fabrics slouch as if worn, and indeed were hand-woven based on one of the artist’s own blouses. In titling the works “Disremembered,” Salcedo meant to honor children lost to gun violence in Chicago, but her own pain was also, inevitably, folded in. Did her fingers bleed as she threaded each sliver of steel through the silk? Who would have worn such painful garments?
The show is small at just four rooms, but it is a controlled presentation; none of the works fill the gallery’s voids. Some burden the floors with their weight, and others require the wall to be injured with needles as they are hung. The carpet of rose petals seeps into the crevice between floor and wall. The Materiality of Mourning leaves a viewer stranded, without resolution, but there is a sort of progression within the show. While I entered noting its emptiness, I exited feeling that cement in my stomach, leaving me unable to grasp those fleeting silhouettes of lost souls in Chicago.
Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning continues at the Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy St, Cambridge, Mass.) through April 9.