Doris Salcedo and the Politics of Memory

October 17, 2015

Doris Salcedo was born in Bogotá in 1958 during a time when Colombia was racked by political violence. A severe conflict among paramilitary drug trafficking groups like the AUC, the guerrilla group Farc, government forces, and drug cartels killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and displaced millions. Growing up in this violent environment she was still capable to develop a poetic artistic practice that that is deeply influenced by its environment. Her pieces mourn the victims and open up a dialogue for experiences in conflict zones.

Dealing with themes of brutality and civil injustice, Salcedo often uses everyday objects: chairs, tables, clothing, or flowers. These personal objects signal the realm of the individual everyday, which has been disrupted through the traumatic incident. Trying to describe her pieces in a general manner seems almost impossible as she radically finds each time new ways to address topics and uses materials beyond their supposedly limits: writing with water through stone as if it was eternally crying (Palimpsest) or cracking a space wide open (Shibboleth). While Salcedo’s art addresses problems rooted in Colombia, the themes of violent oppression and civil injustice are applicable all around the world from the Middle East to the United States. Each act honors the singularity of the event she wants to address, Salcedo said in her speech at the exhibition at MCA Chicago. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York just showed Salcedo’s largest-ever American retrospective (until October 12, 2015) after an earlier appearance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Doris Salcedo`s trespassing of limitations

The artist literally broke ground for an installation entitled “Shibboleth” 2007, in which she tore a jagged 548-foot-long crack into the concrete floor of the massive Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London. The term “shibboleth” comes from the bible referring to the practice to test if an individual belongs to a particular group or region, through the supposedly right pronunciation of the term. With this in mind the crack in the institutional building marks the exclusion of foreigners and mourns the death of those trying to cross borders. Even though the floor has been restored, if you look carefully, the scar remains still visible and builds a layer of the exhibition history.

Doris Salcedo_Shibboleth 2007
Shibboleth, 2007, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, Photo: Sergio Clavijo

The 2014 work “A Flor de Piel”, pushes the definition of what a sculpture can look like beyond its borders. It
consists of thousands of delicately preserved rose petals, sewn together into a large red shroud. The title of the piece is a Spanish idiom describing intense feelings, literally translated into “like the flower of skin”. A text explains that the work pays tribute to a Colombian nurse kidnapped and tortured to death. The piece started with the intention of making a flower offering to a victim of torture, in an attempt to perform the funerary ritual that was denied to her.

Political Art Colombia
A Flor de Piel, 2012, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2015Photography by David Heald © Guggenheim Museum, NY

Topology of mourning in war and conflict zones

Employing everyday objects and domestic materials, Salcedo creates works that serve as artistic landscape to moments of political crisis, tragedy and trauma. The essence of her work is memory and remembering those who are forgotten through time or the injustice of historical narration. Salcedo honors the individual site specific condition by going back to specific historical events and their memories and by starting from the scratch for every project. She has spent decades researching some of the worst crimes imaginable: kidnappings, rapes, murders, dismemberments. She knows that art does not change the occurred events or the grief of family members that suffered a trauma, but she applies dignity in the process of mourning through the beauty in her works and contributes a further aspect to the narration of war and trauma. Salcedo contributes an important pattern to the culture of remembrance through her connection of communities, that do not share necessarily the very same trauma but that are connected through memories and the act of mourning. This act is individual but every time someone is killed, a painful absence is created and she addresses this vacancy. Her works open up spaces, where the act of mourning can take place without reproducing the violent act itself. The objects do not illustrate the conflict but function as place holders that carry the burden to be filled with meaning. Her pieces are in the intersection between the wish to remember and the impulse of forgetting –a feeling a lot of victims and relatives share. She raises questions as: How do we remain humane in times of war and conflict? How do we return dignity to those who have been deprived of it? How do we share experiences and memories on trauma?

Doris Salcedo
Doris SalcedoPhoto: David Heald

Inaugural recipient of the Nasher Prize 2015

Her artistic practice changed the definition of how a sculpture can look like and how space can be appropriated. To honor this effort she has been announced end of September as the first recipient of the Nasher Prize, an annual international award presented to a living artist who has had an extraordinary impact on the field of sculpture. Salcedo was selected by an international jury and will receive the $100,000 prize, along with a commemorative award designed by architect Renzo Piano, at a gala dinner at the Nasher Sculpture Center on April 2, 2016. “The Prize is very meaningful to me because I believe my task as an artist is to make connections —to connect worlds that normally are unconnected, like art and politics, like the experience of the lost lives of victims of political violence with the experience and memories of the viewers who approach or contemplate the work—and I think the Prize will widen this audience,” said Doris Salcedo through a press statement.

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