• Review

  • May 26th, 2015 05.26.2015

    Under the Skin: Doris Salcedo at MCA Chicago


    Silence—this is the overpowering impression that haunts viewers walking through the galleries of Columbian-born artist Doris Salcedo’s work, which just recently closed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Salcedo’s 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 achieved with a mastery manifested in the curatorial direction of the exhibition that stages her work with effortless grace. Each sculpture on view in this retrospective—the artist’s first in the United States—suggests an internal composure, calm, balance, and utter maturity, sometimes bravery, in the face of death, homicide, and genocide.

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

    The exhibition at MCA opens with Plegaria Muda (which loosely translates to Silent Prayer)—an arresting and compelling piece that immediately confronts viewers. This artwork, which comprised of over one hundred pairs of overturned rectangular wooden tables, their tops bookended by a slab of earth, was begun by the artist after researching gang violence in LA. 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, their austere muteness acts as a gesture towards an image coffins row on row, an allusion that is enhanced by the live earth trapped between them. The multitude and sameness with which Plegaria Muda presents itself to the viewer echoes the multitude and sameness of the deaths incurring in gang violence; in the public eye, these pieces are similarly unimportant, and equally anonymous. While the affect is somber, 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.

    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 has said that “sculpture is its materiality”.1 It is therefore not much of a surprise that the solemn presence of her sculptural practice vastly rests on the simplicity and bareness of the materials of which the objects are made out of. It is through Salcedo’s attention to materials and the obliteration of the human form in her iconography that the artist produces aesthetic experiences that humbly invite reflection and remembrance.

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

    At the MCA retrospective, this approach becomes key in works that deliberately beg the viewer to lean closer and inspect details, such as Disremembered (2014) a cloth made of woven silk incorporating 12000 steel needles. Here, Salcedo astutely plays with surrealist notions of the uncanny, but carefully bypasses any sensationalism or shock value—the affect of her work is subtle and understated, but sharp and poignant at the same time. Atrabiliarios (1992–2004) is a similarly striking installation—in this installation, a number of niches run at eye level around the room. In each recessed space, there is contained a pair of women’s shoes, barely visible behind a veil of animal fiber that rests flush with the wall. This experience of seeing reduces the object to a suffused two-dimensional image reminiscent of Richter’s blurred paintings. We learn that the shoes 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 between the narrative and its representation is explored through the blur; specific to memory and time, the mutual attempt of both Richter and Salcedo’s act of representation is to recover memories, and allow them to impact upon the present.

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

    A Flor de Piel (2014), which translates into Under the Skin, is ambiguously suspended between life and death. A vast sheet of rose petals appears thin and frail, installed on the gallery floor. Each petal is firmly stitched together in a cloth that unfolds 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; performing the essence of a funerary ritual, which was denied to the subject, Salcedo simultaneously embodies the typical draping of a shroud for mass public viewers to experience.

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

    Despite the recurrent themes of death, injustice, violence, and corruption, Salcedo’s work is strangely uplifting. Perhaps this affect is a result of the stern resilience it proposes, or its calm and synthetic aesthetics. But most importantly her work represents a quiet form of resistance—capable of speaking volumes through the uttering of very few restrained and meaningful words.

    Doris Salcedo at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago runs through May 24, 2015.

    1. Salcedo, D. Interview with Carlos Basualdo in Doris Salcedo, Edited by Nancy Princenthal, Carlos Basualdo and Andreas Huyssen (London: Phaidon, 2000), 21