Thou-less by Doris Salcedo
  • Ute Brunzel, © MHK
  • Thou-less by Doris Salcedo

When in the presence of Doris Salcedo’s artwork, it should be understood that though the pieces were created and overseen by Salcedo, the work isn’t exclusively hers. The stainless-steel fused chairs of Thou-less or the encased shoes within the gallery walls of Atrabiliarios don’t really belong to her—they belong to the countless individuals she’s interviewed, as well as the thousands who have suffered from a war-torn country. They belong to human beings, and all those who have withstood heartbreak and death.

The Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition “Doris Salcedo” provides the largest display of Salcedo’s work to date, from her earliest to latest artworks, including a documentary of site-specific public works and interviews with the artist.

Shibboleth at the Tate in 2007
  • Sergio Clavijo
  • Shibboleth at the Tate in 2007

Though it’s the the first retrospective of Salcedo’s 30-year career, the exhibition omits the most significant of her works. Shibboleth (2007) is covered by the documentary, but the effect of that work is diminished. True, it would be almost impossible to re-create it, for the work would require the MCA floor to be “cracked”—as the Tate Modern was back in 2007 as part of “The Unilever Series: Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth”—but the museum’s alternations would have been memorable.

“It was very important to us, that we expend time-energy labor—almost five years’ worth—[on] actually re-creating as much as we could in the way that Doris wanted it,” says Madeleine Grynsztein, Pritzker Director of the MCA.

One of the shirts in Disremembered
  • courtesy of Diane and Bruce Halle
  • One of the shirts in Disremembered

Disremembered, Salcedo’s most recent work, consists of three sculptures, made from almost 12,000 sewing needles and raw silk, suspended like phantoms in the gallery; it explicitly reveals Salcedo’s intricate and delicate approach to her art. At first the needles look like coarse, short hairs, but upon closer study, they take on their true form—sharp, finger-pricking barbs. The glinting, gray-gradient tunics would make for a painful fashion choice. They hang obtrusively on the gallery walls as if daring an unsuspecting patron to try on the perilous threads.

Disremembered is the result of many years of research, observing the public’s lack of empathy and inability to grieve. The MCA exhibition guide prompts an interesting thought: Are the menacing gossamer sculptures designed to wound or guard?

Composed of affixed, encased shoes within the gallery wall, covered by a semiopaque film of animal fiber, Atrabiliarios (1992-2004) is chilling and reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian canopic jars used to preserve the organs of those deceased. Like much of Salcedo’s work, the installation is interchangeable with other historic accounts of loss and grief—it is also comparable to black-and-white photographs from the Holocaust of piled shoes, clothes, and bodies.

“I wish my work could reach something that is universal,” says Salcedo, “It’s not based on ethnicity, culture, religion, or gender but something that is wider and for all of us—for every human being.”

from Atrabiliarios
  • San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase
  • from Atrabiliarios

But the shoes in Atrabiliarios were actually worn by female victims; they were given to Salcedo by their owners themselves, or by loved ones. “Every time I make a piece, I try to be faithful to the experience of the victim,” says Salcedo. “The materials are given [and] it’s not about me, it’s about obeying what I’ve been told.” The surviving families from Salcedo’s interviews and research are also victims. They are afflicted by death.

Each of Salcedo’s works is like a visual and material oration of loss, suffused with feeling—especially in Unland (1995-98), which is three distinct works: Unland: The Orphan’s Tunic, Unland: Irreversible Witness, and Unland: The Audible Mouth. Each piece combines two contrasting tables—each with its own individual characteristics of human hair and raw silk, like an intangible fabric of bodily matter—to create one extensive form. “Unland” is a term concocted by Salcedo: it implies displacement, and the works are a reaction to the dialogues and exchanges Salcedo had with Colombian orphans who witnessed the murder of their parents. The tables are unnerving, because of the human essence, stretched, sewn, and wrapped into slabs of wood by tiny holes drilled into the surface. They are captivating parts of a terrible whole, an expression of rupture and fissure within a damaged family.

Unland: irreversible witness
  • David Heald
  • Unland: Irreversible Witness

Salcedo’s artwork is extensively researched and methodical. The thoroughness of each installation or work is incredibly laborious, which is an indication of how meaningful Salcedo’s work is to her and to those who support her.

“Labor is an important, and strategic investment,” Grynstein says. “Labor is number one, a kind of reminder of the kind of work that happens in a so-called ‘developing world’—one that Doris honors. But also the amount of time her and her incredible team put into a work is perhaps what gives that work the permission to speak on behalf of someone who has suffered in the extreme.”

Salcedo’s retrospective at the MCA succeeds in reaching beyond the specified suffering of individuals, and lands among the experience of all. Even those who have not been subjected to violence or the death of a family member can feel the weight of her work. Her intense empathy, combined with the authentic, and substantial material of human hair, clothing, wood, metal, and frail woven silk, is a reminder that life and human existence is fragile, but certainly worth commemorating.

“Doris Salcedo” will be at the MCA until May 24.