The exhibition of the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s work, which opened June 26 at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (I saw it at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), is a breathtakingly beautiful failure. In room after room, Salcedo evokes those who have disappeared through various forms of violence, those we do not see, and those who are missing from our lives—or at least she claims to. What we experience is a collection of furniture and clothes the artist has removed from use and turned into objects that astonish with their sensuality and monumentality. Whether you can see through this density depends on your commitment to figuring out what they mean, or a profound sense of empathy. You can also just enjoy, if that is not a blasphemous word, their thingness.
Grass grows out of overturned, gray-painted tables through which you wander in the opening gallery (Plegaria Muda, 20018-10). Tables are covered with hair, so fine the guards take delight in pointing it out to you (Unland, 1995-98). Above all, chests, chairs, and tables stand in the gallery, stripped of their finish, filled with concrete, or jammed together so that you understand them not as vessels, but as objects that confront you with their forms and materials as something you want to caress and understand, but that, given their stature of art works in a museum, you never will.
Salcedo, who received an MFA from NYU in 1984, was born and works in Bogota, Colombia, relies on the refuse of former lives—like the chests and a collection of shoes as well as on a team of local craftspeople—to create her objects. She works in series, starting with hospital beds she cut and re-welded into sculptures (Untitled Works, 1986-9) and white shirts she impaled on metal rods (Untitled Works, 1989-90). Then came chairs filled with concrete (Untitled Works, 1989-2008) and the hairy tables. For each of these works, Salcedo has a narrative, claiming that they evoke everything from the victims of gang violence to victims of a rural massacre to those who are merely invisible because “one person’s loss is not registered by somebody else,” as the exhibition catalog puts it.
The most impressive display is the room in which Salcedo has arrayed a collection of furniture, ranging from armoires that tower over you to desks with chairs embedded in the concrete that fills what should be the voids beneath them; there are also beds, chests, and other building blocks of domestic life. The artist has arranged them into a maze through which you wander. She has avoided any sense that you are in a room; instead, you find yourself confronting these objects in their solidity. You can do your best to imagine their occupation, but Salcedo has removed the thing that would make that possible: Space.
That is the beauty of Salcedo’s work: It is completely devoid of void, of space, or of anything that implies a sense of life. Instead, you are confronted with what might be tombstones or monuments, but what are most of all, and through both the attention to surface and the artist’s removal of any emptiness, thorough and thrilling objects.
Doris Salcedo, in other words, creates anti-architecture. Her objects are an antidote to the neutrality of space waiting to be filled by objects or our activities and the primacy of a framework that measures our relation to the objects and to our fellow occupants. She has premade artworks that are so dense and sensual that they remove that possibility. If you can make the intellectual leap that such fullness of things means the absence of human life, then you can make your way into Salcedo’s political and human message. For most of us, however, this art’s beauty remains on the surface. It produces an aesthetic pleasure of what is there, but which we cannot enter, use, or otherwise make our own, and that makes it art of the highest order.