For those familiar with the work of Doris Salcedo, her exhibition ‘The Materiality of Mourning’ at the Harvard Art Museum feels like stepping into a recurring dream. It’s a temporal-spatial purgatory, bereft, with no obvious point of reference except the objects themselves and their accompanying, extensive wall text. Chairs are magnetized together, rose petals reflect like vinyl, and dressers are sideways and capped with tables. After idling between the disparate pieces of furniture, all feels meditative, magical, and somber.
Who would dare to say that what we have destroyed was worth a hundred times more than what we had dreamt and ceaselessly transfigured in murmuring to the ruins? ―René Char
It is dreaming when we forgot that we fell asleep. What Salcedo creates in her work, to a culminating point in this exhibition, is the displacement of memory. Born and based in Bogota, Colombia, her work created in the past decade, exhibited in part here, presents a history of political violence and death through disjointed and broken furniture. This disjunction is most apparent in the first two works on view, both Untitled from 2008. Each is comprised of two dressers, laid on top of one another along with two thirds of a table, and filled in part with cement. Rectangular and imposing, these horizontal sentries of wood and concrete at once guard and memorialize the nameless dead, when considered in tandem with the exhibition text; “The strength required to fuse the imposing furnishings and to burden them with concrete reenacts the force imposed upon the victims of political violence. Salcedo relies on materials to impart emotional weight, and in her exhaustive process…performs an act of remembrance.” The symbolism is general because it is meant to be encompassing, an attempt to remember all those who died or disappeared during the decades of Colombia’s civil war.
Domesticity feels left behind. The dressers are laid on their side as to render them useless, while the tables mounting them are crippled, missing legs and held up only by each dresser’s prone pose. A closer inspection reveals the sides of the dressers do not quite line up with each other or the straight edge of the table, a seeming hesitancy of the furniture to be united as one. The concrete looks freshly poured, rid of errant marks or air bubbles, framed in wood that shows the nicks and scratches of everyday wear. The lack of evidence of the artist’s hand lends an abandoned, dropped-in-the-middle-of-nowhere look, as if the furniture is just as confused as the viewer as to why its here.
A barren, facsimile homage, they conjure anonymous mourning within the viewer, who is left to imagine meals eaten and clothes folded by past owners in another time and land. In this way the furniture is transitive, morphing from Salcedo’s immediate experience of the politically violent Colombian machine as ghosts reincarnated as disinherited and broken shells; a place to hang one’s coat turned over to become a place to imagine another’s death.
When discussing Salcedo’s work, writers refer to the absence signified by the furniture. The chairs seem to point to missing persons and to the unexplained deaths caused by the crushing machine of political turmoil: guerrilla factions, drug cartels, and military dictatorships. This is the horror of war, too. We’ve seen explicit images of the same subject, and therefore can easily see this as the work’s meaning. But it’s our stretch of the imagination, a forced hand by Salcedo, which makes it so. These empty chairs and displaced dressers could belong to anyone we have lost, from political violence or otherwise. It is Salcedo’s insistence through explicatory context that we face these objects with the images and knowledge of atrocity, however indirect. The stubborn quality of these mundane and fragile materials, that stick around and become unhinged from their use, barrage external awareness of political violence into our own lives, substitute Salcedo’s furniture for our own. What does this mourning bring?
Conclusions may be drawn from Salcedo’s last and most direct piece, A Flor de Piel (2013), a phrase that translates directly as “on the surface of the skin” or “the skin of a flower.” This installation holds an idiomatic meaning approximate to an outward display of passion and emotion. The work is a large sheath of carefully stitched rose petals, which have been preserved in a formaldehyde-like substance to become shiny and malleable. To say it is skin-like is an analogy that’s too automatic and short term; it is something closer to veins that spread and overlap to become a forest floor, rhizomatic and beckoning.
A Flor de Piel has become one of Salcedo’s more famous works, being both incredibly specific and empathic. The piece was created in memory of María Cristina Cobo Mahecha who, while travelling on the road from Bogotá on April 19, 2004, was kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered by paramilitaries. A nurse, she was in the midst of her postgraduate studies. In hindsight, she was one of the lights of hope in the decades of a dark civil war, a healer in the world of destruction. Her body was never recovered. Her mother, Paulina Mahecha, is still looking for answers.
Salcedo created A Flor de Piel as a figural shroud and testament to a life whose end was what no one deserves but happens all too often. The rose petals are precisely stitched in triads and hover between life and death, a shadow of their former vibrancy. The red is dusty hue, and its smell is something that doesn’t make sense unless you’ve been in the presence of the dead. The work is meticulous, with a depth of narrative both in inspiration and creation. To encounter it is to encounter the memories of countless unnamed individuals.
As Salcedo has said in a review in The New York Times, “we have lost our ability to mourn.” It’s a loss of perspective, of what a life means or whose work matters. What Salcedo gives to us are physical truths: disinherited chairs and tables, uncomfortable and useless. Therein the telling of our lives becomes a game of telephone, growing unfamiliar with each retelling. Yet it is through memory, and the giving of oneself over to grief that we not only heal, but also grow. Salcedo’s work is ultimately a lesson, subtle and immersive, that also has to be remembered, misremembered, retold, and rethought with each new horror the world reveals.
Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning is on view through April 9, 2017 at The Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts.