With the continual stream of information and images flooding past me each day, I’ve come to appreciate the rare, found gems that stop me in my virtual tracks. This week it was the above photograph of wooden chairs piled between two buildings that caught my eye on a friend’s Facebook page and sent me on a pleasurable hunt for more details.
Doris Salcedo’s haunting artwork Shibboleth, a giant crack installed in the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, brought the Colombian artist well-deserved attention in 2007. But most of us are less familiar with her earlier projects, such as her 2003 chair piece titled Installation for the 8th Istanbul Biennale.
Like Shibboleth, Istanbul is simple in its concept, but powerful in its impact. Salcedo’s idea was to create a “topography of war”–not tied to a specific historical event, but to war in general. Seeing these 1,550 wooden chairs piled high between two buildings in central Istanbul, I’m reminded of mass graves. Of anonymous victims. I think of both chaos and absence, two effects of wartime violence.
Born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, Salcedo’s installations express the silenced lives of the marginalized. She is particularly interested in the gap between the powerful and the powerless, and in victims of violence and forced migration. “I am a Third World artist,” says Salcedo. Her artwork emerges “from that perspective—from the perspective of the victim, from the perspective of the defeated.”
“What I’m trying to get out of these pieces is that element that is common in all of us,” Salcedo explains. “And in a situation of war, we all experience it in much the same way, either as victim or perpetrator. So I’m not narrating a particular story. I’m just addressing experiences.”
According to Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones, Salcedo once witnessed “a horrific clash between guerrillas and the state that ended in people being burned to death in the occupied Palace of Justice in Bogotá: ‘It left its mark on me. I began to conceive of works based on nothing.’ Her response was to go to a hospital in Bogotá and collect dead patients’ discarded shoes, which she put into cavities dug in a wall and veiled in a weblike fibre.”
Jones makes the excellent point that Salcedo’s approach to art is not to give form to the voices of the powerless, but to take form away:
“To give form is an act of power. There is no art more involved with power than architecture because nothing says as clearly as a building that ‘I had the power to build this.’ Surely it’s no coincidence that women such as Salcedo and [Rachel] Whiteread take on the heavy-duty materials and the power-bragging aesthetic of architecture and turn it inside out.”
Four years after Salcedo’s installation in Istanbul, another artist, Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, used chairs to memorable effect in his piece Fairytale, a work that explores Chinese displacement. In 2007 Ai installed a set of 1001 Ming and Qing dynasty chairs at Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany, one chair for each of the 1001 Chinese travelers that the artist also brought to Germany.
Seeing Ai’s work and Salcedo’s here side-by-side makes me ponder something I’ve never considered before: the chair as raw sculptural material. Chairs are an intriguing choice, because they have the power to communicate both absence and human connection. Amassing them in huge quantities is not only visually spectacular, but it also conveys individual experience, as well as the collective.
After taking a closer look at Salcedo’s work, I’ll be eager to see what she comes up with next. If you want to learn more about Salcedo’s art, you can check out these videos and images from PBS’s Art 21. In this Art 21 segment, Salcedo discusses her chair piece, Installation for the 8th Istanbul Biennale.
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