Artist Doris Salcedo: I Began to Conceive of Works Based on Nothing

 

Doris Salcedo, Installation at 8th International Istanbul Biennial, 2003.

 

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.

 

Doris Salcedo, "Shibboleth," 2007. Concrete and metal, 548 feet long. Installation at Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, London. (Photo by Tate Photography, London. © Doris Salcedo. Courtesy the Alexander and Bonin, New York)

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

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.”

 

 

Doris Salcedo, "Atrabiliarios," 1996, MoMA Collection (Image courtesy pathetica.net). These shoes once belonged to people who have since disappeared amid the political violence in Doris Salcedo's native Colombia. Salcedo's approach to art is not to give form to the voices of the powerless, but to take form away.

 

 

Salcedo's "Shibboleth" at the Tate Modern was filled in when the exhibition closed, but the scar is still visible in Turbine Hall. You can see photos of the scar in my article on the Tate here at Gwarlingo (Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis courtesy the AP)

 

 

Doris Salcedo, "Istanbul Project II," 2003 Piezo-pigment on Hahnemühle German Etching Paper, 24 1/2 x 37 1/4 inches. Edition of 35 (Photo by Bill Orcutt. © Doris Salcedo. Courtesy the Alexander and Bonin, New York)

 

 

Doris Salcedo, "Installation at 8th International Istanbul Biennial," 2003. (Photo by Muammer Yanmaz. © Doris Salcedo. Courtesy the Alexander and Bonin, New York)

 

 

Ai Weiwei, "Fairytale," 2007

 

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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By | 2016-11-11T21:53:24+00:00 01.19.12|Greatest Hits, Images, Process|5 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

5 Comments

  1. Sigrun January 19, 2012 at 3:41 am

    Thank you Michelle!
    I have had the fortune to see “Atrabiliarios” and “Fairytale” in “real life”, but unfortunately not Salcedo’s Istabul project – which is just fantastic! I love the way you connect the two chair projects, it really makes sense discussing them in relation to one another. The chair is also interesting as a raw material because it is (can be) very inexpensive, so that most of us have a chair around – a separate seat for one person, a place to rest -. Some of us might not own very much – except for a simple chair. Therefor the chair also become something we all can relate to, no matter our background, social status, age, gender … knowledge and/or interest for art.

    • Michelle Aldredge January 19, 2012 at 7:54 am

      Lucky you, Sigrun, to have seen both of those works in person. I’m jealous! I love your point about the chair being an inexpensive object that most people share in common, regardless of social status, age, or gender. An excellent observation. It makes me appreciate the brilliance of these works even more. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Doris Salcedo | sub rosa January 19, 2012 at 6:12 am

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  3. Kathryn January 19, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Looking at this colossal pile: what is the value of a life…before war, during, after? In war that chair is both all you have left and something to throw on the heap. This wreckage: what was taken, and what remains to remind us, to teach us and to try us. Art out of nothing. Here is a form for all that has left. Here is a form so we have something left.

    Thank you Michelle, and thank you sigrun for introducing me to Gwarlingo.

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