Alejandra de Argos by Elena Cué

Doris Salcedo: Art as a Scar

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian





"Literature is writing from the heart, not the head." Great literature is written from the edge. So V.S Naipaul’s father advised his son, recently arrived at Oxford and before he became who he is today, one of the world’s greatest writers and Nobel Prize for Literature 2001.

Doris Salcedo (Bogotá, Colombia -1958) does exactly this; She sculpts from her heart, her innerness, herself. She is a narrator of pain, the pain of people broken by the unexplained absence of a loved one, by the crude outlines of wounds left by the bodies of those who are no longer here.

This sculptor, or “maker of objects” as she prefers to call herself, lives alongside the unfettered displaycase of terror that exists in Colombia, alongside the political drama and images in the face of which official history remains silent. It’s a not entirely uneasy juxtaposition. Photographs of bodies mutilated by chainsaws, sordid kidnaps and planned “disapperances”. In Colombia there are so many, far too many empty coffins.

What Salcedo does is travel to conflict zones, settle there for weeks or months, however long it takes, sometimes years, alongside the families suffering the loss of their loved ones, of any loved one, a daughter searching for her mother, a mother searching for her little girl.

She never tapes their testimony. She listens, she lets them pace out their emotions, she registers the frequency of fear, peers into the void along with them, slowly sketches the nightmare in their minds, joins in their searches for bodies, knows the textured panic and far-off gaze of a mother beside a mass grave whose child may (or may not be) buried there. Salcedo, however, eludes literal violence, not being interested in revisiting either the tragedy or the concrete facts. She prefers to be a hearsay/hearsee witness. She stores and catalogues these experiences, unassimilated, and inhabits them for a time, aligned with poetry and philosophy, until, from the most artistic hemisphere of her brain, the agony of those left behind can be made tangible. 

Her initial original discourse, that spoke of the tension between life and death, has now turned towards the spectral world in which are circumscribed the lives of those undergoing tragedy and those who are forever separated form their loved ones, towards that other world through which relatives of the disappeared wander.  For this reason, her sculptures have become more metaphorical, almost abstract, because what starts off from a poetic discourse then opens out as an inroad into the depths of our feelings, whilst forcing the spectator towards intuition, doubt and also the search for answers in her art.

"I don’t believe an image in and of itself, reproduced, dispersed,  can stop violence. I don’t think art has that ability. Art doesn’t rescue. I don’t believe aesthetic redemption exists, unfortunately. I think that, as regards art, one cannot talk of any impact, let alone social impact, and least of all political impact; and only a very weak, minimal impact on aesthetics. (...) What art CAN do is create an emotional connection that communicates the victim’s experience. It’s as if the victim’s destroyed life, cut short at the time of the murder, might or could in some way continue within the spectator’s experience."

(Public Reason, Art, Memory and Violence, March 2013)


 IMG 1619

The Widowed House (1992-1994) Installation. Wood, cement, steel.





Doris Salcedo has lived with women and observed their daily ritual of setting the table and dishing up dinner for a relative, a husband, a father who will never return. A daily rite they perform in the patient hope that the ghostworld of the disappeared will one day return their unburied ones to them.


It is for this reason that she takes the memories of the victims, their voices and their tears into such dear and close account. She turns to everday objects like shoes, tables, wardrobes or chairs, now emptied of their occupants, discorporate, vacated, and through these symbols creates the picturification of absence. As in The Widowed House (1992 – 94), she dismantles the normal what-we-know meaning of furniture. She draws us into another dimension, that of sorrow, mourning, that of a time of waiting in a cold place where tables are no longer the focal point of a family kitchen but are traversed by cupboards that have absorbed cement; where a sheet is made of rose petals; a town square adorned with candles at dusk; a building whose outside walls weep chairs.


Where burial grounds are table tops giving life to life. Where a 167 metre long faultline of jagged frissure fingers its way along the floor of a room in the heart of the art world, of the first world, of capitalism. Where doorframes recall the men who were dragged through them from their homes before being killed at dawn.


The brutality of the 1980s is one of the hardest in Colombia’s recent history, with hundreds of unidentified and unsolved, unnamed crimes. In 1990 Salcedo exhibited the installation piece entitled Untitled/Shows of Sorrow. Neat mounds of perfectly pressed and folded white shirts, each one filled with plaster and every pile pierced through by a pointed metal rod. By their side, six bedsteads, two of them upright, angled against the wall and draped with dried animal entrails. This commemorates the banana plantation labourers killed by paramilitaries, dragged from their beds while they slept: some were shot in front of their families inside the home and some outside. Their wives, eyewitnesses to the massacre, in a patient and painstaking show of sorrow,  still launder and starch their husbands’ white cotton shirts, conscientiously ironing and stacking them away, for the day, one day, their husbands return to wear them, in their coffins.


