Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning
An exhibit at the Harvard Art Museums currently has a tease of an exhibit by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. Why a tease? Because we are shown only a few of her pieces. In this case, that turns out to be a plus if this is one’s first encounter with the work—it gives one permission to spend time with the pieces, make connections, and ask questions. The way in which the work is displayed contributes to being able to really look at them—the rooms are of a size that provides plenty of space around each piece, performing the double duty of inviting one in and letting the focus stay on the art. Each series is contained in a single room, but the arrangements suggest understandings based on seeing the pieces both as individual works and together as a complete whole.
The artist’s themes include victims, oppression, political violence, and war, but one does not need to aware of the art’s pedigree to make larger connections to a world in which aggression and greed rule the day. There is a real, physical presence to the work that makes the viewer aware of not only the kind of force that forges new relationships, but also the existence of absences—perhaps a different type of evidence of the same thing.
Too often, art that concerns itself with commenting on social injustice employs the tools of a documentarian—images, documents, and other types of “evidence”—to assemble an experience for viewers of the work. The results are often confusing, since it often appears to be delivering information intended to educate, and at times, promote a specific course of action. Something you’d expect from a news source or political group because of the language it uses.
This is not that. Here, the suffering and confusion of a world operating in the absence of a common morality is turned into poetry, which allows one to take full responsibility for a reaction. Or perhaps, engage in no reaction at all.