By José Peña Loyola
December 4, 2020
In 2015, Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s elegiac work filled the four tower galleries of the Guggenheim Museum. Since the 1980s Salcedo’s practice has grappled with the traumas of colonialism and racism embedded in her country’s social history—violence, suffering, and death from the drug trade and gang warfare stemming. Her work manages to unflinchingly confront these horrors at the same time as it memorializes and elevates the victims, all while never giving way to the saccharine or the sentimental. Salcedo bestows to the dead the dignity of which they were robbed by crueler hands.
In his essayistic review of Doris Salcedo from early 2016, writer José Peña Loyola (class of 2016), addresses the qualities of mourning inherent in the artist’s work in equally contemplative and poetic prose. In this deeply personal piece, he walks through the exhibition with his mother as they each, in their own ways, consider Salcedo’s powerful work. “My mother always taught me to have an attitude toward death that requires presence,” Loyola writes, a point of view that also feels apropos to this moment in time; a time when we’re awash in loss, so daily beset by almost unfathomable suffering and death that the inclination towards numbness seems a tempting relief. However, it’s in these times, Loyola reminds us, that it is even more important to “be there for the people who have lost someone, and be there for the dead too.”
—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief
On November 15, 1977, three weeks after his mother’s death, Roland Barthes wrote:
“There is a time when death is an event and as such mobilizes interests, activates, tetanizes. And then one day it is no longer an event, it is another duration, compressed, insignificant, not narrated, grim without recourse: true mourning [is] not susceptible to any narrative dialectic.”1
I read this passage last summer, on a plane from Quito to New York. My mother was seated next to me and I had the impulse to read it to her, so I translated: …Y luego, un día, no es más un evento, es otra duración, comprimida, insignificante… el verdadero duelo no es susceptible a una narrativa dialéctica. She did not say anything. Some hours later, we landed at JFK airport. During the three weeks that she stayed in New York City, I tried to be a good tour guide: the High Line, the Met, MoMA, Central Park, Chinatown. “Aquí está todo el mundo (there are people from all over the world here),” she would say on our walks. We did not have a fixed schedule except for one visit: Doris Salcedo’s retrospective, titled simply Doris Salcedo, at the Guggenheim Museum. After I told her a little bit about Salcedo’s contemplative, carefully-made sculptures, and her particular treatment of political violence in Colombia, my mother began to share my desire and excitement to see the exhibition.
I have no memory of what we did that day before we emerged from the subway station at 86th Street. After that, however, I recall a sense of urgency impressed upon us by the city’s rhythm, our attempts to avoid the Saturday afternoon crowd, and the humidity of that July afternoon. Once inside the museum, we were immersed in Salcedo’s sculptures, seeing how they invoked the sentiment about which Barthes wrote: the urgency of mourning.
Salcedo’s retrospective was installed in the Guggenheim’s tower galleries, which function as an annex to the rotunda. To reach the galleries, we walked up the spiral and through another exhibition with the hurried pace of someone running late to a funeral. My mother always taught me to have an attitude toward death that requires presence: be there for the people who have lost someone, and be there for the dead too. When we reached the second floor, we walked in silence through Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer) (2000). The piece acts as an homage to the victims of gang violence in the US, and of the Colombian civil war that began in the mid-60s and has not yet been resolved. The work is composed of 166 pairs of wooden tables. Between each pair, one standing on its legs and the other lying upside-down, sits a layer of soil sown with grass seeds. Peppered with holes, the upside-down table allows the grass to grow through its surface. The grass seeds are under the earth, embedded in the dirt, and from them fragile green lines of grass appear to be growing. The work demanded a critical attention from us—a stillness in which one can see the grass growing, a silence during which one can hear the soil breathing.
Each of the 332 small, rectangular wooden tables in Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer) have a different hue based on the type of wood and its age. These basic tables, without ornaments or any distinguishable designs, evoked familiarity: quotidian places, quotidian sensations, and quotidian voices. We sit at a table. We write on a table. We even dance on a table. Here the tables do not belong to a classroom, or to a dining room. They are not tables anymore; they merely resemble tables. Salcedo refers to her process as one where metamorphosis happens. The materials she uses are transformed not to other kind of objects but to images. As images then, the tables could be seen as graves, or as bodies, or as bearers of a force, the force of mourning. Walking around these objects stripped of their utility, my mother and I perceived the grass’s slow movement—small implications of life—and we could hear the prayer La Plegaria Muda. In a violent death, life is abruptly stopped. Salcedo builds graves for the victims of violence in the Colombian war and in the gang war in Chicago. In these graves, life continues in the slow, almost imperceptible movement of the grass.
With our urgency slowed to a somber gait and our breathing now deep, we encountered Salcedo’s installation, Disremembered (2014). The work consists of a series of shirts made of raw silk and needles. The silk joins the needles together to produce a particular textile that is both sharp and soft, seen and unseen. From afar, they look like shirts made of a thin, fragile, almost invisible thread. My mother put on her glasses and went closer to discover that what seemed to be threads were actually thin needles, woven to resemble fiber, shaping these semi-transparent garments. Disremembered, the most recent of Salcedo’s work, incarnates a constant preoccupation in her work: to render invisible the visible.
One floor up, Salcedo’s piece Untitled (1990) echoed the materials of Disremembered. My mother crossed her arms and shrugged her shoulders as she looked at the work’s eleven neatly folded piles of white cotton men’s shirts, each containing a different number of shirts. Black steel rebars traversed the piles. “Fuerte, fuerte,” 2 my mother whispered to me. Maybe she was thinking about the absent sons; these shirts without boys to wear them.
With our feelings on the surface of our skin, we arrived at the last floor where we encountered A Flor de piel (2014),a gigantic red shroud made from rose petals, hand-stitched by Salcedo’s team, which she refers to as her chorus. Through a chemical preservation process, Salcedo’s chorus made the petals almost unbreakable and turned them into entities that are neither dead nor alive.
A Flor de Piel (2014) acts as a collective mourning gesture and a funerary ritual for María Cristina Cobo Mahecha, a nurse who was tortured and murdered in Colombia, and whose body was never found. Her right to be buried was taken away, thus Salcedo and her chorus give María Cristina a rose offering. A Flor de Piel inundates the gallery space with sorrow. A Flor de Piel is a red shroud, its folds like the contours of the Cordillera Mountains seen from a plane. From afar, I viewed the organic textile as such, but up close they give the sense of looking at a map lined with red rivers of blood.
As we exited the room, we heard a corrido from the Mexican revolution that my mom used to play when I was a child: Juan sin Tierra. It came from the museum’s rotunda, where Iván Navarro’s Homeless Lamp (2004–2005) was installed. Hearing the song, I remembered myself as a child learning, through songs, about landless people, social struggles, agrarian reforms, and political violence. The world seemed so complicated in the news, but so human in the songs. Salcedo’s work aims to create a space of social mourning, a space of humanity in a world where we, as a society, are forgetting our dead ones. She bears with dignity the dead bodies that have not been buried. With fury and urgency, she throws over them a piece of earth. Hearing the song, my mother whispered to herself: vuela, vuela palomita, párate en aquella higuera, que aquí se acaba el corrido…del mentado Juan Sin Tierra.3
1. Roland Barthes, Mourning Diary (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), 50.
2. Translation: “Powerful, powerful.”
3. Translation: “Fly, fly little pigeon, stand in that fig tree, because here Juan the landless’ song ends.”