When war meets art: Doris Salcedo on representing violence without violence

Doris Salcedo: Acts of Mourning is currently on at IMMA in Dublin

After 50 years of bloody civil war in Colombia, which has claimed the lives of at least 220,000, including 177,000 civilians, a fragile peace has emerged in the South American country.

Now, thanks to sculptor Doris Salcedo, ordinary Colombians who lived under the weight of two generations of violence can walk on the very weapons that used to control their lives.

Salcedo’s powerful symbolic work ‘Fragmentos’, unveiled in Colombian capital Bogota last December, is a floor made from 37 tonnes of molten decommissioned guerrilla guns, beaten into textured tiles by 15,000 female survivors of military-led sexual abuse and torture.

The floor is part of a contemporary art centre, where Colombians will be able to enjoy exhibitions, events and performances into the future.

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It’s a memorial, but it’s not a monument; Salcedo describes ‘Fragmentos’ as a “counter monument.”

“When faced with 37 tonnes of weapons, I couldn’t bring myself to put such horror on a pedestal,” she says, in Dublin to launch her first ever Irish exhibition. 

“I thought it was important to reverse the relationship. I wanted the survivors and citizens in general to be able to revert the symbol of arms and power, to be able to walk on them.”

“I invited victims of political violence to hammer the metal, so that their experience of the agency of that experience could be forged into the metal.”

‘Fragmentos’ is very much in keeping with Salcedo’s distinctive modus operandi; listening to the voices of victims of political violence and responding to their testimonies to produce work where everyday objects are imbued with symbolism, has been her approach for the past 30 years.

Sexual violence

In Colombia, as in many other war-torn countries, rape and torture have been used as a weapon of war. 

Salcedo has heard endless accounts from families of disappeared people, women who have been raped, or captured and forced into sexual slavery, and torture victims.

Her large-scale responses to these testimonies, often with a performative element, have included ‘Sumando Ausencias’, an action that covered Bogota’s administrative centre, Bolívar Square, in a shroud of 7,000 meters of white fabric, inscribed in ash with the names of the disappeared.

Volunteering herself as a receptacle for testimonies of violence hasn’t been without its personal toll. 

“All I can say is that pain hurts and there’s no way to avoid that,” she says. “Once you’re exposed to extreme pain, it inhabits your body. 

"These multiple experiences are a part of me now. I can’t leave them aside even for a moment, and they define everything that I do and the way I see the world.”

“It’s really painful. At the same time, my experience can never be as painful as that of the victims of torture and murder. 

"There’s no comparison. I haven’t lost a child, I haven’t been tortured, I haven’t been raped. None of those things have happened to me. 

"It’s important to keep that clear, that what I feel is insignificant compared to what these people have suffered.”

At the same time, the work of listening is, Salcedo believes, a vital part of healing and of following future paths to non-violence. 

“We need to come close to these experiences,” she says. “People are afraid to listen because it’s so painful, but I think that amounts to a lack of love, empathy and solidarity. 

"Because if we were paying attention and if we allowed the pain to hurt us, there would be less violence in the world, I am certain of that. Violence happens when we intentionally ignore the pain.”

She believes, she says, in “art’s ability to affirm the necessity of not remaining silent.” 

The experience must be “expressed and shared.”

There’s often a profound and ominous sense of unease emanating from Salcedo’s work. 

At her exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Acts of Mourning, which contains a selection of her work since the 1990s, one such unsettling piece is ‘A Flor de Piel’, a vast, dull red shroud, hand-stitched from preserved rose petals.

‘A Flor de Piel’, a Spanish idiom whose literal translation is “like the flower of skin,” but which is more closely akin to the English expression “to wear your heart on your sleeve,” is, in Salcedo’s words, a “flower offering to a victim of torture.” 

It was made in response to the story of a nurse believed tortured to death in Colombia, whose body has never been recovered.

The violence is always implicit rather than explicit, preserved in the meaning imbued in the materials Salcedo works with, rather than depicted.

For the artist, this means a constant struggle to “represent violence without violence,” she says: “We have to avoid violence. 

"If you represent violence, you repeat the violence over and over again.”

Tate crack

Salcedo’s anti-violence message is not confined to her native country and the global refugee crises feature prominently; she’s probably best-known for her audacious installation in London’s Tate Modern, where she “installed” a huge crack, running the length of the floor in the building’s vast Turbine Hall, the first artist to intrude on the building’s structure.

Her intention was that viewers contemplate a world divided into haves and have nots, into those who live within the comfortable gated community capitalism provides, and those outside who clamour for inclusion.

‘Palimpsest’, at Madrid’s Palacio de Cristal, saw water bubble through the surface of the ground, endlessly writing and rewriting the names of people who have died crossing the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe.

Salcedo’s work and its central message is universally relevant, and although she often works to a very large scale, she remains uniquely sensitive to individual stories, too.

The killing of Lyra McKee in Derry, with all its resonance for Irish people, and fears that it marks a return to sectarian violence that it has brought, happened on the eve of Salcedo’s arrival in Ireland to install her IMMA show.

Salcedo is uniquely sensitive to the implications in Irish minds of this lone tragedy, and keen to reinforce the message of her life’s work: that political violence damages us all, as a species.

“The Irish journalist who was killed? All our lives have been degraded by that,” she says. 

We lost a lot when that happened, every human being. And that’s why I try to mark these things in my work, because the aesthetic we have in life reflects the ethics we have in life.

“In the face of death and violence, art can be a confirmation of life. It is hope, in itself. 

"I feel that the task of the artist is to give of themselves, because all our lives are degraded by violence.”

Doris Salcedo’s Acts Of Mourning is at IMMA until July 21. www.imma.ie

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