Referencing her work Palimpsest FIG.1, the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo (b.1958) remarked that ‘art names in order to bring into existence those aspects of reality that our society ignores and keeps in obscurity’ (p.180).1 This statement certainly rings true in her retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, which includes eight installations made between 1989 and 2021. In Palimpsest stone slabs are arranged in a grid that covers the entire floor of the museum’s seventh room. The installation functions like a mausoleum: the slabs are inlaid with the names of refugees and migrants who drowned attempting dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean over the last two decades. Each name is inscribed into the stone and overwritten by further names formed by drops of water that gradually seep away. The tone of the work is by turns unsparing – hydraulic equipment, ground marble, resin and sand comprise the majority of its materials – and poetic, acknowledging an ongoing crisis that is viewed by many from afar with horror. Salcedo presents the names of these victims as evidence; only then can they provide their testimony.
Salcedo is an artist who deals directly with political concerns, which persist throughout her practice as a series of overt ethical themes: appearance, representation and perception of reality. In particular, she addresses issues pertaining to the Colombian conflict, a period of civil war that began in 1964 involving various armed groups, including leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary forces and government troops. Salcedo’s methodology has been heavily influenced by Joseph Beuys (1921–86), whose compulsion to challenge systemic issues in sculptural form she first encountered while studying in New York: ‘His work revealed to me the concept of “social sculpture”, the possibility of giving form to society through art’.2 Such an ambition is evident in her allusions to Beuys’s installations: in Unland (1995–98) each element is made of two tables sewn together using human hair and raw silk. In addition to these diverse materials, the tables also conjure testimonies from victims of violence, as heard by Salcedo. When speaking with a six-year-old girl who witnessed her parents’ murders, the artist noticed that the child’s dress was made by her mother; the silk sewn by the artist in Unland shares an affinity with this interaction. Like Beuys, who often employed felt and fat as memorable symbols of identity, Salcedo asks what we do with the past, particularly when it is painful.
In the summer of 2016 the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia announced that, after one of the most protracted armed conflicts in the world, they had reached a peace agreement. Needless to say, this announcement left the people of Columbia with unanswered questions. ‘Colombia has many brutal aspects’, Salcedo has said, ‘re-working them allows us to survive’.3 Rather than attempting to ‘represent’ episodes of violence, Salcedo’s works instead speak to the memory and space that is essential to encourage reflection, and they do so with a quiet urgency. In Plegaria Muda FIG.2, wooden tables become coffins and the room becomes a graveyard. The work is a response to the ‘false positives’ scandal, in which it was revealed that thousands of ‘insurgents’ executed by the Colombian army were in fact innocent men from poor areas or with learning disabilities. The men were buried in unidentified mass graves. Rather than create a vast absence, as in Palimpsest, here Salcedo fills the room. On top of each table lies another upturned table, their surfaces facing each other between a layer of soil. Blades of grass appear through the cracks in the wood of the upper table. This is Salcedo at her most haunting: while such repetition, obsession and precision is equated with the painful volume of these deaths, it can also become an act of ritual. Her work suggests that when violence can be known, it can be changed.
The pleasure of viewing Salcedo’s works derives from our intimacy with an object that seems to be operating at one remove from its materiality, entirely in command of the tragic and violent ideas that animate it. Materials present themselves to Salcedo as troubled, tortured and as irreparably fragmented; sculpture offers the possibility to piece ‘together from ruptures and dissociations, rather than association and union’.4 The gesture of suturing – of joining inanimate things close together – recurs throughout Salcedo’s work. This is perhaps akin to the artist’s own gestures of healing: how, as the cultural theorist Mieke Bal says, she ‘repairs’ the objects of her attention to suggest new existential relationships.5 In Unland: the orphan’s tunic FIG.3, a rectangular wooden table is affixed to another white table with clumps of hair and raw silk bound around the abutted edge, as if the sculpture might double as a menacing Surrealist assemblage. Similarly, in Atrabiliarios FIG.4, a piece of semi-transparent animal skin is stitched to the wall with surgical thread. Behind it, embedded into the wall, is a shoe. This vanitas-like work makes public the silence and pain surrounding los desaparecidos, the victims of forced disappearance in Colombia.
The most tender offering is A Flor de Piel II FIG.5: thousands of delicate deep-red rose petals sewn together with coarse thread, resulting in a shroud-like form draped across the concrete floor. The body is spectral and absent in this work, but its trace is all too present – ghostly, drifting, ethereal and intimately charged. Similarly, in Disremembered FIG.6, four sculptural pieces are hung on the wall at different heights. Each piece of fabric – composed of silk threads – is transparent and gauzy, and embellished with needles that have been cut, resharpened, twisted and burned. The work was created after Salcedo spoke to hundreds of mothers whose children were the victims of gun violence.6 The title is a vexing reference to Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, in which she uses the word ‘disremember’ to describe the act of intentionally forgetting traumatic memories or past events. Along the edge of the first room sits Untitled FIG.7, in which slender, steel poles erupt from stacks of folded white cotton shirts. According to Salcedo ‘folding shirts and turning them into dysfunctional objects [signals] the absence of the person who was murdered, a vain attempt to warm the cold metal with an organic material’ (p.34). They bear witness to the harrowing void left behind after two massacres that took place in 1988 on banana plantations in La Negra and La Honduras, in which twenty workers were murdered. This series of works, made between 1989 and 2014, also commemorates the myriad atrocities that continue to this day in the name of various causes and ideologies.
In other works, Salcedo encases traces of the body, cementing them in repurposed furniture or enclosing them in niches. She employs highly controlled display mechanisms that marshal how and what the viewer is allowed to see. As in much of her work, the status of materials is ambiguous: what contains and constricts also shelters and protects. In Untitled (1998) an elaborate wooden armoire swells with concrete and a small, floral dress is trapped in its glass belly. For the artist, the remnants and remains of the body, as imagined through objects and clothing, are a haptic site of pain and loss: ‘they are a vain attempt to restore the presence of the victim’ (p.44). There is always a countenance in Salcedo’s art: this is the thing that cannot be killed.