Visualizing Absence: Doris Salcedo’s Representations of Disappearances

Written by Danielle Shmuel

Edited by Chloe Ducluzeau and Catriona Reid

Sculptures and installations produced by contemporary Colombian artist Doris Salcedo alter time and atmosphere to create space for grief and visibility. Despite experimenting with multiple aesthetic strategies throughout her career, Salcedo’s sculptural works share a common affect —  that of collective mourning. Pritzker Director of the Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago, Madeleine Grynsztejn described Salcedo’s body of work as possessing the ability to “render a simultaneous and contradictory sense of effacement and emergence, as if participating in the seesaw of forgetting and remembering that often manifests in the wake of shocking and injurious events.”[1]Through physically laborious artistic feats, artworks which redefine the Duchampian notion of the readymade, and works which testify to past injustice without memorialization, Salcedo creates space for those rendered invisible without visualizing violence itself.

Fig. 1. Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios. 1992–2004, Shoes, drywall, paint, wood, animal fiber, and surgical thread, overall dimensions variable. Installation views, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2005.

Works produced by Salcedo express the implications of power and abuse. Her artworks tell the stories of individuals impacted by large-scale conflicts, but do so without differentiating between varying experiences of victimhood — such as those of individuals directly or indirectly impacted.[2]In doing so, the artist “bear[s] legitimate witness to [the] pain and suffering” of all impacted persons.[3]Work by the artist often discusses Colombia’s history of political unrest and turmoil. The mid-twentieth century, a period often referred to as “La Violencia,” was largely shaped by confrontations between liberals and conservatives.[4]These fraught tensions manifested in humanitarian crises involving great civilian displacement, massacres, kidnappings and disappearances.[5]Much of Salcedo’s work focuses on the practice of disappearances whereby civilians are forcibly taken from their communities and later “return[ed] as mutilated corpses in highly visible public places.”[6]These personal histories lack apparent closure and often involve hindered mourning; thus works by Salcedo take up the challenge of visually depicting the personal narratives of those made invisible and, in doing so, invite lamentation and community restoration. In such a way, Salcedo’s works are resistant acts of re-appearance where, rather than documenting tragic crimes themselves, human endurance and coerced absence are made visible.[7]

In her constructive endeavors to visualize the invisible, Salcedo consistently avoids tangible representations of her subjects. Rather, Salcedo’s works function to emphasize the absence of those no longer present, most often expressed through the use of objects indexical of human presence.[8] The artist’s use of trace is apparent in her work, Atrabiliarios (1992–2004) [figs. 1-3]. The work consists of rectangular niches cut into the wall. Each compartment holds worn-in shoes and sits at roughly eye level. Animal fiber is stretched across the opening of each hollow and secured using sewn surgical thread, ultimately obscuring clear visibility of personal effects. The lack of clear exposure is a visual representation of the works’ subject matter, the “mechanisms of hiding and disappearance,” and further showcases how a disappearance involves the “elimination of evidence of its own existence.”[9]

Such confined visual exposure also functions as a means to communicate personal narratives without fetishisation or memorialization.  As art historian Mieke Bal notes, the artist’s decision to use shoes as traces of human presence holds great weight and social connotation.[10]Representational work more generally runs the risk of being perceived through a voyeuristic lens.[11]Works addressing extreme violence, such as Christian Boltanski’s installation Personnes(2010), have often been criticized for spectacularizing mass trauma.[12]While some scholars such as Edlie L. Wong have argued that Atrabiliariospresents shoes as “somewhere between fetish and relic,”[13]Salcedo’s use of limited visual exposure as well as her use of repetition more accurately comes to “acknowledge the individual among the masses.”[14]Bal also suggests that beyond serving an indexical role in Atrabiliarios, the shoes function as a metaphor for vitality as “they have been worn and worn out, have taken the shape of the individual foot and supported the individual walking — or, given the elegance of some of the shoes, dancing — the earth in search of life.”[15]

