Saturday, June 9, 2012

This exhibition at The White Cube Mason’s Yard (until June 30) contains two of Salcedo’s installations, A Fleur de Piel (2012) and Plegaria Muda (2008-10), each occupying an entire floor. They are both instantly impressive and deeply moving, almost shockingly so, and the feelings they engender linger and haunt long after you leave the gallery.

The Colombian sculptor constantly draws our attention through her work to human suffering, challenging us to bear witness to acts of violence, to victimisation and to inequality. Shibboleth, the architectural installation that occupied the Tate Turbine Hall in 2007, consisted of a fissure in the concrete floor, which commenced as a thin crack at one end that gradually widened and deepened as it progressed across the hall. The installation was about racism, and the fissure, which Salcedo saw as bottomless, represented the gap between white Europeans and the rest of the humanity.

Her work often involves the transformation of familiar objects into something sinister and shocking. In Untitled, Salcedo removed the doors from a wardrobe she had bought in an antique store, placed a chair within the frame, and then sealed off all the openings with cement, thus fusing all the elements together, creating a concrete tomb-like structure.

Salcedo’s work is explicitly political, frequently a response to killings and disappearances, including her own family, in troubled and unsettled Colombia.

In the current Plegaria Muda installation, the title roughly translates as ‘mute prayer’,¬†the theme of death and loss continues. Salcedo commenced the project in 2004 when she was researching the lives of young people in Los Angeles’ ghettoes. Later, the work was more clearly influenced by the discovery in Colombia of the bodies of 1,500 young men, who had been lured into the army and killed. The installation contains 45 out of the original 162 units that comprise the complete work. Each unit, the approximate length of a coffin, is a sculpture containing two wooden tables, one on top of the other, surface to surface, separated by a slab of earth. The uppermost table has shoots of grass pushing through.

As one negotiates around the ‘coffins’, it feels like a graveyard, silent, eerie, and anonymous. Yet each sculpture is unique and slightly different, reminding us that no-one need be nameless, or forgotten.

The second installation, A Flor de Piel, also deals with suffering, and loss. The work consists of an enormous shroud, make of thousands of connected rose petals – ‘neither fresh not withered’, each of which represents a victim of torture. It is extraordinarily beautiful, and fragile, and utterly tragic.

I was unsettled by this exhibition. Rightly so. Through her art, Salcedo presents human suffering, man’s inhumanity to man, not as stories from another era, but as today’s truths. Acknowledging, remembering, not forgetting, will not undo the atrocities, but may just encourage us to consider what our silence might be colluding with.