REVIEW | To Remember is to Imagine: the Work of Doris Salcedo
May 25, 2015
Doris Salcedo Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
“In the case of memory, we are always already in the thick of things.” Edward S. Casey1
Remembering is a diphasic act of how we remember and what we remember. The over-sized sculptures and large-scale installations of Doris Salcedo reflect both aspects of this act and implore us to seek more compassionate ends. Deeply rooted in the social and political landscapes of her native Colombia as well as with a wider, global gaze, Salcedo creates post-minimalist forms that become unspecific, representational recollections, prosthetic memories even, of what has become so familiar and tragic in modern living. There is stillness here, among her works, which is somber, contemplative, and profound. Each work alludes to an absent, missing body, indicative of a greater loss than just the absence of a single individual; but rather, the collective and significant loss and trauma we suffer as families, communities, and countries. This prophetic absence of life, of suffering, and of death is reflected through suggestive icons of our existence and domicile, such as hospital beds, armoires, tables, garments, shoes, and doors impregnated with visceral materials such as concrete, wood, hair, and plaster. As an exhibition, it is, appropriately, suffocating at times, obliterating the senses – each new room a somber echo filled with pervasive and inescapable empathy. Philosopher Edward S. Casey states, “the past alone truly persists, and only what persists is genuinely rememberable.”2 Through the laborious process of remembering, of re-experiencing trauma and loss (whether our own or others), a true understanding of suffering becomes ours at last, and we must remain forever beholden to it. Salcedo’s work begs for precisely that kind of understanding and I am obliged to consent.
Salcedo’s works naturally embody the emotional expressiveness of place, and in particular the horrifically violent landscapes of gang-induced urban conflicts and of socioeconomic divides, accurately depicting the notion that “human beings are expressions of their landscapes.”3 My first introduction and reaction is immediate. As the elevator doors open, I am tackled by the smell of raw earth – an inexplicable waft of dirt, soil, ground. It smells of mold, or rather of a sealed dwelling, with just a tinge of sweetness, bringing nostalgic feelings of home to the surface only to be distorted by the immediate maze of tables I must either navigate or get lost in. There are many ways to enter and make my way through the installation titled Plegaria Muda, some easier (wider) to traverse than others; but I looked for the spaces where I could just fit between the tables, forcing myself to interact with but not disturb what feel like indistinguishable grave markers. It is disorienting and I am easily fully engulfed and surrounded, I now implicitly understand the title.
Plegaria Muda, which translates loosely to “silent prayer,” is a sprawling installation composed of hand-crafted tables (approximately the size and shape of human coffins), inverted one atop the other, with individual blades of live grass growing through holes in their planks from an dense, earthlike layer in between. Beginning with Salcedo’s research into the never-ending gang violence in Los Angeles and in response to her experience of mass graves she visited with grieving mothers in Colombia who were searching for their missing sons, Plegaria Muda counters the anonymity of victims placed in mass graves and asserts the importance of each individual’s proper burial—whether in the United States, Colombia, or elsewhere. There is repetition upon repetition – reflective of the meditative process of the artist; but more importantly, of the eternal internal screenplay of events for the loved ones of past victims as well as those yet to pass as the cycle continues to repeat itself. We can bury feelings and people, with love or indignation; but the memories will elude our best efforts of forgetting.
“…in providing an outward display for things and pathways as they exist within the horizons of landscape, places enable memories to become inwardly inscribed and possessed: made one with the memorial self. The visibility without becomes part of the invisibility within.”4 According to the artist, each blade of grass evokes a sense of optimism: that our imagining and hope are not merely the escape, but precipitate these intensely involving experiences. The devastating feelings of loss are literally sandwiched between two complimentary fates of perception at work here: remembering and imagining. The weight of what is being remembered is grounded in contrast with a thin, sometimes singular suggestion of what could be. It is society on its head, upended and suspended, bitter and unremorseful. And yet, life (referenced by the natural) always wins and goes on regardless.
“In this unique world, everything sensuous that I now originally perceive, everything that I have perceived and which I can now remember or about which others can report to me as what they have perceived or remembered, has its place.”5 A large group of pieces, from her longest ongoing body of work – each titled Untitled, become containers of experiences, inescapable mansions of memories, housed and rooted in urban and rural locations alike. Armoires, chests, and chairs, all recognizable and readily available, reflect a unique physicality through a continuing close collusion with the lifeworld of their experience. Magnanimous and large, filled to capacity (or more) with concrete (and sometimes) clothes, each sculpture is rendered functionless – symbolic of the disruption and constant presence of loss and trauma in private and daily lives. Works are splintered and sheered and haphazardly rejoined, as memories entrenched with associations of place must be, to become items reflective of the shelter and safety the notion of home provides; but now compromised, full, and indifferent.
“…the pivotal phenomenon is place memory, that is, the fact that concrete places retain the past in a way that can be reanimated by our remembering them: a powerful but often neglected form of memory.”6 Indicative of the power of place, La Casa Viuda, roughly translated as “the widowed house,” (resulting from interviews with displaced rural Colombian women forced out of their homes in search of safety) furthers this sense of loss and disruption to the domestic sphere: oversized wooden doors removed from their hinges are fractured and bent to create totems of home; remnants of furniture, petite in scale, suggest the devastating loss of shelter; scraps of lace grasping to butchered bed frames acutely depict the trauma of displacement and how memories of home (and all that it implies) are simultaneously sources of joy, sadness, and longing.
