The Impossible, Made Real

December 16, 2016
Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel (detail), 2013. Rose petals and thread. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mr. G. David Thompson, in memory of his son, G. David Thompson, Jr., Class of 1958, by exchange; purchase through the generosity of Elaine Levin in honor of Mary Schneider Enriquez; and purchase through the generosity of Deborah and Martin Hale, 2014.133. © Doris Salcedo. Photo: Joerg Lohse; courtesy of the artist and Alexander and Bonin, New York, and White Cube, London.

How does an artist turn a seemingly impossible idea into reality? How do we ensure that future generations can view art made from ephemeral materials? Those questions are at the heart of curators and conservators’ joint approach to A Flor de Piel (2013), a work featured in the special exhibition Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning (November 4, 2016–April 9, 2017).

Bogotá-based artist Doris Salcedo (b. 1958) addresses the victims of oppression and civil violence through evocative materiality. She describes A Flor de Piel as a shroud for a Colombian nurse who was kidnapped and tortured to death. The room-size work is an unlikely memorial, comprising thousands of treated, preserved, and hand-sewn red rose petals, the most fragile material the artist has ever employed. Carefully draped between three gallery walls, A Flor de Piel forms an expansive, delicate, blood-red textile that conjures a physical sense of loss.

While the sculpture’s presence is undeniably arresting, its fragile medium is equally provocative. Left untreated, rose petals quickly wither and deteriorate; but that won’t be the case for those sewn together in A Flor de Piel. Working with scientists, the artist devised a way to force the petals to remain soft and pliable, suspended between life and death. Conservators anticipate that some degradation and damage will inevitably occur; the challenge, then, is to plan for that eventuality.

“Salcedo created A Flor de Piel wanting to make something that could last, from a material that, by its very nature, doesn’t,” said Mary Schneider Enriquez, the museums’ Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and curator of the exhibition; she has been studying Salcedo’s art for more than a decade. “It raises the question: how do you make the organic endure when its physical properties are ultimately about disintegration?”

Suited for the Setting

Perhaps no institution is better equipped to study, maintain, and exhibit A Flor de Piel than the Harvard Art Museums, home of the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, which is known for its cutting-edge conservation work and close collaboration with curatorial staff.

“Having A Flor de Piel in our collections shines a light on the strong relationship between the divisions, which is one of the great things about our museums,” Schneider Enriquez said. “There’s a dynamism to the discussions that the conservators and I are having about the complicated but fabulous materiality of this piece. It’s a work that provides both an opportunity and a challenge, in terms of its conservation, and there’s something very exciting about that.”

After A Flor de Piel was acquired in 2014, conservators, curators, and collections management staff welcomed a visit from Salcedo’s studio assistant, Joaquín Sanabria, to learn more about the work. Sanabria provided detailed information about how the sculpture was made. The petals, for instance, were carefully treated to retain their pliability, using a complicated technique developed by Salcedo’s studio. Narayan Khandekar, director of the Straus Center and a senior conservation scientist, explained the process in his essay “Inherent Vice and the Ship of Theseus,” published in the Harvard Art Museums’ catalogue Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning

[It] involves treating the petals first with turpentine, followed by glycerin and collagen, followed by an immersion in shellsol and pigment; then pressing them between sheets of Mylar with glycerin and pigment; then soaking and saturating them with pigmented wax; before finally flattening them in between high-density foam for a month. The petals are stitched together with waxed thread, and the juncture between the petal and thread is also waxed. They are oriented for sewing in accordance with a set of rules; for example, three petals must overlap per stitch, and no stems must be positioned together.

From Sanabria, conservators were able to learn important repair techniques, in order to fix any damaged petals or portions of A Flor de Piel on the spot. 

Still, conservators are taking great care to monitor and maintain the work, said Khandekar. “It is an experimental medium, and we can’t fully predict its behavior,” he said. “However, we have a long history of research into artists’ materials and conservation issues, so we are well equipped to handle challenges as they come along.”

Conservators and museums staff added to their knowledge about A Flor de Piel (as well as other works by Salcedo) during the installation of the exhibition. During this time, Salcedo was on site to share further insights about her creative process and artistic intentions, in an interview with Angela Chang, assistant director of the Straus Center and conservator of objects and sculpture. Chang’s interview is part of a long-term project to document the intentions of contemporary artists whose works are in the museums’ collections. Future conservators will be able to consult these firsthand reference materials to ensure that artists’ intentions are honored.

An Important Moment

Armed with a strong working knowledge of how A Flor de Piel was created and how it can be maintained, museums staff were fully prepared for its installation.

When the sculpture was acquired, it came with a number of additional objects that are used for its storage and installation, including a machine to tightly roll and unroll portions of the work. The artist’s studio also supplied components to form an armature, over which the work can be draped for display. With help from museums staff, Salcedo and her assistants personally oversaw (and documented) the installation.

Visitors will find that A Flor de Piel speaks vividly and powerfully to a number of complicated subjects: not only political violence, injustice, and the remembrance of victims of oppression, but also the notion of holding on to the past, encapsulated in the work’s contradictory materiality. “For so many reasons,” Schneider Enriquez said, “A Flor de Piel really resonates at this moment.” 

Curator Mary Schneider Enriquez, Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, discusses Salcedo’s work A Flor de Piel.