by Aimée Tian
content warning: grief and trauma
Currently nestled in the third-floor Special Exhibitions Gallery of the Harvard Fogg Museum is The Materiality of Mourning, featuring four separate installations by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo (b. 1958). These works stand out starkly from the rest of the museum’s collection, among coffee-table classics of portraits by the Old Masters, conceptual sculptures of the New Millennium, and lost relics of the Far-East.
This exhibition takes on the structural quality of the modern gallerists’ favourite mode of display (the White Cube), and transforms it. There is also a strange sense of displacement afoot, transgressing The Materiality of Mourning beyond its ideological setting. Employing low-lighting and a distinct lack of odour, a quick step into the room is sure to send a shiver down the back. Certainly, the curatorial decision to isolate individuating artworks is still at play, prioritizing sensory elevation, but here, the exhibition reconsiders the typifying characteristics of the Cube to fit the political nature of its subject matter. The gallery, devoid of binding qualities as attributed to time and space, becomes instead an expanse of negatives; of haunting and grievances. Through her works, Salcedo traces difficult emotion - constructing objects that are performative of the materiality of pain, and of memories associated to the loss of bodies. The Bogotá-based sculptor deals with social and political trauma, both of and beyond the geographic landscape of her native country.
In the first room, visitors are met with one of Salcedo’s Untitled (2008) works, an assemblage of a wooden table, wooden armoires, concrete and steel. This fixture is deeply unsettling and calls upon a psychoanalytic reading: for me, it is reminiscent of open-caskets and funeral services. Certainly, the role of grief and the act of mourning are deeply imbedded in the materiality (or immateriality) of this work. Even upon hours of reflection, its spatial and situational ambiguity - highly evocative of psychological unease - have become no easier to write about.
Another installation, Untitled (2004-05) features a sculptural set of distorted, stainless steel chairs. The absence of chair-backings at once implies that no one can sit in them, and thus motions to an absence of bodies. On the Harvard Art Museums’ website, these sculptures are described as “suggestive of the chairs used for brutal state interrogations, [serving] as a witness to the lives lost in Colombia’s civil war”. Through these chairs, Salcedo inflicts material dysmorphia on banal objects of domesticity in order to indicate state violence and suffering.
Located in the next room, Disremembered II (2014) and Disremembered VI (2015-16) are part of an eponymously-named series of sculpted silk thread and nickel-plated steel sculptures. For this work, Salcedo had conducted interviews and was interested in capturing the stories of mothers who had lost their children to gun violence in Chicago. Inspired by the design of a blouse she owned, Salcedo sought out to (re)create these ghostly veils out of raw silk threads, “interspersed in a deliberately irregular pattern with more than 12,000 tiny, blackened needles” (Fogg Museum wall label). The delicate material that Salcedo weaves both embodies the fragility of memory, and imbues a presence of sharp, searing pain through her use of needles. These pieces can be regarded as masked veils of invisibility, repeatedly relegating the disappearance of these lost bodies from popular conversation. Indeed, the Disremembered series demonstrates a problematic lack of dialogue in social circles concerning this epidemic of suffering.
In the last room, the 2013 A Flor de Piel rests softly in the corner. Made of hand-stitched flower petals, Salcedo has threaded an expansive shroud of roses, as an offering to a Colombian nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death (Fogg Museum wall text). This fragile blanket is composed of thousands of treated and preserved petals, its rich pigments intensely reminiscent of blood. A Flor de Piel appears ephemeral in nature - its material is as delicate as skin, bearing its scars and discolouration like battle wounds. The manner in which it is strewn on the ground, appears to conceal the possible presence of a body. This work, much like the others on display in this exhibition, is infinitely tied to corporeality and the uncanny projected performance of the body.
The Materiality of Mourning pays tribute to Doris Salcedo’s social consciousness. In her works, the artist represents herself and the viewer as bystanders to the violence of mass trauma, political injustice, racism and colonialism. Playing with perception and spatial awareness, she refigures everyday objects to serve a purpose beyond aesthetic function, engaging instead with the deep-seated pain and anguish of modern society.
The Materiality of Mourning was display through April 9th, 2017.