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Disremembered; Unforgotten

Salcedo’s work plays witness to the victims of political violence, and displays an unwavering faith in the power of art to assert itself against violence of any kind.

Doris Salcedo has spent over 30 years interviewing and working with victims of political violence in her native Colombia. Through this rigorous and very personal research, the work she creates is immensely powerful, speaking through an unbearable silence for the people and absences she represents. Acts of Mourning at the Irish Museum of Modern Art this summer shows six of Salcedo’s most moving works, creating a show that is almost frightening in the strength of its message.

Tabula Rasa III, Doris Salcedo, 2018, Wood, 83.3 x 150 x 79.3 cm, © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Ollie Hammick)

There is an eerie stillness and silence in Salcedo’s work that purposely negates the acts of violence in which each work is rooted. Plegaria Muda is displayed in a large, narrow room; twenty-eight long, hand-made tables stand, each one with a duplicate table lying on top of it. The space between each ‘pair’ of tables is filled with cement and earth, with slender blades of grass growing slowly and silently through tiny gaps in the wood of the upper tables. The effect is unsettling; the tables are coffin-sized and their placement winds a path through the space that is akin to wandering through a graveyard. Each piece is sealed and marked as if a funeral has taken place. The grass grows silently during the exhibition; its greenness stands out against the brown wood of the tables, it seems to speak of hope, but the anonymity of the tables reflects the piece’s name; that is a silent prayer.

There are layers of meaning and emotion in Salcedo’s work that defy rationalisation. To recount how Plegaria Muda pays homage to missing Colombians reportedly killed in exchange for government bounties is to provide just one interpretation of the work. To learn that the tables are made from the wood of demolished houses in Bogotá uncovers another. But the silence surrounding Plegaria Muda is so palpable, and the grass contrasts so brightly with the soil of the tables, that it is impossible not to feel the unfathomable emptiness is represents, and further explanation seems superfluous.

In two small rooms off the main corridor is a new work by Salcedo – Tabula Rasa. It is a reflection of Salcedo’s dedication to the three years she spent interviewing rape victims, in order to understand how they continue to live in a world in which rape is normalised. On the surface, the work is simple – five tables have been unmercifully smashed to tiny, tiny fragments and meticulously put back together again; each table at first appears whole, but a closer look reveals the thousands of pieces that each table it made of. The work is incredibly powerful; the tables speak as a metaphor for women’s bodies – ever-serving – while their state of being whole but at the same time fragmented represents a superficial wholeness that betrays the women’s fragility.

Atrabiliarios, Doris Salcedo, 1996, Wall installation with drywall, shoes, cow bladder and surgical thread (one niche), 120 x 67.5 cm, © the artist. Courtesy White Cube

An equally powerful piece – Atrabiliarios – is unsettling, exuding a sense of suffocation. Shoes have been placed in four niches in the museum wall. But the shoes are trapped, because covering them is a layer of animal skin, stitched to the wall in large, rough sutures. The animal hide is semi-translucent, so the shoes are only partly visible through it – it’s as if a hand has been placed over a mouth, negating its ability to speak. All of Salcedo’s work speaks about death, but it does so by very deliberately not speaking about it. Her message is clear; her work does not represent the violence perpetrated – rather it acknowledges those who have suffered violence, both singly and universally. She does this so that audiences may feel something of what the victims she represents have suffered, and perhaps, history and its cruel acts may not be repeated.

Delicate and almost ghostly, Disremembered is made of four blouses delicately woven in raw silk threads, each garment shot through with tiny black needles. The effect is something like an intensely fragile instrument of torture, with the ghostly shape of each blouse tracing pain in its folds and pleats. Again, the work evokes suffering and a violent death without reproducing or representing the act itself – the act of resistance performed through it is a silent one, but it is no less powerful for it.

Disremembered VIII, Doris Salcedo, 2016, Sewing needles and silk thread, 88 x 43 x 12 cm, © the artist. Courtesy White Cube

This sense of unlived lives continues in Untitled (Furniture Works), made of domestic furniture, mutilated and filled with cement. A chair has been drilled through with long metal rods and the empty space of the chair has been filled with grey, dull, heavy cement. There’s a feeling of suffocation in the piece, an obvious feeling of being buried in cement, but also a feeling of lives extinguished, chairs no longer occupied by bodies, and furniture no longer making part of a home.

Salcedo’s work plays witness to the victims of political violence, and displays an unwavering faith in the power of art to assert itself against violence of any kind. Her work has its origins in large-scale political crimes, but has also been inspired by individual injustices. The last work in this exhibition, is a fragment of A Flor de Piel II, a huge sheet made of thousands of rose petals which have been treated in an elaborate preservation process and stitched together, made in mourning for a nurse who was tortured to death in the Colombian war. The effect is strangely autumnal, but also slightly unpleasant; with a plastic texture belying the natural origin of its petals. Thus, the material is in a sort of state of suspension, as it its decaying process has been suspended half-way, it will be stuck in this state of semi-decay forever.

A Flor de Piel, Doris Salcedo, 2011-2012, Rose petals and thread, approx. 627 x 1100 cm, © the artist. photo © White Cube (Ben Westoby)

Salcedo herself admits that her work, in particular interviewing victims of political violence, has taken a physical and emotional toll on her – this is not surprising, since she has spent all of her career concentrating on this one subject; the interpretation of the experience of these victims. Her work continues to speak of the multitude of absences created by violence and creates a space for the mourning of personal and universal loss.

Doris Salcedo, Acts of Mourning is on at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin until 21 July.

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