Making monuments for the dead is one of the oldest functions of sculpture. We’ve been creating memorials like this for thousands of years. Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, the first winner of the Nasher Sculpture Prize, pursues this line of work. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, her memorials are different.
They’re different for good reason.
“In all of my work,” Salcedo said Friday, “I have addressed only one issue: political violence. I have focused on political violence, not simply because I am Colombian, but because I strongly believe violence defines our society. And, it is for this reason that for the past 30 years I have remained immersed in mourning, and my work has been the work of mourning.”
Colombia has endured the longest-running civil war in the West – a decades-long conflict pitting the government, right-wing death squads, drug cartels and left-wing guerillas against each other. The Nasher Sculpture Center is currently exhibiting Salcedo’s work, ‘Plegaria Muda,’ loosely translated as ‘silent prayer.’ It’s a room full of stacked and upside-down tables. It looks like an empty cafeteria after closing time. But the wooden tables also suggest coffins, and in between the table slats, sprigs of grass grow. The artwork was partly inspired by Salcedo’s visits to mass graves. There, Colombian mothers looked for their murdered sons.
“In my work,” Salcedo explained, “I have tried to describe violent death without ever repeating or reproducing the violent act itself.”
The 57-year-old Salcedo spoke to nearly 400 people at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts Friday – part of a weekend celebration of the new Nasher Prize. In her 40-minute lecture, Salcedo explained why her sculptures never portray dead bodies, why they don’t shout with outrage or grief. They are silent witnesses. Or silent prayers. Salcedo uses objects like overturned tables or wardrobes filled with concrete, even a shroud of rose petals that looks like a pool of blood or a flayed human skin to suggest the people who are no longer here.
That’s because “the most important things cannot be said directly,” said Alexander Potts. “In a way, it almost cheapens them to say them directly.”
Potts is a British art historian, author of ‘The Sculptural Imagination’ and a member of the Nasher prize jury. Potts believes by avoiding more obvious statements of anger or loss, Salcedo’s works achieve a powerful but indirect visual drama. They suggest, they haunt. Ironically, sculpture is (generally) all about presence, solidity, the three-dimensional. Yet Salcedo uses solid objects to convey absence. She turns the sturdy and the ordinary into the ghostly.
By the 20th century, traditional ways of memorializing the dead began to be viewed with suspicion. Heroic statues of generals, bronze figures of fallen soldiers – these seemed trivial, even misdirected in the face of horrific slaughters like World War I and the Holocaust. And in our increasingly digital world, any solid object like a statue can look old-fashioned. That’s why Potts argued the Nasher Prize has come at an important moment.
“There’s a way in which sculpture has had a bad rep,” he said, “with post-modernism, the death of the object and that sort of thing. So I think this is a good moment to re-affirm sculpture as a significant practice.”
Jeremy Strick is executive director of the Nasher Sculpture Center. He believes Salcedo has redeemed political mourning as an art, making it once again a powerful human expression. Having heard Salcedo’s lecture, Strick said he’s even more firmly convinced the Nasher jury made the right decision. Honoring Salcedo sends a signal about what sculpture is capable of.
“I feel that the choice of Doris Salcedo really affirms the importance of creating this prize,” Strick said. “If you want to ask why does sculpture matter, how can sculpture speak to this moment in a way that is profound, that’s Doris Salcedo.”