Doris Salcedo is one of the very few artists capable of expressing in art the horrors that political violence inflicts on humanity. And she has done so consistently over the past decades, unremittingly and entirely free of sentimental kitsch. Her indictment is full of deep mourning but without ever lapsing into pathos, and she impressively infuses the silence caused by human absence with an unexpected eloquence. In comparison to reality, she once referred to her work as a «Song of Impotence»: That, to be sure, is a stark understatement.
«Art cannot heal, but art can restore human dignity that has been lost.» To this day Doris Salcedo’s works remain true to this motto. She makes room for the victims and haves us listen to their laments. With her outstanding artistic ability, she illustrates the indescribable and gives expression to the unspeakable.
Doris Salcedo’s art generally relates to an existing reality; her works are best described as «memorials». Her more intimate groups of works and her stationary, large-scale outdoor works alike have in common a universal character that reaches far beyond local contexts and exposes the extent to which violence deforms life. Tenderness and its vulnerability to threat are always physically present in her works, where negation and dysfunctionality stand as metaphors for phenomena such as displacement, torture, and segregation.
Many of her works have a monumental appearance, but they are nevertheless highly subtle in detail. There is hardly a square inch that is not aesthetically thought through. Everything has meaning and function and is elaborated with the greatest possible precision. And what is more, her art also possesses an utter degree of quality in terms of painting and sculptural accomplishment. All of this adds up to a unique appeal, logically leading to the contentual, atmospheric, and emotional overall effect of each individual work. The realization of the artist’s intention thus requires a maximum of conceptual precision—no wonder that Doris Salcedo drove flocks of technicians and curators to despair with her sophisticated logistics!
She reflects her high standards in her own words: «Public works need precision which excludes improvisation.» And: «When I am able to make a piece and give it a life independent from the artist, then it is a successful work.» Her meticulous approach was already evident in her work for the Istanbul Biennial in 2003: She stacked more than 1,500 simple, used wooden chairs into a small space between two buildings to address the history of migration and displacement in Istanbul, symbolizing chaos and absence at the same time.
«Shibboleth» was another major success: Salcedo created an over 150-meter-long crack snaking the length of the floor in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, starting as a hairline crack and expanding to a depth of two feet at the other end. The resulting negative space, a subtly yet harshly cut fissure, was like a wound that could be linked to racial hatred, immigration, and segregation.
«Palimpsesto», at Palacio de Cristal in Madrid in 2017, referred to all those immigrants who have drowned as refugees in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in recent years. Written on stone slabs on the floor of the building, the evenly spaced names of the dead stood out like pearls of water gleaming and glistening in the sunlight like tears. For all that, the work was not a bit melodramatic, subject as it was to the artist’s formalistically cool creative mind. The violence was palpable and yet remained invisible: «I want to make people cry.»
«Fragmentos» was created in 2017 in Bogotá as a monument to the peace just recently negotiated with the Guerrilla: The work consists of three spaces that share a floor made with the molten metal of the weapons surrendered by former FARC guerillas. At first, the viewer hardly notices to be walking on melted down machine guns; but the very moment that brings awareness of this fact changes the perception entirely… This extraordinarily sensuous effect runs like a common thread through all of Doris Salcedo’s art, although often concealed by the intense emotional and political charge and not always as immediately obvious as in this work.
A flor de piel
Another highly sensuous and poetic work by Doris Salcedo is «A flor de piel» from 2014. Forty people worked for two years to produce this «shroud» dedicated to the victims of torture. Thousands and thousands of rose petals are sewn together with microscopic stitches, their surface having been treated to retain texture and color: they remain suspended between the animate and the inanimate. The immense fragility, the bear helplessness of the human body is expressed here more intensely than in any other of her works. The (burial) shroud of splendid and lavish opulence looks moist and delicate. On the one hand, there is the earthly beauty of blood and life pulsating under the skin (a flor de piel), captured in the enchanting colors and fine veins of the rose petals, on the other hand, the spread out shroud that is insufficient to cover even the smallest fraction of the dead to be buried… «It was at the outer limits of fragility that I encountered a vulnerable body.»
When I once asked Doris Salcedo what beauty meant to her, she replied: «In my work I manage to approach the lack of beauty and show its absence. That is probably the nearest I get to beauty.»—which is another tremendous understatement!