Doris Salcedo (Bogotá, 1958) is one of most prestigious and influential female sculptors working today. Her objects and assemblages consist of furniture, chairs, tables, wardrobes, cabinets, and other domestic artifacts, such as textiles, which are reconfigured by the artist into memorials for victims of violence and injustice. For Salcedo, the previous histories of the found objects charge her works with an inherent sense of narrative and memory, and it is her role as an artist to retrieve their stories. Like a sensitive archaeologist, the sculptor excavates objects that retain the residual imprint of the events that took place around them, and in a symbolic sense, were witness to them. Salcedo attempts to transform what is merely visible and physical to become emotional and reflective. The artist restores a spiritual sense of presence to these objects, and in so doing, renders poetic justice to the violence in her native Colombia.
Silence plays a great part in the theater of the sculptures of Doris Salcedo. This quality, which might bluntly -and perhaps incompletely- be described as the absence of sound, is for the artist, a presence of memory. Her series, La Casa Viuda (the Widow-House) (1992-1995), is a testament to the victims of the Colombian Civil War, an ongoing conflict between the Colombian Government, peasant guerrillas and other paramilitary groups that has, so far, claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since the 1960s. While in her country the news and media cover this event with bombast and hysteria, Salcedo prefers to employ a much more substantial, less hyperbolic approach. She creates objects that might resemble effigies or shrines, by re-arranging ordinary household furniture, using concrete and non-traditional substances such as hair, bones, and skin to construct artifacts designed to enable contemplation and silent reflection on violent history.
A very distinctive voice is heard in her wall-piece Atrabiliarios (1996), where several shoes, sometimes in pairs, sometimes single, are placed within four niches in a wall; the concavities are covered with cow bladder and stitched with surgical thread. The precision and economy with which the sculptor executed the piece is effective because it makes a strong historical reference through metaphor. The opacity of the dried flesh, translucent as a live pupa, is a vague, ambiguous thing that covers the vestige of a human body. The dead flesh is threaded through with surgical thread, in the fragile way in which victims are hidden from memory. Yet the stitched cow bladder is simultaneously menacing, as though it serves to isolate this corporeal remnant in a form of repression. The word ‘atrabiliario’ is no longer used in Spanish, but was once used to mean hotheaded or belligerent, often in reference to civil conflict. Thus, the artist develops an aesthetically cold, yet disturbing piece that becomes politically charged without being didactic or morally self-righteous.
In his essay titled “The Uncanny,” pioneering Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud explained a phenomenon which he labeled “Das Unheimlich,” a German expression which is literally translated as the ‘un-homely’, its opposite being ‘Heimlich’, the homely or familiar. The uncanny, according to Freud, occurs in situations where something familiar evokes a sense of dread, or where something perceived as strange gives a sense of belonging or comfort. Both of these experiences may be characterized as uncanny, and in both instances the perceiver feels a general sense of malaise and anxiety. The sculptures of Doris Salcedo are an interesting example of how artworks become ‘uncanny’. By displacing domesticated effigies and reconfiguring them in disjointed, unfamiliar forms, the artist creates a sense of unrevealed dread, a lethargic threat, like the sound of a gun being cocked, or a knife being sharpened on a whetstone; sounds that by their very familiarity become impregnated with the anticipation of danger.
For this reason, Salcedo was the eighth artist invited to create a sculpture for the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall Unilever series. In her installation titled Shibboleth (2007), a large crack in the floor’s concrete is visible along the length of the massive hall. The crack is a deep chasm that divides the hall, and along parts where the gorge is deeper, mesh wires are exposed amidst the concrete. This sculpture, for Salcedo, symbolises the divide that immigrants from poorer countries attempt to cross when traversing the borders of wealthier nations. The modern world is dependent upon immigrants and their labor, yet continues, according to Salcedo, to exploit and ignore them, and does not live up to democratic ideals of tolerance and commonwealth.
A shibboleth is an expression or custom that helps differentiate a particular group from outsiders, a specialized knowledge that is used to distinguish one group from those perceived as ‘others.’ Salcedo has chosen to create a work that is polemic, and reflects upon the difficulties facing our modern world: while we have become aware of different cultures and races, it is still largely a world of have and have-nots. We continue to speak of progress and global democracy, while borders and divisions reflect the inadequacies and restrictions that are put in place by groups in power to those bereft of any. The modern world, according to Salcedo, is composed of shibboleths, and her artworks compel the public to acquire the perspective of the less fortunate.
Although Salcedo is a formalist sculptor with an interest in the emotive properties of her materials, she also admits to having a political scope for her art. The artist expands the viewer’s understanding of the term ‘sculpture’ by suggesting that just as the physical qualities, i.e. weight and durability, present in concrete help to create meaning, the symbolic and historical significance of a shoe or other found object are profoundly important when considering what form her sculptures will take. Objects and sculptures can be constructed, for Salcedo, to pose moral questions about human events of serious relevance.