At the Guggenheim, Doris Salcedo Bears Witness to Gun Crimes in Cities Near and Far
The opening of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York came with eerie timing—just days after the Charleston shootings wracked the country and prompted a nationwide reflection on the state of racism and gun violence within its borders. Known for her poetic meditations on suffering, loss, and memory, Salcedo has for some 30 years dedicated her practice to creating collective spaces for mourning.
The exhibition is installed, at the artist’s request, in the Guggenheim’s hermetic tower galleries, away from the its airy rotunda. Here, tucked into discrete spaces where the works can better gestate and invite private, concentrated encounters with their weighty subject matter, the show begins with Plegaria Muda (2008–10), a room crowded with rows of wooden tables laid in pairs one on top of the other and sandwiched together with a layer of earth, fragile blades of grass growing miraculously through them. They resemble a mass grave or an overgrown memorial site.
Yet the strange prescience of Salcedo’s retrospective, which travels to the Guggenheim from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where it was co-curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn and Julie Rodrigues Widholm, gives way in the face of her work’s reminder that politically driven violence and atrocities continue with unrelenting frequency in regions near and far. Salcedo takes on the burdensome task of channeling the grief of her subjects—whether the families of activists assassinated by Colombian death squads or the victims of gun crimes in Los Angeles and Chicago, among many others—and approaches the job with an emotional directness and clarity that is unusual in an art-making era of clever, conceptual tricks and ironic gestures. At a press preview for the exhibition, curator Katherine Brinson aptly remarked on the “uncompromising, urgent, and infinitely lyrical” quality of the work, and the artist’s ability to “conjure the texture of human suffering and evoke the hollowed lives of survivors.”
Among the pieces on view is Atrabiliarios (1992–2004), a roomful of shoes embedded into niches in the gallery walls, which are covered in a layer of animal hide, stitched coarsely like surgical sutures onto either side of the openings. The installation eloquently (and disturbingly) fuses the psychological and physical experiences of grief, and conjures Holocaust imagery. They suggest buried spaces of the unconscious housing the memories of lost ones, or bodily scars, the carnal manifestation of suffering. Almost as visceral, a series of untitled works (1989/90/2013) consists of piles of starched white shirts impaled by metal rods, memorializing the 1988 massacres at two banana plantations in Colombia by paramilitary groups. Her most recent series, “Disremembered” (2014), three delicate, glinting shrouds hung from a wall, are made entirely from burnt needles and raw silk. Both beautiful and painful to behold, they are a response to a series of interviews the artist conducted with mothers of children who have lost their lives to gun violence.
In another room, found furniture is glutted with pours of concrete that spill from drawers and solidify shirts and other forgotten items, rendering them silent and functionless. In this space, as in others, the presentation of works is claustrophobic. Navigating the objects, viewers are forced into close proximity with what feel like the deeply personal vestiges of trauma. In one wooden closet with a glass-paneled door, elements of garments surface, barely visible amid the cabinet’s concrete fill. Psychologists have posited that, for those suffering the experience of trauma, there is no present, only past and future. These lifeless, still objects convey that psychic state resoundingly.
How does a curator approach such loaded subjects? Is there an impulse to soften the experience for viewers? Brinson says, “No, I think we always want to have the upmost respect for the artist’s vision and the intelligent and thoughtful responses of our visitors. This is work that is uncompromising and implacable in confronting loss and the idea of creating public spaces of mourning. I think that our visitors will embrace that and be deeply moved by the exhibition.”
Yet the impact on the viewer, while sobering, is also one of catharsis, an emotional process that is true to the act of mourning. In the last gallery of Salcedo’s retrospective, viewers find a massive, rippling carpet of red rose petals, A Flor de Piel (2014), which, through the artist’s scientific experiments, have had their process of decomposition interrupted in order to preserve their reddish color. They are locked into a burnt auburn hue and appear to have the rubbery texture of fruit leather or animal hide. The work, a tribute to a nurse who was tortured to death in Colombia, has the connotations of blood or skin, but also of flowers or a blanket of fallen leaves on a forest floor. Its effect is both unsettling and soothing, serving to memorialize the brutal circumstances of one woman’s death and lay her to rest with a sprawling funeral drape of sorts.
The Guggenheim’s exhibition continues the sustained spotlight of the museum (and of the art world at large) on the work of Latin American artists in recent years. “That attention to the region is overdue and essential and we have a number of initiatives here at the Guggenheim, including our collaboration with the UBS, which has focused on the region,” says Brinson. “But in terms of Doris’s work, I see her as an international artist. Of course, at times, her work does engage very closely with the political landscape and legacy of trauma represented in her native country. But I see her work as very universal in its subject matter. It speaks to issues that are urgent in any culture, any country.”