Doris Salcedo’s Public Works

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents the first retrospective of the work of renowned sculptor Doris Salcedo (Colombian, b. 1958). In conjunction with the exhibition, the MCA produced a short film documenting Salcedo’s site-specific and ephemeral installations—works that either no longer exist or are otherwise impossible to display in the galleries of the museum—in order to establish their importance and contribution to her larger body of works.

Doris Salcedo: Public works are extremely challenging and

extremely demanding because you’re working in the public space, you have no chance to make mistakes as you do in the studio; you’re right there, and you have to be extremely precise.

It is maybe perceived in a different manner because there are more elements that interact, so it’s not just what I perceived, the story

I wanted to address within a sort of clean museum or gallery space.

But then you have whatever happened in the city and the memory each viewer has of that specific space, or of that specific event. So the relation is richer. It’s really exciting to see what the public does.

When you are in the public space, people immediately remember what they were doing that day when that event happened, and what was the feeling: the anger, the sadness—whatever they have—they need to express it. And I have the dialogue with the public that

doesn’t happen when I’m working in a museum or gallery space.

Madeleine Grynsztejn: I am constantly amazed at how Doris’s work honors the individual.

Doris applies to every surface that she works on an intensity of laboriousness, an application of material that is absolutely visceral,

that work to properly honor an individual, to properly inhabit an almost human feeling.


DS: When the humorist and journalist Jaime Garzón was murdered, I called a group of artists and I suggested that we make a line of roses that were hammered against a wall upside down. It was across the street from the place where he lived. That was the first time I made a public intervention.

A year after he was killed, I made a piece with his brother and his sister. I provided them with roses that were tied together. The idea was to draw a long line of roses from his house to the point where he was killed, four-and-a-half kilometers away. It took us all day, it was very slow; we walked along in a really solemn act. That was really a complete work for me.

Being in a violent country, you cannot act as though violence is not happening. And that’s why I think art has to somehow create a balance. It is a space, when you are working in art that is noncommercial, that is outside of all this brutal loss, then you can create art that might create some meaning. And that meaning might help us ask difficult questions, and maybe try to find answers to those questions.

Art does not give answers, only poses questions.


DS: The piece refers to the violence seizure of the Palace of Justice by a guerrilla group called M-19. It was a really poorly thought media coup for them. And had tragic consequences. They assaulted the Palace of Justice on November 6, at 11:35 am. And then they killed a guard at the entrance. And from then on, the army, who knew, who was informed that this was going to happen, and allowed it to happen, retaliated in a brutal way.

Julie Rodrigues-Widholm: After years of research, years of research

trying to think about what she could do to remind people about this event and the deep, deep scars that it created in Colombian culture.

DS: I decided to do something, for the first time in my work, using elements that hadn’t previously been used.

I simply bought some chairs and I decided to lower these chairs marking the absence of each person approximately at the time where the autopsy said that each person had died, or group of people had died. I tried to be it faithful. I was not imagining anything, I was not decorating the facade. I was trying to be faithful to the forensic reports that I had at the time.

Joaquin Sanabria: With that piece, of the Palacio de Justicia, was so important for us to see then the people that are watching that performance; the people say, "I remember one person that died there . . . " All those things come alive with that piece.


Carolyn Alexander: You can’t deny the power of the public installations.

In 2003, she did the Istanbul Biennial with this extraordinary filling of this void between these two buildings with the chairs.

DS: I was visiting the city and walking in an area full of ruins. There were so many ruins in a central area that I started wondering, it doesn’t make sense that a busy area has so many abandoned

buildings. And the reason is that they were legacies of the violent past where Jews and Greeks were forced out of their buildings.

So it’s the process of displacement, of forceful displacement that is taking place, but it was not one single specific event that triggered that piece. It was basically a multilayer of events that had been taking place for over 50 years.

Roberto Uribe: She was saying she wants to create this flat surface made out of these chaotic shapes and so difficult to organize.

Doris asked me to separate by colors and by textures and by forms. It was an important organization. I remember, I understood why this previous organization was so important: she was painting basically from the other side of the canvas, so to speak.

It has a quality of war that is rational, it is a business, absolutely rational. And then at the end, it is chaotic, organic, painful. But is thought out and planned with coldness.

