Doris Salcedo: Under the Skin
Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Feb 21st- May 24th
By GIOVANNI ALOI, JUN. 2015
Silence - through the galleries at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago this is the overpowering impression that haunts visitors. In Doris Salcedo’s first ever retrospective, sculptures appear equally defined by the materiality that constituted them and the silence that wrapped them. Her sculptures reverberate like the calm after the storm—they stand like ruins—memories of events and people that have tragically left empty spaces behind them. This impressive effect is however achieved with a mastery manifested in the artist’s ability to stage her work with effortless grace. Each sculpture suggests an internal composure, calm, balance, and utter maturity, sometimes bravery, in the face of death, homicide, and genocide. Miles away from the eye-catchy and strident work of many contemporary artists who regularly compete for attention through shock tactics that at times propose little substance underneath appearances, Salcedo’s work is directly connected to the political and social events that shape the world we live in.
Over the past thirty years, the artist’s body of work has focused on the process of mourning, and more specifically, on what Salcedo calls “an inability to mourn” that affects today. This contemporary aspect of the human condition, one introduced in artistic discourses by Roy Lichtenstein and in philosophical ones by Jean-François Lyotard, deeply alienates us. The bombardment of multiple images and texts which we are exposed to on a daily basis paradoxically enables us to quickly forget traumatic events that albeit geographically far from us, nonetheles reverberate in our everyday lives. It is because of these invisible connections that Salcedo’s sculptural forms have largely focused on everyday objects: chairs, items of clothing, tables… On this account, here work is inextricably linked to Duchamp’s own choice of readymade objects—they all directly allude to the absent human body or to parts of the human body. This explicit absence is however key: in Salcedo’s work, objects appear to possess an elusive charge that exudes from their humble materiality, and which is amplified by the solemn but minimalist way in which they are situated in the gallery space.
The exhibition at MOCA opens with Plegaria Muda (‘Silent Prayer’)—a truly arresting and compelling piece on many accounts. This artwork comprises of over one hundred pairs of rectangular wooden tables in which the tops of the furniture units bookend a slab of earth. The artist began working on it after researching gang violence in LA. The piece thus materialized from Salcedo’s desire to challenge the lack of empathy with which the regular deaths occurring in this context are treated by society. The tables approximate the size of a human body. One inverted upon the other, in their austere muteness, they gesture towards images coffins, especially because of the slab of earth that is trapped between them. The multitude and sameness with which they present themselves to the viewer resounds with the multitude and sameness of the deaths incurring in gang violence: in the public eye, these are similarly unimportant and equally anonymous. However, this prayer has a positive, redeeming passage to it: closer inspection reveals the presence of small blades of grass growing from the bare underside of the tabletops: a symbol of hope, life, and regeneration. As charged as monograms, these aesthetically muted sculptures materially incorporate dead wood, as well as living grass; they gesture towards the act of eating, but also to the horizontality of death.
Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (detail), 1992-2004. Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase:gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein, Patricia and Raoul Kennedy, Elaine McKeon, Lisa and John Miller, Chara Schreyer and Gordon Freund, and Robin Wright. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Salcedo said that “sculpture is its materiality”. It is therefore not much of a surprise to notice that the solemn presence of her sculptural pieces vastly rests on the simplicity and bareness of the materials of which the objects on display are made of. The artist claims that the materials she uses are “already charged with significance, with a meaning they have acquired in the practice of everyday life”. It is through this attention to materials and the obliteration of the human form in her iconography that the artist produces visceral aesthetic experiences that humbly invite reflection and remembrance. Simultaneously, the artist wisely bypasses the melodramatic traditions of mourning that have characterized past histories of painting and sculpture. In opposition, Salcedo’s gestures embody a minimalism and care that reconnects the work with a personal scale, even when the pieces she creates are monumental, like in the case of many public installations such as Shibboleth which took place at Tate Modern in 2007, or her Installation for the 8th Istanbul Biennale, of 2003. Her work in fact oscillates between opposed aesthetics of miniature and infinite magnitude, producing a very personal range of sublime scales enhanced by the ever-present political undertone that pins her every gestures.
At the MOCA retrospective, this approach becomes more apparent in works of art that deliberately beg the viewer to lean closer and inspect details. This is especially true of Disremembered (2014) a cloth made of woven silk incorporating 12000 steel needles. Salcedo astutely plays with surrealist notions of the uncanny, but carefully bypassing any sensationalism or shock value—everything is subtle and understated but sharp and poignant at the same time.
Atrabiliarios (1992-2004) is also a striking installation—deeply harrowing in its poetic simplicity. A number of niches run at eye level around the room. Each contains a pair of women’s shoes made barely visible by a veil of animal fiber which reduces the object to a suffused two-dimensional image reminiscent of Richter’s blurred paintings. The shoes that are contained in Salcedo’s niches are placeholders for the missing human bodies of women who have disappeared in violent circumstances. Here too, like in Gerhard Richter, the relationship explored through the blur is one specific to memory and time and like in some of Richter’s paintings, the point of the representation is to recover memories to allow them to impact upon the present.
Salcedo has made no mystery of the importance which materiality plays in her work, it is therefore interesting to notice that degradable animal fiber, and vegetal matter also regularly appear in her body work. Animal skin has been used in the artist’s work as a translucent membrane—a natural filter suggesting permeability and porosity between the subject and the world. Like other materials and elements in Salcedo’s work, the skin is uncomfortably suspended between life and death; it is utterly fragile; it bears the memory of a living being whilst being desiccated and therefore having lost its sensitivity to being touched. In a way, these translucent membranes stitched to the wall, mostly allude to human skin and the radical degree of objectification, which is regularly entailed by the idea of possessing one’s own skin.
Vegetal matter takes instead center place right at the end of the exhibition where a shroud composed of thousands of rose petals stitched together occupies most part of the gallery floor. A Flor de Piel (2014) which translates into ‘under the skin’ is also ambiguously suspended between life and death. The rose petals appear thin and frail, yet they are firmly stitched together and fold on the floor with a naturalness typical of silk. The piece came to life as a response to the death of a Columbian nurse who was tortured to death. The piece thus performs the essence of a funerary ritual which was denied to her whilst simultaneously embodying the coloring of blood and the draping typical of funerary shrouding cloths.
Despite the recurrent themes of death, injustice, violence, and corruption, Salcedo’s work is ultimately strangely uplifting, perhaps because of the stern resilience it proposes, or maybe because of the calm and synthetic aesthetics which is capable of speaking volumes through the uttering of very few restrained and meaningful words. But most importantly her work represents a form of resistance—a plea to empathize with victims of injustice and to remember their deaths for the purpose of building better politics and better societies. WM
 Salcedo, D. Interview with Carlos Basualdo in Doris Salcedo, Edited by Nancy Princenthal, Carlos Basualdo and Andreas Huyssen (London: Phaidon, 2000), 21
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.