The cold plaster represents the tomb, the laundry protocol yet another unbodied space.


It is in this piece that the secondary witness begins to take centre stage: she  who remained behind, the woman who saw her husband being killed and lived on: the witness who survived.


"Violence creates images, continuously and continually. The paramilitaries left us with terrible images. Violence furnishs those unconscionable images of violence. I think one function of art is to counteract that imagery. And in doing so, to balance out the brutality surrounding us in this country.


"To give you an idea, Guernica was bombed, as were many other towns: however, the only one we remember is Guernica, because a pictoral record exists which humanizes the outright inhumanity of the bombing mission.


An image can do that, not by narrating exactly what happened, or giving consolation to the victim or aiding or easing their grief. No, never that, but it does dignify all of us as human beings. And that is a fitting memorial.”



 IMG 1618 

“Untitled” / Shows of Sorrow (1989-1990). Both photographs. Installation. Cotton shirts, plaster and steel.



Doris Salcedo is a woman of robust physical appearance full of contrasts. Her pale complexion frames dark eyes absorbed in the effort required for long hours of work, the heavy burden of drama, the most tragic of testimonies. Her greying hair dwarfs an oval face that, at times, though rarely, is lit up by a wide and generously long smile. But her whole physical self seems designed to match her voice, a captivating voice, very engaging, very musical, with a beautiful Colombian accent and a gentle tempo.  She often closes her eyes and settles into a silence that would enthrall whoever’s listening,  until she finds the exact term, the right word or the most poetic turn of phrase.


It is vital to her that in every utterance she tries to communicate from the very depths of her soul. Sometimes, in this closing of her eyes, one gets an inkling of the pain her soul feels and the murmur of harrowing testimonies.


When she introduces herself, she likes to say that she has the wrong passport. She’s a woman, born in the third world, she speaks Colombian Spanish, she knows what it is to feel excluded, marginalised, she has experienced racism although not directly. She believes, also, that the rest of the world only sees her homeland as a brutal country that produces little more than violence and narco trafficking.


Readers will be aware that Colombia is a fine country, a country to be admired. Run through, admittedly, by the steel rod of Doris Salcedo’s sculpture. A growing number of Colombians and Europeans, mainly Spaniards, hope that the  open negotiations between Colombian Institutions and FARC reach their peace-keeping goals. For this reaosn Doris Salcedo is able to transform those wrong roots y convert them into something positive. She says that being Colombian comes with huge experiential baggage but that, oddly, also makes her free.  There are no large museums in Colombia, nor are there any art collections. Knowledge of the history of art comes only from books, which results in it being more theoretical, more wordy, more vague.


Salcedo has only ever worked in  Colombia. Her 25 years in a studio would only be conceivable in her birthplace. But she makes the most of her every trip, every contact with beauty and the museums of the world. From Rome she once explained: “On Sunday, after a whole day in the MAXXI, setting up my exhibition, I felt tired and worried. I thought I needed to see Caravaggio before the day’s end. So I walked to Santa María del Popolo church where there are two of his masterpieces: The Conversion of St Paul On The Road To Damascus and The Crucifiction of St Peter. Mozart’s Requiem was playing in the background. What could be more perfect? At the moment I’m working on a new piece to present at the White Cube Gallery in London next May. Without Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa, it wouldn’t have been possible to do that.”



 IMG 1616

Doris Salcedo outside the Palace of Justice in Bogota.



It’s 2015 and this is Doris Salcedo’s year. On 21 February the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago inaugurated a retrospective of her work.


On 26 June the exhibition moved to the Guggenheim in New York and from  6 May 2016 it will be at the  Pérez Art Museum in Miami. Few Latin American artists have had such recognition. Salcedo, also, was the eighth artist to exhibit in the Turbine Hall of  the Tate Modern and, after Juan Muñoz,  only the second Spanish-speaking artist selected to do so.


In 2010 she was awarded the Velázquez Visual Arts prize. Over the last decade,  her work has been exhibited in the MoMA New York, the Pompidou Centre Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Reina Sofía Arts Centre Madrid and at the XXIV Biennial in Sao Paulo, Documenta 11 in Kassel and the VIII International Biennial in Istambul.


In the words of Carlos Basualdo, one of seven curators at Documenta 11, Salcedo’s work is key in that it represents a series of useful interventions for the history of contemporary sculpture. "Her oeuvre covering particular events is both of the moment and universal despite its obvious connection to events in Colombia.” 




