“The important task for an artist here is to try to give society tools of mourning....”
Doris Salcedo collects witness statements and testimonies from individuals who have fallen victim to the ongoing conflict in her native Colombia between far-left guerrilla groups, the military, drug traffickers, and paramilitary forces. While these personal narratives are not immediately decipherable in the final artworks, they inform the ways in which she approaches each project, centering her process on the memories of others. “My work is based on experiences I lack,” Salcedo explained. “Therefore, it is made from an unfamiliar, unstable place, simultaneously strange and proper. It is made from an indirect perspective, and place of insufficiency from which a fragmentary, incomplete history is precariously told and retold.”
Salcedo began her career in the late 1970s, studying painting at the Universidad de Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano. There she learned from the renowned Colombian artist Beatriz González, who often incorporated found, everyday materials—including pieces of domestic furniture—into her work, a practice that would become central to Salcedo’s own approach. In the early 1980s, Salcedo enrolled in the MFA program at New York University, where she became captivated by the work of Joseph Beuys, and particularly inspired by the German artist’s interest in infusing sculpture with sociopolitical meaning. Salcedo wrote, “I found the possibility of integrating my political awareness with sculpture. I discovered how materials have the capacity to convey specific meaning.”
Since the early 1990s, Salcedo has altered furniture by filling these domestic objects with cement and combining unrelated pieces, so that they are rendered dysfunctional. Composed of a wooden door flanked by bedposts, a woman’s blouse, and a single bone, Widowed House IV (1994) is an uncanny assemblage that highlights the absence of the human. For Untitled (1995), the artist filled a bureau and chairs with cement, creating an image of violation vis-à-vis the intrusion of one material into the other. The contrast of wood grain, grey cement, and rebar creates a disquieting juxtaposition: the familiar with the impersonal, the domestic with the industrial.
Salcedo also presents the personal items of victims, as in Atrabilious (1992–93), a work in which she encased worn women’s shoes in niches covered by a scrim made of a stretched cow’s bladder. Barely visible, the shoes become surrogates for the disappeared. Explaining her selection of materials for this work, Salcedo said, “I had placed myself exactly [in the circumstances of the victims], with minimal resources and working with the most despicable material you can think of. Something that we all feel repelled by. Cow bladders on one hand, and old shoes. We don’t like old shoes but nevertheless every time we see a shoe on the street we wonder what happened there. It’s the wrong place for that shoe to be.”
In 1999, Salcedo made the first of many public interventions. Responding to the assassination of the Colombian journalist and satirist Jaime Garzón, Salcedo worked with a group of artists to hammer a line of upside down roses on a wall across the street from where Garzón had lived. She soon expanded her practice to closely examine conflict and war in contexts beyond Colombia, as with her public work Untitled (2003), which addresses migration and displacement in Istanbul.
Despite her international outlook, Salcedo has remained engaged with events in her home country. Following a 2016 plebiscite in which Colombians narrowly voted against peace agreements that would have ended the decades-long conflict, Salcedo worked with 100 participants to sew together 2,000 pieces of white cloth—each displaying the name of a victim written in ash—creating a massive canvas, Sumando Ausencias (Adding Absences), that covered Bogotá’s entire Bolívar Square. Speaking about her interventions in the city of Bogotá, Salcedo said, “the important task for an artist here is to try to give society tools of mourning.... Art cannot explain things, but at least art can expose them.”
Madeline Murphy Turner, Cisneros Institute/C-MAP Latin America Fellow