Doris Salcedo's Powerful Retrospective at the MCA Chicago

03/17/2015 02:34 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015

Doris Salcedo, Noviembre 6 y 7, 2002. Ephemeral public project, Palace of Justice, Bogotá, 2002. Courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube. Photo: Sergio Clavijo.

"In some cases it is a hopeless act of mourning."

Doris Salcedo knows well art's inability to effect social change. Her sculptures and installations, as powerful as they are, will not change the course of history in her native Colombia, end wars, or stop the drain of everyday violence. In the artist's view, they are merely mute objects, with no agency in and of themselves. Their power, however, lies in their silence, and in the affective space between object and viewer, drawing out a feeling of collective loss and shared humanity, while pointing to humanity's greatest tragedies: war, mass displacement, and genocide.

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (detail), 2008-10. Inhotim Collection, Brazil. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Doris Salcedo, the artist's first retrospective, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, inhabits the entire fourth floor of the museum, and brings together a remarkable collection of works, some exhibited together for the first time, in an unprecedented view of the artist's 30-year career. Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is confronted with what at first may appear to be a storage room containing a collection of ordinary tables stacked on top of each other, but which is revealed, upon closer inspection, to be one of Salcedo's poetic collisions of everyday materials. Each table holds several inches of black, raw earth, its potential for growth seemingly stymied by the surface of the second table covering it, yet slender blades of grass, miraculously, find their way up, defiantly growing through the underside of the table. As with every work of art by Salcedo, the background story of the work intensifies its impact. Entitled Plegaria Muda (2008-10), loosely translated as "silent prayer," the tables, coffin-sized, recall the horror of anonymous mass graves found in the Colombian countryside. Salcedo visited these graves along with grieving mothers seeking the bodies of their lost sons.

Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Doris Salcedo, Untitled, 1998. Collection of Lisa and John Miller, fractional and promised gift to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube. Photo: David Heald.

Crucially, Salcedo's work does not manifest itself in the woeful wails of grief, but rather in the dull ache of loss. There is a quiet restraint in her delicate and dolorous abstract representations of the bodies of the dead and the disappeared. In Salcedo's works, space, void, and absence become filled with meaning, and sometimes with physical materials that evoke the weight of absence. Where once human bodies sat, the spaces under and on top of chairs are filled in with concrete, made unusable. Loss becomes concrete: wardrobes, sometimes still containing the clothes of long lost loved ones, locked forever, filled up with the dull grey, impenetrable stuff.

Doris Salcedo, Unland: the orphan's tunic, 1997. "la Caixa" Contemporary Art Collection. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Doris Salcedo, Unland: the orphan's tunic (detail), 1997. "la Caixa" Contemporary Art Collection. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

But though the artist's gestures may seem minimal, the painstaking labor involved precludes any accusations she may be exploiting the trauma of her subject. After speaking with orphans in northern Colombia who had each witnessed the murder of their parents, Salcedo crafted a startling metaphor--she and her small team of assistants joined together two different wooden tables, binding them with threads of human hair and raw silk sewn through thousands of small holes drilled in the tables--a broken surface held together by the merest of threads, the accumulation of a thousand small gestures. She made two more of these tables, and titled them Unland (1995-98), a term she uses to evoke the feeling of displacement. In another work, in response to the story of a Colombian nurse who had overcome great obstacles in her life only to suffer and eventually die from the torture inflicted upon her by her kidnappers, Salcedo created a room-sized shroud of rose petals, individually, penitently, hand-stitched together. A Flor de Piel (2011-12) "started with the simple intention of making a flower offering to a victim of torture," Salcedo explains, "in an attempt to perform the funerary ritual that was denied to her." The laboriousness of Salcedo's work becomes, as MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn recently put it, a kind of "artistic atonement." Perhaps it is one way she justifies the "perverse" action, as Salcedo herself calls it, of making art from trauma, from turning "pain into beauty."

Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel, 2011-12. Installation view, White Cube, London, 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby.

Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel (detail), 2011-12. Installation view, White Cube, London, 2012. Photo: Ben Westoby.

For Salcedo, stitches and sutures, wood and concrete, operate like Joseph Beuys's felt and fat. Salcedo's work bears a distinct indebtedness to the German artist's notion of "social sculpture," which she learned about when studying at New York University in the 1980s. "I work with materials that are already charged with significance, with a meaning they have acquired in the practice of everyday life," she said in an interview with Carlos Basualdo, "Used materials are profoundly human; they all bespeak the presence of a human being..." Salcedo's materials are defined by their everyday contact with human bodies--clothing, bed frames, doors, chairs, cribs--and operate as stand-ins for individuals. In Atrabiliarios (1992-2004), the missing bodies of desaparecidos (the disappeared) are signified by pairs of shoes, partially obscured, as though frozen in time and memory, behind screens of semi-translucent animal skins.

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (detail), 1992-2004. 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's work, however, does not solely engage with the pain of personal tragedy and loss, it presents this pain, multiplied, in the face of the political powers that enable it. In such cases, Salcedo uses sheer quantity to convey the scope of injustice and tragedy suffered by whole communities in the face of repressive political regimes and a culture of disregard. In 2002, Salcedo performed a public intervention, entitled Noviembre 6 y 7, across the face of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá on the anniversary of a deadly siege and massacre between M-19 guerrillas and the government. To mark each death from that day in 1985, Salcedo lowered approximately 280 wooden chairs over the side of the roof, suspending them across the walls, eventually covering the building with a web of empty chairs. In 2003, in Istanbul, Salcedo stacked 1,550 wooden chairs nearly three stories high in the space between two buildings, and in 2007, Salcedo sent a 548-foot long crack across the floor of the Tate's Turbine Hall in London and coordinated the lighting of 24,000 candles in the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá. Each cruel death, each disappearance is a heavy weight, but presented en masse, the gruesome reality of mass murder, civil war, and violence becomes a crushing burden. As Grynsztejn writes in the exhibition catalogue's introduction, these interventions that cross into the public arena thrust the issues into the realm of public responsibility, "to directly confront what many willingly veil or actively forget." In that space, perhaps mourning isn't so hopeless a gesture.

Doris Salcedo, Untitled, 2003. Ephemeral public project, 8th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, 2003. Courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube. Photo: Sergio Clavijo.

Doris Salcedo, Acción de Duelo, July 3, 2007. Ephemeral public project, Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá, 2007. Courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube. Photo: Juan Fernando Castro.

The MCA Chicago, recognizing the vital importance of Salcedo's public interventions, like the ones described above, to the understanding of her oeuvre, has produced a documentary covering her site-specific and large-scale ephemeral works of art. The film is presented in a devoted video and reading room located midway through the exhibition and has also been made available online. The exhibition is up in Chicago through May 24, where it will then travel on to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, June 26 - October 14, 2015, and finally the Pérez Art Museum Miami, May 6 - October 23, 2016.

Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth, 2007. Installation view, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, 2007. Courtesy of the artist; Alexander and Bonin, New York; and White Cube. Photo: Sergio Clavijo.

--Natalie Hegert