Learning to Look
If you can find a way to get to Chicago before May 24, I urge you to do so. The Doris Salcedo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art is not to be missed. This is the first major retrospective of her work, and it does not disappoint. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the major contemporary art museums and their trendy celebrity shows. While these shows generate most of the buzz and ticket sales, it is exhibitions like this Doris Salcedo retrospective that point to all that is right in the art world—how dedicated visual artists, faithful to their craft and calling, are still making work that quietly but powerfully changes the world we live in, one viewer at a time.
Salecedo is primarily a sculptor, telling stories of loss, political violence, and power inequalities through objects. Her work is minimalistic and lends itself to contemplation. Unlike the output of many contemporary artists interested in politics and social justice, her work does not "shout," and it is not didactic. Rather, it is quiet and poetic. It speaks in a soft personal voice, and is all the more poignant and powerful for that. It seems to say to you, "Learn to Look. Learn to Grieve. Remember. Hope."
As part of her practice, Salcedo spends a lot of time talking to survivors of the kinds of tragedies that often go overlooked, from families that have lost sons and daughters to gang violence in LA to orphaned children who witnessed the murder of their parents in her home country of Colombia. She invokes their stories through everyday domestic objects—tables, chairs, shirts, and shoes—as well as common materials: concrete, earth, and flower petals. Brought together, her sculptures speak to the disruption of everyday life, bringing us into a world where things that were once ordinary and unassuming become otherworldly and charged with meaning. As a viewer you become palpably aware of a haunting absence, of the body that is not there: not sitting in the chairs, not at the table, not wearing the shirts and shoes.
Her installation "Atrabiliarios" is a good example. The room is almost empty save for the niches cut into the walls. Inside the niches are shoes, donated by families who have had a family member, most of the time a woman, disappear. In Columbia, a country torn apart by political strife and warring drug lords, this is an all too common occurrence. People disappear and never return. Their bodies are sometimes found years later in mass graves. The installation becomes a place of remembrance. The niches are almost reverent: reliquaries that speak to both the ordinariness and the sacredness of the people who once wore those shoes. The niches are covered in a thin layer of animal fiber, a membrane that clouds and obscures our view of the shoes, puts them just out of focus, suggesting a fading memory that one cannot quite keep. These membranes are painstakingly stitched into the wall itself with surgical sutures. The effect is visceral, unnerving, and delicately beautiful.
Salcedo's work often surprises in that way. The works are at once ordinary and extraordinary; the materials are common but used in extraordinary ways. In Plegaria Muda (loosely translated "silent prayer"), grass grows through tabletops. In Disremembered, the thinnest raw silk is woven together into almost invisible garments, so ephemeral you feel as if a breath could tear them apart, and yet each remains intact in spite of being pierced by thousands of needles. In a video documentary about her public work projects, Salcedo describes a piece she is working on entitled Palimpsest in which the ground will literally "weep" the names of victims of violent crimes. To bring these works to life Salcedo relies on the collaborative help of her design team, which includes artists, architects, and engineers. Salcedo is quick to give credit to her team-members, who allow her to take ideas into new and unexpected media and to make work of a size, scale, and delicacy that would be unthinkable otherwise.
There is a lesson in that collaboration—people coming together to share their expertise in response to individual and communal suffering—that is worth dwelling on. In spite of the fact that Salcedo's work focuses on tragedy, or perhaps because of it, there's something hopeful in it. At times it is a sense of wonder at her use of material—its delicacy, and its unequivocal presence. Other times it is the sheer beauty of the whole. I don't think she gets enough credit for this. Often her work is praised for the way it confronts us with injustice, the power inequities in society, and gives voice to those whose voices are never heard. And rightly so. But Salcedo's work also points towards something indomitable in the human spirit: our ability to share in each other's pain, to grieve communally and support each other, and to move forward.
The work communicates through its presence in a way that goes beyond words. The day I visited, I arrived at the same time as a bus-load of high school kids. Like me, they entered the exhibition not sure how to respond to the work, and we all relied on the exhibition guide to give us a context, a way to make sense of what we were seeing. There are several rooms in the exhibition, and the guide has a page for each room. At first I thought I was going to have to rely on the guide to explain every work. I realized by the third room, however, that I was no longer referring immediately to the guide as I entered, unconsciously beginning to trust my instinctive response to the work. The same thing was happening with the high school students. We continued to move through the exhibition at a similar pace. By the time we reached the final room, the guide was more or less an afterthought for all of us. I'm not sure I can explain that exactly, but I believe it speaks to the powerful way the work communicates (and, I should add, to the brilliant writing of the curator).
I hope you will have an opportunity to experience this exhibition in person. I trust you will find it incredibly moving, as I did.
David Hooker, a sculptor, is associate professor of art at Wheaton College, where he chairs the department.
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