In this monthly feature, Vanessa Silvera highlights a figure in the arts who inspires her
My muse is… Doris Salcedo
She is… Born in 1958, Doris Salcedo is a Colombian-based visual and installation artist. Her work primarily engages with Colombia’s recent political history as well as her own experiences, in particular in relation to the country’s ongoing civil war between the government, guerrilla groups, and drug cartels fighting for territorial control. Over the past five decades, the conflict has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian murders and disappearances, and more than five million internally displaced persons. Among the disappeared were members from her own family, exemplifying the inseparability between politics and life. She resides in its capital, Bogotá, noting how the city’s charged atmosphere allows for the production of art. She employs everyday materials including, but not limited to, household furniture, textiles, concrete, glass, and rose petals. Key themes addressed in her work are trauma, loss, and mourning, both in an individual and a collective sense. She aims to commemorate the victims of the conflict, serving as a form of closure to their families and communities while also serving as a stark reminder of the horrors of warfare.
I first learned about her when… I first heard about Salcedo as I was doing research on possible dissertation topics. I have been curious about modern and contemporary Latin American art since it has been gaining a lot of traction lately. Nonetheless, academia has been a little slower to catch up. As much as I love the curriculum offered by the University’s School of Art History, it is admittedly quite Eurocentric and I was ready to broaden my horizons. Since Latin American art is quite broad in scope, I decided to hone in on Colombian art and, from there, I came across Salcedo’s work. Immediately, I recognized an image of her installation titled Istanbul, the one with the stacked chairs, but had no idea she was the mastermind behind it. While I have never had the privilege of experiencing her work firsthand (and hope to do so as soon as travel becomes safer), solely learning about them has been incredibly moving. Not only do her works function as a record of Colombian history, but she also treats them as ‘acts of mourning.’ By acknowledging the past, society can collectively heal from the trauma inflicted upon them.
Salcedo, Shibboleth, 2007. Image(s): Wikipedia
I am obsessed because… Part of the reason I am fascinated with Salcedo’s work is because, being of Colombian descent, the issues she raises hit close to home. However, you obviously do not have to be Colombian in order to enjoy or feel the power behind her works. Through the use of personal and national context, she evokes universal themes formative of the human experience. Life and death, forgetting and memory, trauma, and healing are all pervasive in her work, even if at first glance it may not seem so. For those who appreciate art for its aesthetic qualities, her eye-catching and visually striking works, especially her ‘memory’ sculptures and installations, will not disappoint. But the only way to understand why I’m obsessed is to check out the work yourself.
My favorite work by her is… This is a tough one, but I would have to go with Shibboleth (2007). Installed in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, it consists of a 167 metre-long fissure running along the ground, marking the first time any artist has physically altered the space. While simple in design and execution, its ambiguity in meaning lends to several different interpretations. The crack could represent a blow to the very foundations of the museum or the art establishment, or internal divisions within her homeland as a byproduct of the conflict. Or it could take on a more postcolonial reading, representing a history of racism and the racial wealth gap between the Global North and the Global South. When the show came to a close, the flooring was restored, but a mark remains, which I thought was just brilliant and further heightened the work’s effect.
Salcedo, Untitled, 2003. Image(s): MCA Chicago
The work by her you have to check out ... For those of you unfamiliar with Salcedo, I would recommend starting with perhaps her best-known installation, Untitled, she contributed to the 8th International Istanbul Biennial. Conceptualized in 2003, 1,550 wooden chairs are piled atop one another in between two unremarkable buildings in the heart of the Turkish metropolis. Four years later, her influence can be seen in Ai Weiwei’s installation Fairytale, which also used chairs to produce a memory effect as a commentary on Chinese displacement. According to Salcedo, she was “reminded of mass graves. Of anonymous victims. I think of both chaos and absence, two effects of wartime violence… And in a situation of war, we all experience it in much the same way, either as a victim or perpetrator. So I’m not narrating a particular story. I’m just addressing experiences.”