More than a decade’s worth of research has informed the Harvard Art Museums’ latest book, Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning. Written by Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the museums, the book complements the upcoming special exhibition Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning (November 4, 2016–April 9, 2017). A Colombian artist, Salcedo is known for her sculptures and public installations that honor, acknowledge, and mourn victims of civil violence and injustice.
The meticulously researched volume grew out of Schneider Enriquez’s Harvard dissertation on the artist, a project for which Schneider Enriquez became deeply familiar with Salcedo and her work (even visiting her studio in Bogotá). Rather than focusing just on the sculptures in the special exhibition, Schneider Enriquez’s book explores Salcedo’s oeuvre in the context of Colombia’s sociopolitical environment as well as in relation to other artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, and fellow Colombian artists Beatriz González, Oscar Muñoz, and Juan Manuel Echavarría. Schneider Enriquez also illuminates six visual strategies that Salcedo returns to again and again in her works, including the concept of space, the materiality of surface, time as a material presence, and disjunction and disorientation.
The book traces the important role of materiality in Salcedo’s works. “From her early use of cement, wood, and stainless steel with inclusions of fabric and hairs, to her decision in recent years to construct works with soil and grass or thousands of sutured rose petals … [Salcedo] has tested the possibilities of materials,” Schneider Enriquez writes. Salcedo’s A Flor de Piel (2013), for instance, is a room-sized tapestry of stitched-together rose petals preserved in an unlikely state between life and death. The work “stretches the capacities of materials, constructing a materiality that is difficult to comprehend and at times seems impossible: the sutured rose petals that don’t wither.”
The organic materiality and ephemeral nature of A Flor de Piel poses a challenge to conservators seeking to care for it. An essay in the volume by Narayan Khandekar, director of the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies and senior conservation scientist, tackles this complex topic, shining light on how the Straus Center has researched and planned for the treatment and long-term storage of the object. The issues raised by A Flor de Piel are not limited to that object; as Khandekar acknowledges, many other modern and contemporary works in nontraditional media underscore the tenuous relationship between original artistic intention and the responsibilities of conservation.
With the collective insight of Khandekar, Schneider Enriquez, and even the artist herself, who has contributed a short essay, the book offers a remarkable opportunity to learn more about Salcedo, her creative process, and the distinctive materiality of her works. Salcedo’s art rewards those who engage in close, thoughtful study of it, Schneider Enriquez believes. “There is nothing easy or readily accessible” about Salcedo’s sculpture, Schneider Enriquez writes, but her work “matters immensely.”