Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer), 2008–10, wood, concrete, earth, grass. Installation view.

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer), 2008–10, wood, concrete, earth, grass. Installation view.

Doris Salcedo

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer), 2008–10, wood, concrete, earth, grass. Installation view.

Doris Salcedo’s well-known “Untitled” series, 1989–2008, features pieces of domestic furniture—chairs, armoires, cabinets, and tables—that have been fused together with concrete and steel into haunting amalgams. That clothing is sometimes visible within the sections of concrete, its softness frozen and locked within the rigid horizontals and verticals of the intersecting objects, only reinforces the sense of the uncanny that pervades these works. Salcedo’s sculpture insists on decelerated, meticulous viewing: One must circumambulate the objects within the exhibition space to pinpoint idiosyncratic, unexpected details, such as lines intentionally branded into wood here and there, like scars.

To what extent should the reception of Salcedo’s objects and installations be informed by the artist’s practice of meeting with bereaved relatives of victims of violence in her native Colombia and elsewhere? A predetermined understanding of her work as infused with the narrative of civil-war-torn Colombia has shaped the discourse around it ever since the 1990s. Originally generated by the artist, this narrative has since been reiterated ad infinitum by critics and curators. On the one hand, different tragedies in Colombia’s violent history have been held up as points of reference for given series. On the other, because Salcedo’s work rarely references specific events or individuals, it has also been interpreted as memorializing incidents of transhistorical torture, disappearance, victimhood, and bereavement beyond those suffered by her compatriots. “Doris Salcedo,” the artist’s first major retrospective (cocurated by Madeleine Grynsztejn and Julie Rodrigues Widholm), relegated the received wisdom of the work’s emotionally charged backstory to a booklet that viewers could choose to follow or ignore while navigating the galleries, thus providing an opportunity to reconsider Salcedo’s practice outside the rather narrow interpretive framework of violence and upheaval.

An installation situated at the entrance to the show, Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer), 2008–10, presented a labyrinth constructed from sets of bench-like tables, each turned atop the other, with layers of soil between them and blades of grass poking up between the planks. Forming narrow corridors and impeding and slowing down the viewer via Minimalist-inflected, immersive scale, these confrontational structures instilled a funereal sense of quiet. The artist’s assignment of meaning—her claim that the work was somehow “related to” both political violence in Bogotá and gang violence in Los Angeles—was here tenuous. Earlier works, such as Untitled, 1986–89, a series of altered hospital bed frames that testify to her career-long interest in found furniture, better demonstrate the skillful balancing act between specific and universal themes within Salcedo’s oeuvre. Baby dolls coated in wax and wrapped in animal fiber adhere to the structure, alluding both to Medellín’s sicarios, or boy assassins, of the period, and to a larger metaphorics of lost lives and potential.

For this occasion, Salcedo also proposed an outdoor memorial to shooting victims in Chicago—the project is to date unrealized, for reasons never fully disclosed. The work, to be titled Palimpsest, would have marked the first time the artist had deployed language and mentioned specific victims (the plan calls for names to surface in water against a concrete backdrop). If it is ever realized elsewhere, Palimpsest may help to bridge the distance between Salcedo’s much-discussed conversations with victims’ families and her deeply poetic yet insistently nonreferential works. For now, the artist continues to produce laborious, mournful gallery objects such as A Flor de Piel, 2014—a shroud made of 250,000 rose petals painstakingly sutured together with thread, whose title loosely translates to the colloquialism of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve—or Disremembered I, II, and III (all 2014), evanescent silk shirts crisscrossed with 250,000 sewing needles. Each of the latter works is effectively a hair shirt—a metaphor for both Salcedo’s aesthetics of mourning and, by extension, her present legacy.

Daniel Quiles