This fall, the Harvard Art Museums were honored to host contemporary Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, whose work is featured in the special exhibition Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning (on view through April 9, 2017). Salcedo’s works evoke, commemorate, and mourn the lives of individuals lost to political violence and oppression in Colombia and beyond. Each of the works in the exhibition incorporates unlikely materials, such as rose petals forced to endure in a state between life and death and cloaks made of tiny burnished needles and silk thread.
During her visit, Salcedo guided our staff in installing The Materiality of Mourning. She also participated in the exhibition’s opening celebration, which included a conversation with Elaine Scarry, the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value at Harvard, moderated by exhibition curator Mary Schneider Enriquez. Just hours before that event, Salcedo and Schneider Enriquez sat down with us to discuss the creative process, the themes of mourning and grief, and the artist’s public art installations.
Above is a video excerpt of the interview; you may watch the video in its entirety here. Please note that both the interview text and video footage included in this article were lightly edited for clarity.
Index: The process you undertake in creating a work of art is extensive; it spans many years and involves a great deal of research, often including direct contact with survivors. How do you get started?
Doris Salcedo: I try to orient myself toward the victim for whom I’m making the piece. The experience of that person is essential; it is the basis on which the work exists. Without that experience, there would be no work.
I’m interviewing whenever possible. When there are survivors, I interview them. I’m always mixing [their testimony]—I’m mixing it with experiences from the Holocaust, or experiences of different victims from other countries, and other conflicts. So the experiences of far more victims who have suffered something similar come together as part of the piece.
Mary Schneider Enriquez: So you’re really speaking to a worldwide condition of political violence.
Salcedo: I see myself as a connection. I’m connecting things that happen in different times, in different countries, and in different areas for different people. I’m simply connecting the thoughts of philosophers, the writing of poets, the experiences of victims. And then I find a material object that I think could convey all this.
My participation as an artist is actually quite humble, because it is just connecting all the things that I’ve already [been] given.
Schneider Enriquez: In terms of your actual creative process, you face challenges each time you make something. In all the work I’ve seen of yours, you have never chosen to repeat yourself; you’ve never done something you know you can do. You always take a step beyond, into the unknown. Would that be an accurate way to characterize the way you think?
Salcedo: That’s perfect. The experiences I’m referring to are extraordinarily difficult: experiences of torture, violent death, rape, displacement. All these victims are thrown into the unknown. The familiar space—whatever they knew, the family they had, the space they owned—everything’s shattered.
So if I’m trying to somehow address these experiences, I have to place myself in a similar situation. I’m evidently more comfortable [than the victims]; I’m not attempting to say that is the same. But I have to learn everything. The process is tedious and difficult and labor-intensive.
Contrary to that, I think it’s important to [acknowledge the collective experience]. . . . The moment you receive the work, you give me room and become a participant in the work. So it’s both of us. It’s our collective effort that makes the work visible and possible.
I wish I could diminish my presence in the pieces. I think it would be important because it’s something we all create together.
Index: These are such heavy and heady topics that you address in your work. How do you manage the grief that you must encounter as you work?
Salcedo: I think it is important not to manage that grief, because what is being implied when we say “how do you manage it?” is “how do you put it aside?” We should not be putting that aside. We should place it in the center of our lives. For me it is immoral to forget about these victims. I feel I have an obligation to think of that and to make that the center of my life. So I don’t think the idea that you’re suggesting is what counts; it’s the very opposite. It’s hoping that more and more people pay attention to what’s happening to the victims of these extreme experiences. And actually, if we were all paying attention, it would stop happening.
Index: In October, shortly after the news of Colombian voters’ narrow rejection of a peace deal negotiated between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), you organized the creation of Sumando Ausencias: 7,000 meters of hand-stitched white fabric bearing the names of 2,000 victims of the war, assembled by volunteers in Bogotá’s Bolívar Square. What made you act?
Salcedo: Since 1998, I have created pieces in the public space in Bogotá, and every time I have been responding to a specific [moment of] mourning. When humorist-journalist Jaime Garzon was murdered [in 1999], I made three pieces to honor his memory. I made a piece commemorating the 17th anniversary of the violence at the Palace of Justice in 2002 (Noviembre 6 y 7). Then, when state senators were killed by the FARC [in 2007], I made another act of mourning (Acción de Duelo). That was the last act I did. Maybe this [recent] one had more press because my work is better known, but they’re all done in the same attitude, which is to respond immediately and urgently to a tragic event.
Schneider Enriquez: I think the expanse of Sumando Ausencias needs to be known. It covered the entire plaza.
Salcedo: Yes, but it only included 9 percent of the names. Only 9 percent. [In] this war with the FARC, in 52 years, there have been 220,000 victims. I only had room for almost 2,000. So it is very important to say it was a tiny percentage.
Index: Having this exhibition here at Harvard allows some visitors to deepen their understanding of the Colombian conflict. At the same time, your work is more broadly applicable.
Salcedo: Most of the experiences [I draw from], but not all, come from victims that are Colombian. But . . . the experience is not only Colombian; I’m afraid it is happening in many, many places. So that experience should be seen, I hope, as local, as everywhere. It is addressing experiences that unfortunately touch us as human beings. And I think it’s important to have works of art that can somehow articulate that. Maybe if we stopped seeing it in national terms, we would learn from that.