TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT October 1994

ABSENCE MAKES THE ART: DORIS SALCEDO

DORIS SALCEDO IS ONE OF the several younger artists today who are redirecting sculpture, moving away from more formally oriented approaches toward social and emotional gestures and meanings. Salcedo points up the conceptual and perceptual differences in our notions of public and private space—for example, the way private, domestic space can become infused with feelings of loss, while public space, including the spaces of art viewing, are considered more “objective.” Like Christian Boltanski and Robert Gober, pioneers in the evocation of loss, Salcedo’s work paradoxically makes absence the register of a human presence that has been removed from the scene.

Salcedo lives in Colombia, a country lately plagued by violence both civil and governmental. As a subject of art, violence can easily be misunderstood, and Salcedo approaches it cautiously. First, she tries to forestall either ideological or sensational misreadings of her work. Instead, her installations convey feelings of loss; they have a funereal aura. Salcedo knows that violence exerts itself not only as a destructive force that arrives and swiftly departs, but in the devastated months and years that may follow it. An incidental question her work poses is why we in the U.S. tend to dismiss the violence in Colombia as inexplicable, barbarous, or simply corrupt, while rationalizing the equally dehumanizing daily violence of North American cities as an unfortunate but manageable side-effect of the country’s role on the world stage.

Salcedo’s materials lean to the mundane, the unexceptional. Though her work relates deeply to Colombian reality, it does not appear exotic to Europeans or North Americans. In Atrabilarios (Defiant), an installation at the Boston ICA in 1991, Salcedo set dozens of well-worn shoes in rectangular niches dug into the museum walls. Then she covered the niches over with skins of cow’s bladder, which were sewn to the wall with large, surgical-looking stitches. At first glance the work appeared disarmingly “organic” and unthreatening; then one began to connect the shoes with their absent owners, and their owners with their fleshy containing cells or crypts. Some of the shoes had belonged to victims of violence, some had not; in either case, of course, their history wasn’t evident from their appearance. Yet the installation conveyed a more precise sense of loss than Boltanski’s neutral boxes of evidence and Gober’s bodily forms in metamorphosis—its mundane objects led inevitably to the emotional chasm created by the body’s absence. Eschewing both the blunt specificity of historical fact and the notion of suggesting violence through metaphor, the installation insisted on the actuality of the state of loss, evoking the memories that flood in to fill its vacuum.

In the “Aperto” section of the 1993 Venice Biennale, Salcedo showed stacks of neatly pressed shirts run through with a steel lance. Describing this work, she bluntly isolates the event in which it originated: “The objects were molded from the experience of forty women who had witnessed their men being killed on their very doorstep . . . the marks left behind by the violent act in these places are sometimes evident and sometimes imperceptible although, in any case, indelible.”1 Salcedo often travels to remote Colombian villages to talk to the survivors of violence—in most cases. People trapped in a decade-long civil war in which the military’s efforts to wipe out an insurgent guerrilla army ends up erasing imagined pockets of resistance as often as real ones. Salcedo’s clean white shirts (stiffened by an infusion of plaster) refer simultaneously to the domestic habits of the women who cared for these men, to the symbolic states of surrender and innocence applicable to all victims of violence, and to the solemn collective formality that marks the passage between life and death in all societies. In Colombia, men wear white shirts to funerals the way North Americans wear black suits. But though the work’s meaning originates in the specific politics of Colombia, the sorrow and loss it evokes are recognizable across all borders.

Salcedo’s most ambitious and successful work to date is a series of installations called “La Casa Viuda” (The widowed house, 1994). The title—referring not only to the house of the widow but to the house as widow—is a Colombian phrase denoting a home whose inhabitants have been “vanished” (taken away, perhaps killed), leaving behind a shell that preserves the evidence of day-to-day life intact. The British artist Rachel Whiteread’s solid-concrete House, 1993—a public-art project in London, now notoriously destroyed—similarly addressed a dwelling emptied of human occupancy. But that building was imposing by being unenterable. Salcedo, on the other hand, works in interior space, and evokes a sense of human presence lingering on. Her battered furniture and unassuming architectural fragments contrast poignantly with the stark white of the gallery setting.

Installing a version of “La Casa Viuda” at the Brooke Alexander gallery in New York, Salcedo left the space largely empty to emphasize the contrast between the stark white of esthetic contemplation and the more self-effacing aura of simple, well-used places and things. A simple wooden chair stood in a doorway, set flush to its frame—virtually flowing into its structure. Not only was the object fused with its context, but the artist had somehow integrated a skin of lace into the chair’s substance, in a kind of visual magic realism suggesting the almost ghostly passage from real space and time into human memory. In a companion piece, a well-worn bureau was grafted onto a freestanding vertical door frame. Fused with the surface of the bureau, and all but vanishing into its surface, was the zipper from a woman’s skirt. The more one studied these object-sites, the more hidden details began to appear: kitchen utensils concealed in a wooden molding, bones set into the surface of a cabinet. A sense emerged of the house as an organic presence, recording and embodying the lives of those who pass through it. But the clues were subtle, surfacing only once one had tarried long enough to feel oneself slowly becoming part of the physical memory of the place.

Bringing us subtly closer to an intimate experience of violence, Salcedo restores the human element to a part of late-20th-century life that is often depersonalized. Victims of mass violence and displacement, particularly in third world countries, are frequently left unnamed, or are described through statistics, as if to assert the distance between the seemingly hostile, unsafe regions that we do not call home and the supposedly secure spaces from which we view them and their tragedies. By contrast, Salcedo focuses on the details of suffering—but not for gratuitous ends, or even to remind us that tragedy has befallen someone we could be. Her ambition is greater than this: she accentuates the details of life and loss so as to enable us to occupy the place of a person whose experience is radically different from ours. And she makes it harder for us to distance ourselves from people elsewhere, stigmatized through suffering and loss. Violence is neither exoticized nor banalized in Salcedo’s work, it is transformed into a study, even a parable, of how our own memories bear the trace of losses whose depths we have not begun to fathom.

Dan Cameron is a writer and independent curator who lives in New York.

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NOTES

1. Doris Salcedo, quoted in an unpublished interview with Charles Meriwether, 1991.