Chicago

Doris Salcedo at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

The fourth floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is typically an airy space with high ceilings and ample skylights, but currently it is crowded with an overabundance of furniture. Visitors are greeted with the pleasant mineral smell of dirt and a dense maze of wooden tables. The lighting is diffuse, almost grayed, and the galleries take on the look of a luminous dusk, a visual quiet that complements the solemn installations of Doris Salcedo’s retrospective exhibition. The labyrinth, titled Plegaria Muda (2008–10)—or “silent prayer”—consists of pairs of stacked tables with mirrored geometries, their tops separated by a layer of dark brown earth. In the troughs of the upturned table, blades of grass (a bit too neatly arranged to look accidental) poke through the wooden surfaces. The winding path through Salcedo’s prayer is effectively meditative.

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (detail), 1992-2004. Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase:gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein, Patricia and Raoul Kennedy, Elaine McKeon, Lisa and John Miller, Chara Schreyer and Gordon Freund, and Robin Wright. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Doris Salcedo. Plegaria Muda (detail), 2008-10; mixed media. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

After weaving through this opening work, one encounters a series of room-scale installations. As one moves through this archipelago of galleries, the somber stillness of Plegaria Muda continues. In one room, a waxy cloth the color of dried blood extends out from the back wall, its waves and wrinkles creating something of a topographic plane. In another, delicate garments made of thread and needles hang—empty and ethereal—on the wall. In yet another, the visitor finds coffin-like compartments embedded directly into the white gallery walls. Covered with semi-translucent skins, these grotesque shadow boxes contain single or mismatched shoes resting claustrophobically within.

Much has been written about Salcedo’s motivation for making her works and the raison d’etre for the artist’s many objects. Political violence in Salcedo’s homeland, Colombia; gun-related deaths in the cities in which she has worked; grief in response to inexplicable loss of human life; racism and other schisms that divide us violently, one from another—these are the subjects that captivate the artist’s interest. Working in response to these devastations, Salcedo has been creating sculptural and installation-based works for decades. As she remarks in the exhibition catalog: “The only possible response I can give in the face of irreparable absence is to produce images capable of conveying incompleteness, lack, and emptiness.” Both with and without this contextual admission, Salcedo’s works are often interpreted as evocative of human bodies.

Doris Salcedo, Atrabiliarios (detail), 1992-2004. Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase:gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein, Patricia and Raoul Kennedy, Elaine McKeon, Lisa and John Miller, Chara Schreyer and Gordon Freund, and Robin Wright. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Doris Salcedo. Atrabiliarios, 1992-2004 (detail); installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Salcedo’s most recognizable and affecting work is a series of concrete-laden armoires, dressers, chairs, bed frames, and other domestic furniture. This series, produced across two decades, is brought together here in a single large room. The rich wooden frames of the furniture are transformed into solid masses, their bowels filled with rebar and concrete; negative space is erased. In some of these structures, we can see ghosts of other objects—bits of lilac lace pressing, relief-like, against the edge of the concrete, or the partial frame of a chair appearing as if it is floating to the surface of a concrete pool. Posed in a frozen choreography, these objects stand like sentinels around the gallery. Despite the fragility, scale, and expense of these works (auction prices are set at hundreds of thousands of dollars), there are no barriers; they rest on the floor, allowing the audience to wander among them. For me, these are the objects that come the closest to translating intimacy and loss—through an impenetrable presence rather than an absence.

Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

As I walked among Salcedo’s dressers and wardrobes, the words of Michael Fried and those of Gaston Bachelard came to mind. As Fried pointed out, minimalist (or “literalist,” to use his preferred term) sculptures scaled to the human body are read as anthropomorphic “presences” in our encounters with them. The act of viewing moves into one of bodily interaction with these forms that approach “the unitary and the wholistic” scale of “other persons,” an effect that Fried would call “disquieting.” In Bachelard’s romantic vision, these sorts of domestic furnishings—grouped as “Drawers, Chests, and Wardrobes” in a single chapter of his The Poetics of Space—are among the most intimate and personal. He writes: “Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life… They are hybrid objects, subject objects… A wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space that is not open to just anybody.”

If we are to interpret Salcedo’s objects as analogs for bodies, these are bodies that are frozen, inert, trapped, and heavy. The intimate spaces—the voids that Bachelard describes—are filled with cement, the individualities of these objects stamped out definitively. These objects seem to embody oppression, making them strong examples of Salcedo’s inclinations toward the political and tragic. As objects, Saledo’s wardrobes are mysterious and macabre, but also figurative and open-ended. The rest of her retrospective echoes this duality, carrying through Salcedo’s ability to create uncanny environments that are nonetheless explicitly abstract. And yet, as they are framed here—and as they have been elsewhere, in no uncertain terms—these work are meant to speak specifically to loss of life, to political tragedies, and to the artist’s experience as a third-world citizen.

This is where the disconnect lies, for me: between rhetoric and reality. The installation includes little text, but offers an accompanying booklet that spells out the intent and meaning behind each of Salcedo’s cumulative abstractions. In one far corner of the exhibition, an entire gallery is set aside for a video screen on which Salcedo speaks about the meanings of her works. Instead of letting these objects rest—powerfully—in their own ability to communicate loss, alienation, and grief, the artist and the institution found it necessary to recite their meanings for them. Despite the beauty and the power of her installations, I left the exhibition wishing that Salcedo’s works had been framed and appreciated as the strong, sensory, and at times stunning objects that they are—that the exhibition’s organizers had placed enough faith in the powerful voices of the objects to allow them to speak for themselves.

Doris Salcedo is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through May 24, 2015.

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