So it had to be just part of the city woven within the fabric of the city. It couldn’t protrude, it couldn’t be higher, it couldn’t be bigger.

It just sits in there quietly.


DS:Neither is a piece that began when I started reading about Guantánamo. I wanted to put the feeling that I have when I get home: I have a wall that protects me, I have the right to an interiority, where I can live my life. We all need a place to be. So I put both things together. I forced the exact same kind of mesh that the Americans use into a wall. One thousand tons was applied into each single square meter of this piece to create this ambiguity, outside and inside.

Sergio Clavijo: The work of Doris is always impossible. It’s a fact.

The will to make it, it’s always there. The will to try or to achieve through rigor, even to the point of paradox, like joining certain materials to another.

Ingrid Raymond: At a certain point we thought “No, there is no way we are going to get it ready on time.” And then you start working and getting close to the materials and then you do realize that it is possible.

Tim Marlow: And although it may almost be microscopic or barely discernible, actually, there is a physical as well as conceptual or intellectual difference in what is produced as a result of taking these complex processes.

For her, process is absolutely and inextricably part of the journey, but it’s still a means to an end.

DS: I wanted this ambiguity that I was experiencing: How can I have a normal life when I know—I know for sure—that these people are so unjustly kept there and in such horrible conditions.

With pieces like Neither orAbyss, I’m making sort of backwards architecture, or anti-architecture. Because architecture is symbolic, so I just want to emphasize that character.


Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: You cannot build a brick wall from above down. But what she did was do exactly that. So the vaulted ceiling, which was already there, the brick vaulted ceiling, was extended to the ground almost like a large anxiety-creating, heavy weight.

DS: We found bricks in Colombia—we had them made here—and the piece was fabricated, as every piece, in my studio. I hand-painted every single brick. So you can have a brick made out of earth picked up in Colombia look like 18th century north of Italy, the same kind of look; so it was hand painted, every single one of them.

Carlos Granada: This specific castle was not finished, and this specific room had the vault still without any stucco or paintings or anything. It was in brick.

The first impression when you enter that space was one of oppression, the weight of the vault in brick on your head. So Doris’s proposal was about encasing the visitor into this room, so for this, she proposed to lower the vault up to a point in which this vault was levitating.

CCB: I think at the time that Doris came to Torino, she was obviously connecting her own experience and background and history of art-making through looking at the pains connected with forced migration.

She was quite taken aback by the laws that had been implemented by the right-wing conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi. Some of those laws were laws to control the influx of migrants into Italy, and one of them is the creation of these small detention centers where people were able to be lost, actually, for an incredible amount of time. And in Torino, the detention center was built right in the center of the town. It’s like a kind of a black hole, an invisible place.

DS: It’s all related to racism, because whoever enters the first world is considered to be a very dangerous person who brings chaos to these perfect societies. So I decided to create this space where you can feel the weight of the powerful about to close completely on you.


DS: The title comes from the Bible in the context of an oration that tells the biggest massacre in history, where people were forced to pronounce Shibboleth and if they couldn’t—they would say Sibboleth—they were killed on the spot.

This happened everywhere. It happened here in Colombia. Colombian citizens were forced to say Saragossa, and we cannot pronounce it the way the Spanish pronounce Sarahossa. The title refers to dying when crossing a border. When you are recognized as somebody that is different. You’re the “other.”

Sir Nicholas Serota: The work grows very naturally and out of Doris’s concerns about divisions in society; about those who have and those who have not, what happens when there is a dominant culture to the other culture within a society. And that comes in part, of course, from her own personal experience in Colombia but also through her observation of Latin America in a postcolonial era.

CG: I remember very clearly one day she came to us with this photocopy of the space, a picture of the Turbine Hall with a pencil drawing on top: a crack. And she said, “Okay, I want to crack this space into two halves.”

SNS: The initial process and the initial challenge was to persuade the Tate to take a building that was five years old, had been created at huge public cost, and cut into it, literally. And to cut into it in a way that would cause it, in one sense, irreparable damage.

CG: I remember very clearly inside Shibboleth, there is a mesh. Not everyone saw that. At one point one day, I spoke with Doris and I asked her what she was thinking about and she said, “Well, this mesh is for the ones that want to see the mesh. Right?” It was not intended for everyone to see that. So it’s that level of detail, which is in every single piece of hers, that is intended for the soul that wants to receive that kind of detail. You know?