Salcedo’s artistic decisions in this work remind viewers of the loss of human animation and energy, while avoiding direct assimilation into the sculptural tradition of memorialization. Atrabiliariosis an example of howher works often challenge the contemporary function of monuments.[16]By embedding the shoes in the wall, Salcedo departs from “Western culture’s fetishism of the monument: upright, erect, anthropomorphic, phallic,”[17]and instead employs space as her primary medium.[18]While monuments are socially perceived as “tokens of memory,” their copious social presence and repetitive aesthetic strategies often render monuments the sites of forgetting.[19]Lori Cole, drawing on scholarship by James E. Young, goes so far as to suggest that Salcedo’s works can be viewed as counter-monuments, as they express the contingent relationship between “meaning and memory,” and thus, their inherent impermanence.[20]In this way, works such as Atrabiliariosare non-static entities. As Bal notes, “silence can be active” in the same way that “emptiness can be filled.”[21]Works by Salcedo showcase the ephemeral yet enduring nature of memory by providing active spaces of contemplation, mourning, and visibility.

The stated aim of the artist, to create works which “perform a role similar to that of the funeral oration,”[22]is abundantly clear in Salcedo’s untitled concrete furniture series (1989-2008) [fig. 4-9]. The collections consist of various “permutations of concrete-filled wooden armoires, dressers, beds, and chairs … rendered dysfunctional.”[23]Transitions between wood and cement vary in tone, ranging from seamless connections to rough junctions. This variation relates to the finishing effect applied to the cement; in later years Salcedo favored a less textured application.[24]Regardless of coarseness, the weight of the cement as it engulfs the household items is striking. Keepsakes, such as fragments of clothing, are embedded within the layers of cement, calling to mind the process of entombment. In such a way, “all of these sculptures can be understood to visualize … the torture of being buried alive.”[25]Julie Rodrigues Widholm notes how this visual tension between emergence and descent functions in much the same way as memory; “memories [are] inevitably receding yet constantly recalled.”[26]In a similar way, the furnishings present reside in a liminal space, between absorption and emergence, mimicking the persistent exercise of remembering. 

Fig. 5. Doris Salcedo, Untitledseries, Installation views, 52nd Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, 1995.

Space is a notable facet of Salcedo’s untitled series as it is her play with space that emphasizes her intended affect. In “Seeing Things,” Elizabeth Adan discusses how the untitled series has been displayed in various exhibition spaces. During a Liverpool exhibition within an Anglican Church, “Salcedo positioned several artworks as if to bracket off or enclose a small fraction of the interior, creating a confined space within the otherwise vast expanse of the nave. Some of the sculptures stood apart from others, isolated, cut off, and completely dwarfed by the towering scale of the cathedral.”[27]Here, surrounding space is a facet of the art itself, and such placement encloses the viewer within spatial tension, altering interaction and perception. The audience’s visual access is once again obscured, suggesting that the artwork is not intended for entertainment or simple consumption. Rather, the uncomfortable positioning frames viewers as intruders in the lives of others and insinuates a level of complicity.[28]

Fig. 9. Doris Salcedo, Untitled. 2007, Wooden armoire, wooden chair, concrete, and steel,(100.5 × 200 × 48.5 cm.

Salcedo’s La Casa Viuda III (1994) [fig. 10-11] showcases this facet of the artist’s work. The artwork, often exhibited on both sides of a corridor within an exhibition space, comprises wooden doors, a wooden bed frame, and clothing. Such a presentation implicates the viewer as the only way to proceed with the act of viewing is to walk over the space of the absent mattress. In this way, inactive observation is denied and the audience is obliged to interact with the constructed space of a particular work of art. Works such as this clarify that the artist’s goal is not to “represent mourning, but rather [to] facilitate an experience of mourning itself.”[29]By eliminating the possibility for passive audience spectatorship, Salcedo compels active engagement with her represented subject matter and her artworks become more than static visualizations of horrific events.  

The act of mourning is greatly significant for Salcedo because it is her belief that cultural practices of lamentation speak to the standard with which life is regarded. In her article, “A Work in Mourning,” Salcedo writes of her own artistic aims, expressing that “humanity resides within the devotion or contempt that we assign to our practices, processes, and rituals of mourning. An aesthetic view of death reveals an ethical view of life, and it is for this reason that there is nothing more human than mourning.”[30] Framing grief as a necessary facet of human existence creates an impetus towards communal bereavement, which is significant for Salcedo, as collective lamentation additionally holds the potential for the “forg[ing] and tend[ing]” of societal bonds.[31]This theme is so greatly significant to Salcedo that all works created by the artist share the affect of community grief despite greatly differing visual compositions.

