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Colombia’s Violent Past Presented as Stunning Works of Art

This week, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago celebrates the work of conceptual sculptor Doris Salcedo with her first ever retrospective.

Doris Salcedo Installation view, Doris Salcedo Studio, Bogotá, 2013 Photo- Oscar Monsalve Pino Reproduced courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube, London

Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo has the unique talent of being able to turn something innocuous, like a draped sheet or an empty bed, into a meaningful statement on the human condition. This week, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago celebrates the work of this singular artist with her first ever retrospective, which will include not just her greatest hits but also some of her more obscure treasures.


Salcedo first gained recognition in the 1990s for her use of minimalist imagery to highlight global sociopolitical concerns. In the artist’s world, absence, loss, and memory are forever locked in a dance only slightly perceptible to the human eye. Her art works, open to interpretation, act as visual testimonies to both victim and victimizer. The emotional intensity of Salcedo’s work is due in no small part to her own personal history. Several members of her family “disappeared” during particular times of turmoil in Colombia’s often brutal history. As a result, her installations—which can range from an empty hospital bed to a series of unmarked white shirts—are in many ways memorials to loved ones whose absence can be felt in the “unbearable emptiness” they leave behind.

Doris Salcedo A Flor de Piel, 2011–12 Rose petals and thread 257 x 421 1/4 in. (652.8 x 1070 cm) Installation view, White Cube, London, 2012 Photo: Hugo Glendinning Reproduced courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube

Salcedo’s “memory sculptures” are also inspired by the many interviews she’s had with those who’ve borne witness to loss and trauma due to political violence. One of the highlights of the show is Unland (1995–98), a group of three table-like works that are fused together with human hair and silk threads. In the La Casa Viuda series from the early 1990s, Salcedo takes ordinary household items like a chair and table and arranges them into tableaus for victims of the Colombia’s civil war.

Doris Salcedo Untitled, 1998 Wooden cabinet, concrete, steel, and clothing 72 1/4 x 39 x 13 in. (183.5 x 99.5 x 33 cm) Collection of Lisa and John Miller, fractional and promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Photo: David Heald Reproduced courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube, London

The MCA, in addition to the exhibition, is producing a short film documenting Salcedo’s more ephemeral installations, creations that have been destroyed or are otherwise unavailable.

The exhibition travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 26–October 14, 2015.