Elizabeth Ashe


Doris Salcedo: Palimpsest

Doris Salcedo’s exhibit at the Fondation Beyeler is more than a testament to her career, more that a triumph. In the span of eight rooms, she brings the viewer into her sculpture installations with an incredible eye to texture, absent body, and material. Salcedo’s ability to indicate the body, with or without naming the testimony, is unequaled. She has distilled it all into “a material presence that evokes the unnamed victims of oppression and civil conflict. {…} over the last decade, she has both challenged the temporal limits of materials and the definition of sculpture and the object” (exhibition catalogue, pg. 15). The exhibition is advertised right at the onset to Art Basel’s info kiosk prior to arriving at Messeplatz, and truly, is the best thing during Art Basel without even being a part of the art fair.
Room 1, “Untitled,” has a row of 17 rods, pierced through the breasts of ten stacks of plaster-imbedded shirts. Plaster and white button shirts meld, and the stack turns each death as the same as the other. The deaths are old; blood has been bleached out as if the stacks were once painted marble. The sameness, of turning stacks of white button-shirts into masses of fabric and plaster, turns them into an architecture of death, like cemetery stones. They all had two things in common, they were plantation workers, and they all died. The varied stacks refer to varied ‘official’ death count records. The plaster gets to me as a sculpture and a building material. Home construction in Central and South America intentionally leaves rebar exposed. They do this out of optimism for the future, leaving the rebar ready to expand the home later. Depending on the country, it also means the property taxes are reduced if the building remains “unfinished.” The plaster gives a weight to these lives. They were here, they knew the same spaces, had the same experiences, such that knowing their names wouldn’t make them any less gone to the viewer. Also in the room are four metal bed frames on the floor and two posed upright against walls, angled slightly-off like a body just leaning there. The ones against the wall, have mummified, wrapped shirts, and all the frames are wrapped tight in animal tissues. This wrapping is like a wound dressing, and I love the tightness, the sureness that wrapping the bed/body would heal the wounds. And the choice of animal tissues – a skin-for-skin healing, is more visceral than any cloth bandage. By wrapping the bed as a substitute for the body – a piece of furniture meant for bodies to rest, to heal from injuries – gives the metal bed frames a heightened importance. They are considered worthy of sharing the care they provide.
Room 2 smells of roses. Indeed, “A Flor de Peil II,” is a giant shroud of sewn rose petals. They have aged, but still hold the red color. It folds like a pinched and heavy sheet, and gives me the sense of bare skin. The petals are stitched together. These sutures heal the wounds of an ephemeral surface. The expansive size is enveloping, but it doesn’t cover any bodies or sculptures. We treat our skin with rose-scented lotions, drink rose tea, have our favorite colors and memories where roses are central figures. Roses are part of burial bouquets, as well as marriage beds. They are symbolic to so very many rituals and cultures. From the catalogue, the work is a “flower offering to a nurse who was kidnapped and tortured; it was the funerary ritual she was denied.” The monumental scale shows how much impact one life can have.
Room 3, “Plegaria Munda,” is full of wood tables, stacked to sandwich compressed soil between tabletops, and grass grows through the underside of the top table. The grass’s determination to grow, is stunning. There are 53 pairs in a more pedestrian placement, like trees in a forest for the viewer to engage and walk around. Some slump, with uneven soil. These tables are not uniform. Yes, they are all simple, and some legs are shorter and they are old, they have lived generations of a family. The title means ‘mute prayer,’ is so rooted at a kitchen table. We pray out-loud or silently, while we eat. The two are eternally paired; eating and elevated, hopeful conversation. The grass is such an elegant touch, a sign of determined growth and bringing tender life back to domestic furniture.