Doris Salcedo first studied painting and, for a short time, was attracted to the theatre before devoting herself entirely to sculpture in the 80s.


In 1984 she completed a Fine Arts Master at New York University where she discovered the work of Joseph Beuys: "His work revealed to me the concept of social sculpture, the possibility of shaping society through art." Studying Beuys’ work, and her own experience being a foreigner in the city, awakened her interest in sculpture’s political dimension. On graduating, she returned to Bogotá to teach sculpture and art theory at the National University of Colombia.


 IMG 1609 November 6 - 7 (2002). Installation.





Shortly after returning to Colombia in 1985, the Palace of Justice was stormed by M19 guerrillas. On the morning of 6 November, she was working only a few feet from where the massacre happened, a massacre which changed the message that Doris Salcedo wanted to get across about Colombian reality. In 2002 she put on an installation at the Palace of Justice which comprised the gradual and meticulously staggered hanging of 280 chairs from its walls. This lasted 53 hours, the same duration as the seige and its start coinciding with the exact time the first victim was killed.


A collaborator on the day says this about how the installation happened: "The limits of violence seemed to be lost at that time in Colombia. The idea was to follow the timescale of the seige. We started at 11.35am because that was the time they killed the first person. We had various objects being lowered down the facade at different intervals and rhythms. Synchronisation was  very important. And time was the essential element for this piece that would last just 53 hours, the same duration as the seige. The running order was between 300 and 400 pages long. Each sheet set out how and for how long each specific pattern was to be achieved.  That day we did a performance under Doris’s direction. She was outside, down on the street, directing us from below and we were upstairs, making it all work. Everything was labelled and there was a numerical order we had to follow, like with a musical score you read and play. I was a young boy when it happened in 1985. My memory is very hazy but, through this piece, it became part of my biography or of my biographical memory.”




The titles of Doris Salcedo’s work  could arguably  be classed as poetic. Skin Deep, The Widowed House, The Orphan’s Tunic, Silent Prayer, similar versions of which can be found in the poetry of Paul Celan. Salcedo evokes his poems and quotes them often, for instance Shibboleth and In Eins. Paul Celan, a Romanian of Jewish descent born in 1920, was one of the great post-war poets. When the Second World War broke out, he returned to Romania where he was sentenced to hard labour while his parents died in a concentration camp. His verse conjures up extermination.


"Celan believed that only the language of poetry could help us to enter into the environs of evil, into the vicinity of absolute injustice (...). Because only by means of intuition and metaphor, only through the intensity of a lyrical image, could we ever hope to understand a crime.”


These words by Fernando García de Cortázar describe the link between Celan and Salcedo, between the evidence of Auschwitz and Colombian crime. From 1965 on,  Celan was admitted time after time to a psychiatric hospital where he wrote in Hebrew and, ultimately, in 1970, took his own life by leaping into the Seine.



 IMG 1606

Shibboleth (2007-2008) Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.



Shibboleth (2007-2008) is perhaps the most universal and devastating of Salcedo’s output, part of the Tate Modern’s cycle of projects wherein artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor or Olafur Eliasson were commissioned to exhibit their work in the Turbine Hall. Shibboleth is a project on a monumental scale. It is a linear crack  167 meters long and 70 centimeters deep that rips across the floor of the Turbine Hall.


The monumental nature of the work as regards its interaction with architecture is there to see. A collaborator explains: "There was a tiny crack in the floor at the Tate which Doris noticed on her first visit and decided to make this the source of this piece. Every centimeter was hand drawn by Doris. We researched cracks. We examined the edges, the inside walls above ground, in cement, on buildings. We looked like a crazy gang in the street staring at cracks in walls and floors.  The next step was to figure out how to construct a readymade crack and export that to London. We decided on a metal structure, similar to how a brick is made but in the shape of a rock. We moulded the steel following the exact shape of the stone, then poured in the cement. The final result was the cast, with steel mesh embedded in it and its opposite twin.  


We made 320 meters worth of cement because we had to do both faces of the crack. Everything turned out almost exactly as we’d planned but the image, the result, is something you can’t even begin to imagine until you see it.”


With this piece, Salcedo wanted to create a metaphor using biblical legend to highlight the exclusions faced by those of the third world as opposed to those of the first.


"I come from Colombia, a country full of the ruins that are the legacy of wars, imperialism and colonialism. That dictated my perspective. I am a third world artist. It is from that perspective, from the victim’s perspective, from the perspective of defeated nations, that I look at the world. For this reason my work doesn’t represent “something”. It is simply an insinuation of something. It is about trying to bring into being something that is no longer here. In this sense it’s subtle.”




