Meet the Season 5 Artist: Doris Salcedo

The above video is excerpted from the Season 5 episode Compassion, premiering on Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Compassion features three artists — William Kentridge, Doris Salcedo, and Carrie Mae Weems — whose works explore conscience and the possibility of understanding and reconciling past and present, while exposing injustice and expressing tolerance for others.

Who is Doris Salcedo and what does she have to say about compassion?

Doris Salcedo was born in 1958 in Bogotá, Colombia, where she lives and works. Salcedo’s understated sculptures and installations embody the silenced lives of the marginalized, from individual victims of violence to the disempowered of the Third World. Although elegiac in tone, her works are not memorials: Salcedo concretizes absence, oppression, and the gap between the disempowered and powerful. While abstract in form and open to interpretation, her works are essential testimonies on behalf of both victims and perpetrators. Even when monumental in scale, her installations achieve a degree of imperceptibility—receding into a wall, burrowed into the ground, or lasting for only a short time. Salcedo’s work reflects a collective effort and close collaboration with a team of architects, engineers, and assistants and—as Salcedo says—with the victims of the senseless and brutal acts to which her work refers.

On the subject of compassion in art, Salcedo says about her 1997-98 work Unland (in the forthcoming Season 5 book):

[In this work] what I tried to do was to transform materials to the point where they are no longer metaphors but metamorphose into something else quite human and quite delicate—to talk of the fragility of human life and also the brutality of power. In order to do that I wanted to make a surface that was incredibly delicate and fragile, that can literally be destroyed if you just pull a little bit of the fabric that covers it. It’s unbelievably fragile. And I think that would generate the idea of fear and compassion as the human response to a tragic event.

The poet Paul Celan, quoting Georg Büchner, uses a very beautiful image: he says that he wishes he could be a Medusa’s head to turn certain things into stone and gather people around that stone as though it were a great masterpiece. In a way that’s what we do. Celan also says that the artist steps outside the human into a different terrain, the terrain of the inhuman, but looking always towards the human. I think that defines what I do and how I try to connect what I research with my work.

Poetry is something that you cannot use in everyday life, but—like the only aspect of our world that is not practical, that we cannot use, that is outside capitalism and consumer society—it is there in its extraordinary uselessness, which is exactly why it is poetic. Without it we would no longer be human. We would just be producing.

What happens in Salcedo’s segment in Compassion this October?

“I am a Third World artist,” says Doris Salcedo, “from that perspective—from the perspective of the victim, from the perspective of the defeated people—it’s where I’m looking at the world.” Filmed in her Bogotá, Colombia studio while preparing a series of abstract Untitled (2008) sculptures based on antique household furniture, the artist devotes careful attention to the tormented wooden finishes and smooth concrete surfaces of her objects. “I don’t work based on imagination, on fiction,” she explains, characterizing her role as a “secondary witness” to the victims of violence whose testimonies she collects as research for her pieces, such as Atrabiliarios (1992-93) at SFMoMA.

“My work is based not on my experience but on somebody else’s experience,” she says, prompting her long-time assistants to narrate the development of major works such as her Unland (1997-98) series of tables, held together with strands of human hair sewn through millions of tiny holes; the ephemeral installation Noviembre 6 y 7 (2000) that spanned 53 hours to commemorate a bloody siege on Bogotá’s Palace of Justice; and the computer modeling and engineering behind Shibboleth (2007), a 160 meter crack in the foundation of Tate Modern in London, for which the artist enlists a Bible story as a parable for the plight of immigrants in Western societies. Reflecting on her position as an artist in a world beset with so much horror and grief, Salcedo surmises that “the word that defines my work is ‘impotence’…but then, as a person who lacks power, I face the ones who have power and who manipulate life.”

Doris Salcedo. Left: "Untitled," 1998. Wood, concrete and metal, 74 x 44 x 21 1/2 inches. Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Right: "Shibboleth," 2007.  Installation at Turbine Hall; Tate Modern, London  Concrete and metal, 548 feet long. Courtesy of the Artist and Alexander & Bonin, New York.

Doris Salcedo. Left: "Untitled," 1998. Wood, concrete and metal, 74 x 44 x 21 1/2 inches. Collection of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Photo: David Heald. Right: "Shibboleth," detail, 2007. Installation at Turbine Hall; Tate Modern, London Concrete and metal, 548 feet long. Photo: Tate Photography, London. Courtesy of the Artist and Alexander & Bonin, New York.

What else has Doris Salcedo done?

Salcedo earned a BFA at Universidad de Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano (1980) and an MA from New York University (1984). Her awards include a commission from Tate Modern, London (2007); the Ordway Prize, from the Penny McCall Foundation (2005, 1993); and a Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation Grant (1995). Her work has appeared in major exhibitions at Tate Modern, London (2007); Castello de Rivoli, Turin (2005); and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (2002), among others. She has participated in the T1 Triennial of Contemporary Art, Turin (2005); Documenta (2002); and the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art (1999). Her work is included in many museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Where can I see more of her work between now and the Art21 premiere this October?

Doris Salcedo is represented by Alexander & Bonin Gallery, New York.

What’s your take on Doris Salcedo’s inclusion in Season 5?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below!