On ViewFondation Beyeler
May 21–September 17, 2023
How does one rehabilitate a memory? The eight rooms of Doris Salcedo’s survey exhibition at Fondation Beyeler each explore a different way in which the artist uses everyday objects and materials to trigger a mnemonic reaction that is reflective, nostalgic and mournful. While installations such as Atrabilarios (1992–2004), Untitled (1989–2014), and Palimpsest (2013–17) all refer to specific individuals or tragedies, the works are open-ended. Salcedo is not merely commemorating though; she actively seeks some form of denouement to a scenario that has no resolution in our world.
The prematurely clipped lives of the refugees whose names are listed in Palimpsest appear and reappear in crystalline rivulets of water in neat lines on a sandy floor; as they dry, then reappear, they refuse to be forgotten. The surrogates for the lifeless bodies of insurgents against the Colombian government in the simple wooden tables of Plegaria Muda (2008–10) sprout furtive blades of grass—yet another demand to be remembered, but that can also be understood as a sign of hope, even when that seems impossible. The tools of these metaphysical interventions are often miniscule gestures and objects, such as tiny neat stitches or delicate needles, and the actors portraying these lost people or this lost hope are far from figurative: stolid tables, chairs, bed frames, shirts and blouses, rose petals, and of course words.
While some of Salcedo’s installations have a shred of hope, others are numb with loss. Many of the presences in Salcedo’s installations begin as determinedly inanimate objects that are used to activate the works by alluding to the most basic human activities of planting, sewing, and building. The pursuits of these presences are pointless in that they don’t grow food, make clothing that can be worn, or result in spaces in which to dwell, but when they make a chair un-usable, for example, we are even more cognizant of the missing humans. In Untitled (1989–2016), pieces of furniture are stacked and intersected. Armoires are laid flat and surmounted by tables, side tables are overturned and grafted onto shelves, and everything is then filled with light gray concrete removing the negative space inhabited by people. The aesthetic is lovely: these hybrid forms resemble charming Elizabethan half-timbered houses, but we wonder if the people are somehow trapped inside. Atrabiliarios is more direct: shoes embedded in small wall niches are visible behind cloudy windows of translucent parchment that become like flesh stitched directly to the wall. The installation immediately triggers images of piles of shoes that have become a ubiquitous Holocaust reference, as does the parchment, which perhaps refers to Ilse Koch, the wife of the Buchenwald Commandant, who purportedly made a lampshade out of the flesh of dead inmates. Atrabiliarios becomes a gallery of the disappeared persons to whom the shoes originally belonged, and the distorted presentation, as well as piled boxes similarly made of parchment assembled with neat little stitches, allude to the infinite collection of mysteries lost when each life was snuffed out.
Salcedo’s use of softness describes a ghostly vulnerability that seems to exist just beyond pain. In Disremembered (2020-21), four silk blouses are pinned to the gallery walls. The material itself is almost nothing—close to a cobweb consistency—but interwoven in the fabric of the blouses are needles, resembling porcupine quills. Are these defensive? Self-flagellating? The title implies this sense of revisiting and reconstituting memory: dis-remembered is not forgetting but instead adjusting based on need, and the text accompanying the exhibition states that the work was created to express “Salcedo’s engagement with the grief and anguish of mothers in Chicago who have lost their only child to local gun violence.” The motley wooden tables in Unland: the orphan’s tunic (1997) are similarly coated in an ambiguous silken skin. In this case the surface is not threatening but instead softens these strange objects made from two tables of different heights. Where the silk is, the table becomes a being with ashen flesh, pliable, perhaps dead, but also possibly protected and safe like a caterpillar in its cocoon. Through her memorializations, the artist also protects.
The most striking work in the exhibition is A Flor de Piel II (2013–14), a rubbery convoluted sheet of preserved rose petals stitched together, covering almost the entire floor of the second room. The chimeric sheet is so many things, both lovely and horrific at once. It ripples like water, the petals like floating water lilies, but its slippery shiny surface is flesh-like, and the meticulous stitches recall a Frankenstein-like flayed-skin. Like the furniture and clothing, the realness of the base material is almost too much to bear. The fact that this mysterious sheet really is composed of the most ephemeral medium—rose petals—and that these will not dissolve but are perpetually frozen in time, also hints at the hope that something as similarly fleeting—a memory—will endure as well.