One of the main tasks of installing one of Doris’s pieces is to erase your hand after working on the piece. It has to look as if it just happened. You could see people, architects and press, everyone trying to elaborate how it was done. But actually no one could really deduce the real technical secret of Shibboleth. It looked like an earthquake, but the museum was intact, so how could that happen?

RU: Every time I go back to London and I see there’s a scar that is now in the museum, that it’s still there. And I find it very symbolic and very poetic. The absence is still present.

DS: I think every time a violent event takes place there is a scar. In this case, I think it’s a very important part of the work that this wound remains, this memory of the event remains, because still there are immigrants dying every day crossing to Europe. So it is important that the wound remains.


DS: We were informed on a Thursday, I remember, that 11 members of the assembly were murdered by the guerillas.

CG: We were working on Shibboleth and the studio was very busy and Doris wanted to do this act of mourning over the weekend. She spoke to us about the meaning of this piece, on how it had to be done next week.

DS: So on the following Tuesday, I lit 24,000 candles on the main square of Bogotá and they were placed in order because, I think, there are so many massacres that take place in Colombia that we are no longer capable of responding.

When any tragic event happens in a more peaceful society, people bring flowers or candles or somehow they make their sadness feel and be present—manifest in some way. But I think here we are anesthetized. We no longer have this possibility to respond. So I wanted to place these candles in perfect order to show that it was not a spontaneous response from people. It was one person responding to this event. And then a lot of people showed up there—by the hundreds–and helped me do this almost impossible job of bringing alive every single candle, pretty much at the same time.

CG: For me, what Doris was trying to do by this act of mourning was trying to teach us somehow how to mourn. Something that Colombians we have forgotten. So it was very significant. It was very meaningful in terms of being able to do something big over a weekend and to see the impact that it had on our own country. To see that possibility was very, somehow, touching.

DS: I think all of my work, not only the public pieces, but all of my work is about mourning. And it’s about the condition of the mourner.

Every time a person is killed there is an absence that is created in us, and that absence should be addressed. And that is particularly important in Colombia or in countries where missing people are counted by the thousands; where common graves are being uncovered on a daily basis. All the funerary rituals that confirms the humanity of the person who was killed are missing, they should be put in place. And I think that’s one of the tasks that I’m addressing as an artist. That’s my task.


MG: Fundamentally, Doris’s work begins with the witness, with the person who has actually been the victim of a certain event or survived a certain trauma.

DS: I interviewed some mothers who have lost their—in two cases, only son, and in other cases their son—to violence. They become an uncomfortable reminder of reality, of the loss of lives, of an unbearable pain. And for that reason they are placed somehow outside and apart of society. That’s why I think it’s so important to bring them to the center—to the center of a city, to the center of a work of art—was essential. So for that reason I thought of making a plaza. Because the plaza is the place in a city where the city can think about itself. From the ground of this plaza, drops of water will emerge as though the Earth were crying the names of these kids who had been killed.

I thought of writing with paint on the ground names of victims that took place let’s say 20 years ago or 10 years ago, faintly painted, almost unreadably painted. And on top of these names, another text will emerge in water, so the names of the newer victims of violence would be written in water.

That’s why it’s a palimpsest, you have two layers of text: one text that is being effaced because we want to forget, because we don’t want to remember, and on purpose we are effacing that memory from our society, and then the other one, more recent memory, will be cried in water.

JRW: We are responsible for each other in this world, and we have to respond. And her manner of responding is through intensely crafted, laborious artworks that are beautiful. They’re elegant. They are familiar and unfamiliar. But they are also, in many ways, a kind of offering to those who have suffered.

DS: I’m not a solo singer. I’m part of a chorus. The team that generously works in my studio is a really sophisticated team. Each one knows his field very well and all this creativity and all this intelligence it’s also part of the piece.

CG: Whenever we start a project, whichever it is, we start with this idea of producing somehow a miracle, somehow the impossible. It’s an act of faith. You have to have faith in order to proceed because if you look at it rationally, it has no sense. It’s impossible in terms of time. It’s impossible in terms of technique. It’s physically impossible. So what it requires for us is to have an act of faith and to believe, actually, in what is impossible.