Image of Plegaria Muda by Doris Salcedo
Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda. Photo © Doris Salcedo

Doris Salcedo

Works exhibited: Plegaria Muda.

For the last 20 years the work of Doris Salcedo has combined and recombined many of the same motifs and materials, turning a succession of installations into a ritual sequence. The ritual concerned has been that of commemoration, the testing of memory, whose proportional relationship to the risk of forgetting is constantly challenged and refigured.

The objects being recalled are the victims of the protracted violence that has afflicted Colombian society for over five decades. The research that Salcedo always conducts for each of her projects traces the history of individuals, gauges the effects of those people’s loss on others, and makes use of extensive interviews with survivors.

Yet despite this concentration on specific identities, the artist’s work rarely evokes the singular; it quite literally homes in on the communal aspects of daily life, reminding the viewer of what is lost when an individual is subtracted from the community. Social structure is undermined and social bonds weakened; state force and guerrilla and paramilitary violence all contribute to the destruction of the social.

A significant number of the hybrid objects in Salcedo’s work of the last two decades have utilised sets of chairs and tables. This powerful use of metonymy – employing motifs that do not merely symbolise social relationships but which are materially involved in them – provides the most concise expression of the bond between the individual and the social unit.

Single chairs evoke and stand in for single persons, while their being placed around a table is a primary instance of what draws the individual into the social group. In the work from this period, strange versions of both chairs and tables were forced into unnatural and disturbing combinations.

In Plegaria Muda we are faced with a mass of tables and a repetition of elements, and yet each unit of paired tables, both joined and separated by a layer of earth, is individuated by the unpredictable growth pattern of grass seedlings sown into the earth. The contradictory structure of the installation echoes the tension between commemoration and anonymity that has always problematised the social psychology of cenotaphs and the graves of unknown soldiers.

Salcedo has revealed that a decisive point was reached in her research for this project when she discovered that 1,500 young men recruited from remote areas had been murdered by the Colombian army, dressed up in rebel uniforms, and passed off as dead guerrillas, so that officers could profit from the government’s offer of financial rewards for an increased kill rate.

Describing Colombia as the country of ‘unburied death’, she conceives of her work as a demarcated space for symbolic burial:

"Reyes Mate writes that each murder generates an absence in our lives and demands that we take responsibility for the absent, since the only way they can exist is within us, in the process of living out our grief."

Recognizing that process of interiorisation as inevitable and unspeakable, Plegaria Muda (‘mute prayer’) nonetheless hopes to restore such deaths to the sphere of the human, to the mute eloquence of the objects and relationships from which they were so violently wrenched.

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