Shibboleth is the Hebrew word for "ear of corn" and plays a crucial part in a story from the Book Of Judges . Chapter 12 tells the story of two warring Hebrew tribes which culminates in the genocide of 42,000 members of the Efraim tribe after crossing the river Jordan in search of salvation. The Efraimites were distinguishable to their enemies by their inability to pronounce the “sh” sound and gave themselves away by mispronouncing this staple of their diet as Sibboleth with an “s”. So the word serves as a metaphor for the exclusion of an outgroup by ingroup speakers of any one particular language. And furthermore for segregation and borders.




 "When I went to see the space before thinking about the piece, what struck me was the attitude of the people there.  Everyone was looking up and feeling that it was an astonishing size. I just thought: “It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a modernist, industrial space. It’s not like being in St Sophia cathedral or dwarfed by the pyramids in Egypt.”


But people seemed to be under that impression which I thought was incredibly narcissistic. What I wanted to do was turn this perspective on its head so instead of looking up, I’d force them to look down ... I wanted to inscribe something chaotic on this modernist and rationalist building, something that made the space negative. Because I think there’s a bottomless gulf that divides the human from the inhuman,  the whites from the non-whites. I wanted to highlightthis rift which I thought was best observed in the history of modernity. When one reads about Modern History, one would think it was a uniquely European event. And the idea of colonialism, as well as imperialism, is marginalised, to say the least. I wanted this racism narrative to take centre stage because I think racism is the untold dark chapter of Modern History. So I wanted this crack to split the building in two and rip through it almost like a non-white immigrant barging into the monotony and consensus of white society.”


With this fissure, Salcedo means to take us to the centre of the rupture of all things ordered, the whole gamut of fragmentations: social, racial, aesthetic, sexual, geopolitical, cultural. It’s the antithesis in meaning of those walls constructed in recent history all over the world: the Berlin Wall, the concrete ‘barriers’ annexing the occupied Gazza Strip and West Bank ... With regard to its artistic significance, the Shibboleth crack means “too many things”, as Borges remarked, when he referred to it as an archetype that has accompanied humanity for millennia.


And now would be a good time to return to the poet Celan. There are too many words resonating deep inside us on a barely-there faint Hebrew line between Shibboleth and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem: the exodus, extermination, the final solution, the image of the cattle trains supplying Jews to the concentration camps, torture, cold, the prisoners’ emaciated bodies, Buchenwald, Dachau ... The 27 January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 


The Israeli architect Moshe Safdie rose to the challenge of designing a new Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem which was inaugurated in 2005 and was awarded the Prince of Asturias Concord prize in 2007. Arrow-shaped, Yad Vashem pierces the hill of memory as would a splinter in our thumb: it doesn’t budge, a tiny little black dot, encouraging us to extract it from under our skin with tweezers. But no tweezers exist that can easily remove Yad Vashem once seen and in our head. Its design, like a cement ship in the form of a prism that juts into the mountain only to jut out as a huge skylight onto the Isreali sky,  constitutes one of the most awe-inspiring impressions a museum can offer. The feeling of oppression under the triangular roof, the gentle slope downwards of the floor and then its gentle rise  upwards, towards the exit, towards the light, the absence of windows, the choice to only use bare reinforced concrete, grey and cold, throughout the museum, create a sensation of claustrophobia and oppression similar to what one would feel in the underground passageways of a mine.


Thesame as the Turbine Hall in London, the cement floor of the museum is broken up, as if by an earthquake. In Yad Vashem, these gaps are actually glass display cases  one can look down into, much as Salcedo forces us to do with hers in London, if we’re looking for answers.  In Jerusalem, the shiver that runs through our body only chills more on discovering that those glass covers are really cases full of hundreds of children’s shoes from the Nazi Holocaust.  A “Defiances” (Atrabiliarios 1992) that predates Salcedo’s but still talks of the same universal torture, only this time somewhat closer to the Mediterranean Sea.


 IMG 1845 Glass cases in the floor of Yad Vashem, Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem


 IMG 1620 

Yad Vashem, Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem


For “Defiances” (Atrabiliarios) 1992, exhibited in the White Cube gallery in London, Salcedo spent nearly three years listening to relatives of the disappeared: that cruel politically motivated phenomenon of forced disappearance and the hole left by the victims’ belongings. She studied the way in which families related to these objects, now souvenirs, hoping their owners will return for them, unable to let them go.