Fig. 12-14. Doris Salcedo,A Flor de Piel (detail below). 2014, Rose petals and thread, 1130 x 640 cm. Installation view, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014.

Salcedo’s recurring employment of familiar household furnishings and personal belongings come to bring new meaning to the Duchampian readymade. In a similar manner to Duchamp, Salcedo frequently employs readymade items which are commonplace and generic by appearance. However, all selected items notably include marks of wear and tear, denoting individual ownership and personal use. Such details highlight the personhood now absent. At times Salcedo even uses objects that once belonged to the people whose absence she attempts to visualize, further serving as “material evidence of those who are absent.”[32]One facet of Duchamp’s art involved posing questions regarding individuality within an ever-growing consumer culture. In dialogue with contributions by Duchamp, Salcedo’s employment of the readymade showcases a “political system that denies the very selfhood Duchamp seeks to critique.”[33]While Duchamp’s art disparages a cultural system where commodity consumption is used to constitute personal identity, Salcedo’s work, through her alternative employment of assets, functions to highlight an environment where such self identification is an unavailable luxury.[34]

Salcedo’s repetition of a multiplicity of materials, both organic and inorganic, come to comprise adistinctive aesthetic. However, visual strategies are employed as a political tool to convey her chosen affect. The appearance of artwork derived from Salcedo’s chosen materiality remains secondary to her work’s primary function, that of facilitated lamentation.[35]Similarly, for Duchamp, aesthetic sensibility holds lesser significance in the art making process.[36]Much of Duchamp’s merit lies in his destabilization of the value granted to the artist’s hand and the practice of mark making in traditional art discourse.[37]Salcedo, however, doesintervene in the artmaking process, despite her use of readymades. Yet, she “is not invested in leaving her signature,” but rather in impacting the broader Colombian societal context.[38]

Artistic handiwork in Salcedo’s work highlights that ambitious artistic feats are accomplished beyond Western art centrums,[39] while also functioning as a means of paying personal respect to the trauma of others. Salcedo insists on maintaining a workshop space in her homeland of Bogotá, showcasing the abilities of those working beyond Western metropolises which most often dominate art discourse.[40] Before any work, the artist undertakes a long period of inquiry and development.[41] This most often begins with collecting personal statements and testimonies from witnesses, victims, and family members. During the fabrication of a work, Salcedo often collaborates with scientists to ensure natural elements within the work are either intentionally preserved or left to deteriorate.[42] Following this planning process, a lengthy period of construction begins.

Salcedo’s A Flor de Piel (2014) [figs. 12-14] is a prime example of a work which, despite its elegance and uncomplicated appearance, required extremely laborious effort to bring into fruition. For this work, Salcedo assembled a large-scale burial shroud constructed entirely from hand-stitched rose petals. The work pays tribute to a nurse who, after a lengthy captivity, was tortured to death in Colombia, and as her body was severely mutilated she was further denied a traditional burial.[43]Katherine Brinson notes a correlation between the visual details of the work and the theme of ritual in her article “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies.” Brinson suggests the decision to create such a cloak fits within a larger cultural tradition surrounding the loss of loved ones. Moreover, the work acknowledges the nurse’s nurturing profession in juxtaposition with the torment inflicted upon her by her captors.[44]Thus, the work is an offering from the artist to the woman, and is intended to communicate the magnitude of the woman’s agony “so visceral[ly] that it would collapse into an object of visual trauma.”[45]This arduous execution functions both as a way for the artist to bear personal witness to the trauma in the story she tells, and to create a work possessing the ability to communicate a high level of suffering to a wide audience.  

Despite themes of suffering and trauma, Salcedo never resorts to the explicit presentations of violence to communicate her chosen narratives. Widholm suggests that there is a deliberate decision on the part of the artist “not to address violence through depictions of battle scenes, victims, or gore, but instead to plumb the emotional and psychological textures of loss, grief, and other after effects of violence.”[46]The power in Salcedo’s work lies in her ability to successfully showcase the lasting impact caused by violence — the absences which linger and haunt. In her visualizations of the individuals and crimes rendered invisible, Salcedo communicates the danger posed by neglected bereavement[47]and actively facilitates collective mourning. Through her contemporary use of the readymade, departure from memorial aesthetics, and personal laborious investment in the art making process, Salcedo creates works with material implications. As mourning in Salcedo’s eyes restores humanity, the public spaces of grief established in her art come to oppose inflicted brutality.[48]Such ramifications constructively acknowledge inflicted harm, and provide necessary steps toward the healing of communities.

