Campus & Community

Making the ‘disappeared’ visible:

4 min read

Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo speaks at Carpenter Center

At the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts Thursday (Dec. 5), slides of the work of Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo conveyed their powerful, horrible beauty: Women’s worn shoes roughly sutured behind a thin membrane of animal skin … armoires filled with concrete … a battered cabinet with a zipper between its gaping seams … wooden desk chairs lowered over the sides of Bogota’s Palace of Justice, the site of a brutal urban battle between guerilla forces and the army that killed more than 100 people in 1985.

Salcedo, a fellow at the Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR), spoke as part of the Carpenter Center’s “An Evening With the Artist” series. While she eloquently described the motivation and intention of her work and of art, she refused to give the audience a guided tour of each creation.

“I believe descriptions are useless, since the very reason to make art is to create an encounter,” she said.

Painter Damian Loeb will give a lecture tonight (Dec. 12) at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at 6:30 p.m. as part of Advocate Arts Presents, a new series presenting influential artists and critics working today. The talk is sponsored by the Harvard Advocate and the senior thesis students of Klaus Kertess.

Salcedo’s thoughtful commentary and outspoken political views also created an encounter.

Born in Bogota, Colombia, where she currently lives and is on the faculty of the University of Colombia, Salcedo draws artistic inspiration from the victims of the violence that has torn that country for decades. While at the CSWR, she is researching connections between Colombian victims of violence and Holocaust survivors, searching for meaning amidst violence.

“Doris Salcedo makes the disappeared visible,” said Annette Lemieux, professor of the practice in studio arts, in her introduction.

‘Making public the silence of private pain’

“I think of my work as a collaboration,” said Salcedo, describing her art as the nexus of the experience of victims of violence and the objects they leave behind. “My work is an attempt to make violent reality intelligible.”

Salcedo begins each piece, she said, with research: listening to the victims’ stories and collecting objects or traces of objects related to them. Beyond its artistic merit, which has been recognized by major museums, galleries, and exhibits around the world, Salcedo’s work has a decidedly activist bent.

“It is an attempt to form an ephemeral community … of the ‘disappeared’ ones,” she said, using the word that describes victims of political violence in Colombia. “By making public the silence of private pain through art, I am trying to take this problem into the realm of the public.”

Art, she said, goes beyond words and time to communicate – and extends that ephemeral community to include the viewer and the victim.

It can also humanize victims, who, as instruments of war, have been negated by their captors. Where doing violence to another human necessitates that the torturer reduce the victim to “the other,” she said, “making art implies paying attention to every single detail of life. At that point, the ‘other’ becomes a human being.”

Slides of Salcedo’s work – including major installations presented from several angles – were projected behind her as she spoke. “Atrabiliarios,” from 1992-93, evokes the missing owners of women’s shoes that are partially obscured beneath a thin membrane outlined by almost violent sutures. She explores traces of victims in “Casa Viuda,” with personal items like a tattered lace dress worked into door panels and furniture.

Salcedo did give context to slides of a two-day installation that took place at Bogota’s new Palace of Justice and marked the 1985 takeover of that building by guerillas and the army’s brutal response that left more than 100 people, including 11 justices, dead. She showed the unfolding of the installation, which lasted two days like the original event, as wooden chairs were lowered over the sides of the building. The powerful effect drew a gasp from the audience.

Despite the deeply personal nature of the work, Salcedo insisted that it transcends the victims who inspire it.

“I do not want my work to be about Colombia, because I think there’s plenty of suffering in the world,” she said. “We all have memories of pain. The pieces should be able to relate to everybody.”