A major aspect of Doris Salcedo’s artistic output is her large-scale, public art installations, designed only to be on view for a limited amount of time. An unforgettable experience in person, they are now only available through documentation and memories. As part of the Doris Salcedo exhibition, which opened February 21, we’ve included all of Salcedo’s public works on our microsite as well as in our documentary video. We’re even more fortunate that Maria Carrasquilla, who works in our administration department, had participated in Acción de Duelo in 2007 and wanted to share her experience.
We all get used to certain habits, for better or worse. As we say in Colombia “We are animals of customs,” meaning that we all have our well-established, inherited, or willingly acquired habits. Over time, we eventually get used to the things that we’ve lived with by chance, or acquired by choice, and we can adjust sooner or later to nearly any given situation until it becomes a normal part of our routine.
Growing up in a country that has been afflicted by an armed conflict since before I was born, I became used to knowing and seeing people killed, kidnapped, or forced to leave their homes. The war on drugs has also proven to be ineffective in many ways for us and for our neighboring countries. Even though we as Colombians are fully aware that the violent events that take place in our country are horrifying and unacceptable, for the majority of us, it has become a part of our daily routine. We are the passive observers of a social and political crisis—an unfortunate habit we’ve acquired.
This violence has become a monster with many limbs, one that has managed to prevail for more than 60 years, feeding on illegal and terrorist activities and human lives; blocking our inherent natural and intellectual possibilities for national and economic growth. We have gotten used to that too. It is worth mentioning, though, that the Colombian government and the Colombian guerrillas are currently working on negotiating a peace treaty, and that violence today is not manifested in the same way or with the same intensity as it did 10 years ago. In a very positive sense this is the closest that Colombia has come to reaching certain agreements that could create a broader sense of safety and peace, and that gives us hope.
I was studying art at the Universidad de los Andes when I participated in Doris Salcedo’s intervention at the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, the city that both Salcedo and I grew up in. I was familiar with some of her work and had attended one of her lectures at a local university, the Univeridad Jorge Tadeo Lozano. I recall her explaining that the word experience comes from the latin experiri which means “to cross over danger.” I will always remember that about her.
The Plaza de Bolívar is surrounded by four buildings: The Palace of Justice is on the north side. Straight across, on the south side of the Plaza, is the National Capitol, where the congress of the Colombian Republic meets, and just behind that is the Palace of Nariño, where the president lives. A Catholic cathedral is located on the east side, and on the west side is the Liévano Palace, where the mayor of the city works. Doris Salcedo was walking past the National Capitol when I saw her, easily recognizable due to her distinct, voluminous black hair.
I can’t remember exactly how, or why, or with whom I went with to participate in Acción de Duelo, but I do remember knowing that this installation was an homage to the victims of violence in Colombia, and it felt that way. There was a respectful silence that was so loudly heard throughout the Plaza. The day was becoming night; one of the many beautiful sunsets in Bogotá was displaying its array of oranges, pinks, reds, and yellows. La Plaza de Bolívar is a very large area and it was full of thick, white candles, placed on the ground. I wouldn’t be able to say how many there were, maybe more than a thousand. Strangers were passing along matches and lighters to light the candles with. The flames were affected by the strong winds that blow in between the eastern and western mountains. We had to light the candles several times, sharing fire and silence. It was a very special opportunity—to be together and to feel as if we were doing something meaningful for our country.
The installation Acción de Duelo was a space created for thought and for remembrance. It was an invitation to shift our routine in a different direction outside of our own habits, heads, and comfort zones. It was an invitation to stop feeling powerless and busy and actually do something within our reach to manifest support, defiance, and sadness. All of us who were present there that evening had experienced violence in different ways and we all mourned accordingly.
Today I see photos of this installation, and Doris Salcedo’s work in general, as a silence that speaks louder than many words, perhaps a prelude to meaningful dialogues about art, our present realities, and social change. I see her artworks as actions that carry our story and make it more visible; a reminder of our sometimes regrettable human condition. It is important to listen and to learn from these silent voices, because they let us know that there are different ways, powerful ways, of representing the stories, and speaking up for the people who do not have the means, either by chance or by choice, to do so themselves.