[1]Grynsztejn, Madeleine . “Introduction” In Doris Salcedoex. cat, edited by Julie Rodrigues Widholm and Madeleine   

 Grynsztejn, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 12. 

[2]Widholm, Julie Rodrigues. “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo.” In Doris Salcedoex. cat, edited by 

  Julie Rodrigues Widholm and Madeleine Grynsztejn, (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 17.

[3]Grynsztejn, “Introduction,” 13.

[4]Tovar-Restrepo, Marcela, and Clara Irazábal. “Indigenous Women and Violence in Colombia: Agency, Autonomy, and Territoriality.” Latin American Perspectives41, no. 1 (2014): 39. 

[5]Tovar-Restrepo, “Indigenous Women and Violence in Colombia: Agency, Autonomy, and Territoriality,” 39. 

[6]Gill, Lesley. “War and Peace in Colombia.” In Social Analysis: The International Journal of  Social and Cultural Practice, vol. 52, no. 2 (2008): 131.

[7]Widholm,  “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 18.

[8]Molesworth, Helen. “Doris Salcedo’s Readymade Time” In Doris Salcedoex. cat, edited by Julie Rodrigues 

  Widholm and Madeleine Grynsztejn, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 206.

[9]Adan, Elizabeth. “Seeing Things” InDoris Salcedoex. cat, edited by Julie Rodrigues Widholm and Madeleine 

  Grynsztejn, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 34.

[10]Bal, Mieke. Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art(Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  

  2010), 17.

[11]Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art, 27.

[12]Saelan Twerdy, “Activated Contexts: Installation Art ,” lecture.

[13]Wong, Edlie L., “Haunting Absences: Witnessing Loss in Doris Salcedo’s Atrabiliariosand Beyond” In The 

   Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture, edited by Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas, 

    (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), 174.

[14]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 19.

[15]Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art, 16-17.

[16]Wong, “Haunting Absences: Witnessing Loss in Doris Salcedo’s Atrabiliariosand Beyond,” 174.

[17]Molesworth, “Doris Salcedo’s Readymade Time,” 205.

[18]Cole, Lori. “At the Site of State Violence: Doris Salcedo’s and Julieta Hanono’s Memorial Aesthetics” In Arizona 

   Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies,vol. 15 (2011): 87-88.

[19]Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art, 24.

[20]Cole, “At the Site of State Violence: Doris Salcedo’s and Julieta Hanono’s Memorial Aesthetics,” 91.

[21]Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art, 28.

[22]Salcedo, Doris. “A Work in Mourning” In Doris Salcedoex. cat, edited by Julie Rodrigues Widholm and 

    Madeleine Grynsztejn, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 215.

[23]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 21.

[24]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 21.

[25]Adan, Elizabeth. “Seeing Things” InDoris Salcedoex. cat, edited by Julie Rodrigues Widholm and Madeleine 

   Grynsztejn, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 33.

[26]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 22.

[27]Adan, “Seeing Things,35.

[28]Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art, 22.

[29]Brinson, Katherine. “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies” In Doris Salcedoex. cat, edited by Julie 

    Rodrigues Widholm and Madeleine Grynsztejn, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 213.

[30]Salcedo, “A Work in Mourning,” 215.

[31]Brinson, “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies,” 209.

[32]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 21.

[33]Molesworth, “Doris Salcedo’s Readymade Time,” 202.

[34]Molesworth, “Doris Salcedo’s Readymade Time,” 202.

[35]Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art, 4.

[36]Molesworth, “Doris Salcedo’s Readymade Time,” 202.

[37]Saelan Twerdy, “Do It Yourself: Neo-Dada, Fluxus and Happenings,” lecture.

[38]Bal, Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art, 7.

[39]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 19.

[40]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 19.

[41]Brinson, “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies,” 212.

[42]Brinson, “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies,” 212.

[43]Brinson, “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies,” 210.

[44]Brinson, “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies,” 210.

[45]Brinson, “The Muted Drum: Doris Salcedo’s Material Elegies,” 210.

[46]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 18.

[47]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 17-18.

[48]Widholm, “Presenting Absence: The Work of Doris Salcedo,” 19.

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