Known for her rigorous and exhaustive research, Salcedo transforms the experiences of victims into sculptures that convey a sense of how their everyday lives are disrupted and impacted by both memory and by hope. “…there are few moments in which we are not steeped in memory; and this immersion includes each step we take, each thought we think, each word we utter. Indeed, every fiber of our bodies, every cell of our brains, holds memories – as does everything physical outside bodies and brains, even those inanimate objects that bear the marks of their past histories upon them in mute profusion.“7
Unland, a group of three separate yet associated works: Unland: the orphan’s tunic, Unland: irreversible witness, and Unland: audible in the mouth, encompass this manic immersion of memory as Salcedo individually combined dissimilar tables, sewing them together with human hair and raw silk through thousands of tiny holes drilled through each surface. Made in response to interviews with orphaned children who witnessed the murder of their parents, Unland: the orphan’s tunic, presents utilitarian tables held together with delicate sutures and it is devastatingly sad. The mass of hair and failing pieces of fabric fanatically sewn through both surfaces, evoke heartbreak and empathy for an individual (a child) who must try to repair an unimaginable break. Frenetically, as I would picture a prisoner clawing at the walls of a cell, each stitch is a reminder, a scar, of how this type of trauma and displacement can both consume in its madness yet compel us to press on.
Part of the power of Salcedo’s work, is her use of singular items, either substantial in size and scale to overwhelm the physicality of the viewer or in measured repetitive forms that devastate the viewer by sheer number. Untitled, eleven stacks of cotton shirts cast in plaster and impaled by steel rebar, are just such an example – “…an impression of reflection: a vivid image functions as an intermediate mental entity that, though itself an idea, can also stimulate emotions.”8 Each shirt, a reference to a worker massacred on banana plantations in the north of Colombia in the late 1980’s, graphically depicts the brutality in these deaths and measures the loss of human life – suggestive that as there are more to come as the stacks do not reach the top of their supports. In forcing me to reckon with loss on such a scale, Salcedo captures the helplessness felt by these types of events – even to those who are empathetic, there seems to be no way to end the strings of violence or the cycles of mourning we have and continue to endure.
“The way that the past is relived in memory assures that it will be transfigured in subtle and significant ways.”9 The lingering, profound pain caused by a disappearance or a sudden death: the lack of closure, the desperate need to cling to hope, the unending questions – these are all recalled in Atrabiliarios. Shoes, mostly women’s, are encased within the gallery walls behind a layer of stretched and preserved animal fiber, which is methodically affixed to the wall with medical sutures. Serving as memorials to victims who were often identified by only their shoes (particularly those designated as “los desaparecidos” or the disappeared), each semi-translucent niche again denigrates the individual to whom they were directly connected, a singular reminder of both the fragility of existence and the power of legacy (even if it is unidentified).
As I make my way back through Plegaria Muda to exit (the poignant use of this work as both entry and exit is not lost on me), I resolve that we (as a society) are somewhere in between the past and the future Salcedo depicts and longs for. To avoid collectively forgetting we contemplate, memorialize, and commemorate the lost; we are intrinsically rooted and paralyzed in and by a horrific and unforgettable past. A past that is infinitely present. The philosopher Plato wrote, “Mnemosyne [memory], a supernatural power, has been interiorized so as to become in man the very faculty of knowing.” I submit thus, that the primary role of memory is to bring inquirers from a state of ignorance into a state of knowledge, and memory, thus, becomes that function of knowledge: to remember is to imagine. The works of Doris Salcedo, as both reminders and prompts, serve just such a function.
Doris Salcedo, the first retrospective featuring all major bodies of work from the artist’s thirty-year career—most of which have never been shown together before—as well as the US debut of her recent major work Plegaria Muda, is now closed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; but, it travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 26–October 14, 2015, and the Pérez Art Museum, Miami, April 20–July 17, 2016. To view more in-depth information about the works presented at MCA Chicago, view: http://www3.mcachicago.org/2015/salcedo
*Author’s note: additional works in the exhibition, though not reviewed here are worthy of consideration, include: A Flor de Piel: a monumental “shroud” composed entirely of preserved rose petals sutured together to honor a Colombian nurse who was kidnapped, tortured, and denied proper funerary rites – it is fragile and imposing in its scale and suffocation of space. Thou-less: steel casts of wooden chairs with wood grain hand-etched into the steel, continue to reference the body through furniture – appearing vulnerable, fragile, yet resilient. Dis-remembered (Salcedo’s newest body of work): three sculptures made of woven raw silk and nearly 12,000 needles, developed out of years of research into what Salcedo perceives to be society’s inability to mourn – beautifully oscillating between the visible versus the invisible, memory versus the present, and danger versus protection. And lastly, Untitled: some of her earliest works composed of hospital furniture, animal fibers, and plaster are excellent starting points to enter Salcedo’s densely conceptual arena.
Footnotes:1 Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 41; 2 Edward S. Casey, 41; 3 Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel. (New York: Dutton, 1969), 156; 4 Edward S. Casey, 213; 5 Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgment (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1975), 163; 6 Edward S. Casey, preface, xi; 7 Edward S. Casey, preface, xix; 8 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967); 9 Edward S. Casey, preface, xxii
Bibliography: Apostle, Hippocrates G. (transl.) Aristotle’s Physics. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1969.; Casey, Edward S. Imagining: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.; Casey, Edward S. Remembering: A Phenomenological Study. Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.; Durrell, Lawrence. Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel. New York: Dutton, 1969.; Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.; Husserl, Edmund. Experience and Judgment (Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1975.