Doris Salcedo: Untitled
Wood and Concrete

Room 4, “Atrabiliarios,” brings animal tissue back as a surface, but now, as a box or screen like a screen of formaldehyde. Shoes trace the room, set into cubbies cut into the walls and then sutured into the walls with this yellowed skin membrane flat against the wall. I love how easily Salcedo uses sutures in her work; it keeps the body forefront healing wounds. Sutures secure a barrier. The shoes couple in pairs, or singly, from ballet to child to adult styles, and so many of them are leather. Behind the membrane they look like daguerreotype portraits or relics. Shoes are one of the harder things to be rid of, as stand-ins for a body and a story. They are an odd intimacy, a requirement for life that we put on and wear out. The cubbies are at varied heights, but never at the eye-height — making the viewer step back and acknowledge several, or lean down like when engaging with a child. Shoe boxes are stacked in the far corner. They are made of animal tissue as well, and you can see the veins, and the boxes have thick, jagged suture lines. As boxes, I’m also reminded of the two chambers of a heart beating.
Room 5, “Untitled,” holds a chapter of Salcedo’s work that so many are familiar with. Wood armoires, bed frames, tables, chairs, are built into and away from each other. These pieces of furniture are lived-with heirlooms, define spaces and domesticity, and are morphed in such a way that they share memories with one another. They are also rendered unusable, as the furniture pieces they once were. Our needs and ability to keep furniture, changes. War and genocide, means abandoned furniture. The first piece in the room sets the mood – a glass-doors armoire, the shelves filled-in with concrete floated with children’s clothes. Nothing else is left of them in this tomb;they cannot be folded and remolded fondly, they cannot be passed to the next generation. When you look close at these pieces, the joining seams and gaps are filled-in with concrete. Not in a mess like a rushed wall, but smoothed, like caulking. I appreciate the subtlety and added care needed to smooth the grey lines, making the sculpture even more architectural.
Room 6, is spare. “Disremembered” is a breather with absent bodies. Shrouds of air-thin blouses are stitched in hundreds of gashes. Ghosts – both as garment and altered, bent, sharpened and burned needles. Sewing needles and silk thread are the same patina, and each garment is pinned to the wall with needles. The cut thread is exposed where the fabric moves, like a needle leaving the skin. Can we heal, from all our cuts as plentiful as hair? How can healing become an armor? How can something ephemeral and personal, have shape? The attention to detail is just astounding. The works developed after Salcedo interviewed mothers in Chicago who lost their only child to gun violence. The loss doesn’t end, it becomes who their are, what they wear. Mothers say their child’s name constantly, even on shirts, as a way to mourn and remember.
Room 7 is “Palimpsest,” raised off the ground, with a hydro system underneath and pressed marble, sand, and resin pavers. In the midline of each paver, are names written as slight indentations over each other, and fed by tiny pinhole spouts of water. The legibility of the names slowly fill and shrink away on the surface, like a tide on the shore. The sand weeps the names. Naming leads to acknowledgement, which society at large ignores. Salcedo is paying tribute to the 25,000 refugees and migrants in the last twenty years who have tried to cross the sea to Europe, but drowned. These are some of their names. The names surface as easy as breathing, and the tension of the water is a beautiful thing. The environmental simpleness of this room, the wall-to-wall takeover of the pavers, breaks the fourth wall. The audience has to walk on these pavers; there is no choice. I love this invitation and confrontation, and watching the difference between engaged and disengaged viewers. The good ones, linger and get close, walk on several, slowly. The others pass through in staccato steps, from entrance to exit in under a minute, which is a shame to just walk past the largest installation room. It reminds me of the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” in Berlin — intentional, architectural, refined, and it must be walked through to understand the weight of so many names (seen or left out).
Room 8, “Unland: the orphan’s tunic,” holds three conjoined tables, each made of two parts. The first is fully-wrapped in fine silk cloth. The cloth is pressed into the contours and deep gouges in the wood, and is stitched-through with hair. A metal doll’s bed is flipped on it’s side and sewn-in under the fabric. I wonder — which is the comforter, table to table, or cloth to table? The second table is full of all of the cuts, all the generational use. It’s like a family portrait. The third table is again stitched, but only on one side. The fabric is once again stitched through with hair, cutting into the wood, crossing from one table to the next. The fabric is inspired from the last garment a little girl received from her mother, and wearing it daily was the last way she could remember her. Memory is as central as a kitchen table. We live around them, gather at them, talk and eat and show our love, at the kitchen table.
You can find her artist talk about the exhibit on the Fondation Beyeler’s website, in addition to a seven minute podcast, “Nah Dran (close)”, where Basel-based journalist Naomi Gregoris talks with people involved in initiatives about supporting refugees.
Salcedo’s sculpture installations immediately change the atmosphere in the room. It is perfect. They shoulder the momento mori, the keepsake, the desire to heal and remember and take up space. I am touched and inspired by how Salcedo makes death, beautiful. Using domestic and personal objects brings to the forefront, that there is commonality even if you don’t know an individual’s story. She leaves room for the pieces to live, and acknowledges that there are more stories and histories; she doesn’t close the metaphorical door on a project. Leaving them open, as in the stacked shirts with room still on the rebar, truly holds onto heightened tensions. Salcedo does not shy away from research, massacres, and delving into personal accounts of the commonality of grief. Grief builds up on her surfaces, creates and compartmentalizes into pieces the viewer can hold onto.

Dora Salcedo, at the Foundation Beyeler
May 21 – September 7, 2023