Doris Salcedo, Untitled, 2008. Wooden table, wooden armoires, concrete, and steel. Private collection. © Doris Salcedo. Photo: Sergio Clavijo; courtesy of the artist and Alexander and Bonin, New York, and White Cube, London
The Harvard Art Museums present Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning, a new special exhibition featuring recent works by Salcedo, an internationally acclaimed artist whose sculpture and installations transform familiar, everyday objects into moving and powerful testimonies of loss and remembrance.
An examination of both mourning and materiality, the exhibition focuses on the last 15 years of Salcedo’s career and the artist’s use of unexpected materials in startling, seemingly impossible ways. Each of Salcedo’s sculptures is a response to political violence and social injustice, and is constructed in such a way that it absorbs the viewer without offering explicit explanation, even for those who have no direct experience of the subject matter. The exhibition was curated by Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums, and is on view in the museums’ Special Exhibitions Gallery from November 4, 2016 through April 9, 2017.
A lifelong resident of Bogotá, Colombia, Salcedo began her career producing works that responded to the testimonies of survivors of oppression and political violence in her home country. In recent years, she has broadened her focus to include victims of civil war and oppression worldwide.
“Doris Salcedo’s subject matter is not unique to Colombia or to the impact of civil war; rather, the themes she addresses are current and applicable across the globe. Her work is absolutely timely, and there is no better place than a university museum to focus on the role that art can play in deepening awareness and understanding of such complex issues,” said Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot of the Harvard Art Museums. “Through this exhibition we invite all to explore these sociopolitical issues, but also to consider how Salcedo engages with sculpture as a medium, responding to and departing from conventions.”
The Materiality of Mourning focuses on key aspects of the artist’s oeuvre since 2001, examining an important group of Salcedo’s recent works and the decisive challenges they pose to sculpture’s traditions. There are four separate installations, with nine objects in total, including monumental cement-and-wood furniture pieces, ghostly cloaks made of thousands of needles, groupings of contorted stainless steel chairs, and a room-size tapestry composed of rose petals.
“By using materials from one’s private, everyday life in unexpected and unsettling ways, Salcedo transforms the familiar into the strange, producing works that speak vividly and powerfully about the issues she addresses,” said Schneider Enriquez. “Salcedo builds complex layers, centimeter by centimeter, a veritable skin bearing the wounds and history of political violence,” she added.
Accomplishing the “impossible”
Since 2008, Salcedo has incorporated organic materials that challenge temporal limits in her works. She has collaborated with scientists and engineers to find ways for soil, grass, rose petals, and other objects to be suspended in a particular, unlikely state in order to express haunting absence and the silence of remembrance. Testing the properties and parameters of these materials, she deliberately blurs the lines between the permanent and the ephemeral, between sculpture and performance, by creating works that are gestures of mourning. Her most recent sculptures convey a presence just on the verge of disappearing—a parallel to how memories of those lost to violence linger even as they threaten to reced
“‘Impossible’ is the word that, for me, defines the creative act, an act in which—as Derrida instructs us—one should do only what is impossible,” states Doris Salcedo in her essay in the accompanying catalogue. “The impossible appears in my work when I need to make the ground cry drops of water that will join together to slowly write the names of those victims whose lives this society refuses to grieve. Or when, against all odds, grass grows underneath a wooden table, or when a shroud is made with rose petals that do not wither. Sometimes my task seems impossible, because each time I need to make a radically different piece to honor the singularity of each and every victim’s experience.”
Works on view
The museums’ recent acquisition A Flor de Piel (2013) is being shown publicly for the first time in this exhibition. A room-size tapestry comprised of thousands of carefully preserved red rose petals, hand-stitched together with waxed thread, the work is intended as a shroud for a nurse who was tortured to death in the Colombian war.
Because of its materiality, shape, and size, A Flor de Piel is a complicated piece for the museums to care for and display; it poses unique challenges for conservators. However, the skill and expertise of staff in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies make the museums the perfect home for such an object. Through intensive discussions with Salcedo’s studio, Narayan Khandekar, senior conservation scientist and director of the Straus Center; Angela Chang, conservator of objects and sculpture and assistant director of the Straus Center; and Schneider Enriquez are exploring how best to protect and care for the work, as they develop plans for its display, storage, and future conservation.
Additional objects in The Materiality of Mourning include a selection of Salcedo’s seminal sculptures, on loan from private and public collections as well as from the artist herself. Several works incorporate domestic furniture in unsettling configurations. Thou-less (2001–02), for instance, is comprised of carved, stainless steel chairs that are at once familiar and strange.
Other works highlight how Salcedo has recently pushed her commitment to materiality and its expressive possibilities to new extremes. These include four works from the Disremembered series (2014–16), individual ephemeral blouse-like sculptures that are constructed of handwoven silk threads filled with tiny needles. Each Disremembered sculpture provides a spectral contrast to Salcedo’s dense, physically imposing works, such as the two Untitled furniture pieces (2008) made of wood, metal, and concrete—with a combined weight of over 1,800 pounds—that will also be shown in the exhibition.