Relatives donated shoes the victims had once worn, and these were Salcedo’s catalyst for “Defiances”. Her intuition inspired her to bore twenty little alcoves into the wall and place the shoes inside. “Colombia is the country of unburied death, of the unmarked grave.”  So a pair of white shoes, that might be a bride’s from  her wedding day or a Sunday afternoon tea-dance, are displayed in a tailormade tomb, shrine-like, and partially obscured from our view by a thin membrane of animal skin roughly sutured to the wall with black surgical thread. Wound, fissure, burial, exposure ... 

As Salcedo explained at Harvard, “When the specator gives the work a moment of silent contemplation, in that moment and only in that moment, is when the emotional connection happens ... Art has enormous power: the power to take back control of life, of humanity, of life that has been profaned.”


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 “Defiances” Atrabiliarios (1992) Installation. Shoes, animal skin


In 1997, and within the Unland series, came The Orpan’s Tunic. Behind this work is the story of a six year old girl. Every time Salcedo went to visit her, the little girl was wearing the exact same dress. Some time later she learnt that this was the dress her mother had handstitched for her and the one she was wearing the day her mother and father were killed in front of her. Here, the public think they are seeing an everyday object. A table. However, it soon becomes apparent that it is in fact two different tables, joined, with the smaller brown half slotting under the wider white one. Up close, one can see the tiny holes through which human hair has been painstakingly threaded, ending in a border where the hairs are directly threaded into the wood. Salcedo’s work is always meticulous, time-consuming, highly detailed. ”Of course it’s insane, it’s absurd – comments an assistant to Salcedo – And it’s an enormous waste of time and energy. A team of 15 people worked on these pieces every day for 3 years.  It reminded me of Paul Celan when he said: “It is only the absurd that shows the presence of what is human.”  But here too it had a connection with the squandering  of lives. “It was the peak period of paramilitary massacres in Colombia. It was my way of showing how life could be wasted. But at the same time, how something poetic could come out of it, some proof of our human presence, of  the victims’ humanity, of the fragility of life and the  brutality of power. I think everything was here in this gesture, sewing hair through wood.”


  IMG 1601  

Unland. The Orphan’s Tunic (1997) Wood, human hair, silk.


Skin Deep (2012-2014) is a huge swathe of material in shades of ochre and red, its soft folds falling on the floor of the White Cube gallery, flooding it almost, like a soft-waved sea. That’s all. Except silence. As always happens with Salcedo’s work, after the initial impact, after the query and the doubt, we see that the fabric is made up of millions of rose petals, sewn and knotted together one by one with surgical thread. An efemeral work, it will ultimately perish as a rose will. A video explains the arduous process involved for those petals, the chemical process of immersion in a glycerine and collagen solution to give them the malleability and durability necessary for them to be stitched, one by one, into pieces that would then be ironed in gigantic, custom-made presses. Despite all this, the fragility of the material is total. Salcedo explains how this fragility, which almost makes it untouchable, which requires one to breathe more softly near it, all this is intimately related to its meaning.  In order to dignify a person, it’s vital to return to beauty. Transforming pain into beauty is, however, quite perverse.

Frequently in Colombia, the body becomes a battleground. Skin Deep is the hommage Salcedo pays to the body of a woman, a nurse by profession, tortured, killed and finally cut into pieces. The offering of millions of petals sewn together, the delicacy, the wound, the life of a nurse stitching up wounds with a needle, a rosy complexion, the surgical thread, the tweezers, the pain, the bruised skin, the superimposed petals, the flesh, the rose, the vulnerability, death. The skin, a mutilated, disjointed body being put back together is something we don’t look at, we show respect. It is one woman’s subtle tribute to another, in women’s language. To hear Salcedo talk of this work is to hear her voice soften and slow, to see her eyes close on the horror and sorrow, til she finds the most respectful words: “ In the same way that we don’t look at a wound.”


 IMG 1611 Skin Deep. (2012) Rose petals and thread.


In July 2014, Salcedo received the Hiroshima prize, an acknowledgement awarded every three years in remembrance of the victims of the first atomic bomb. This prize honours those artists whose work is in pursuit of “the search for permanent peace”.


“What is dying in an attempt to cross the border? The word that defines my work is impotence. I am completely impotent. I feel I’m responsible for everything that happens and I always get wherever it is too late. I can’t give anybody back their father or son. I can’t solve any problems. I can’t do anything. It’s a lack of power. But as someone  who lacks power, I stand up to those who have it and use it to manipulate lives.”

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)


- Doris Salcedo: Art as a Scar -                                  - Alejandra de Argos -


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