Interview with Doris Salcedo

Marguerite Feitlowitz: As the new Editor of this magazine, I am very insistent that ours is a humanistic project, that it isn’t enough to expose and analyze only war crimes, violence, and horror. It is imperative that we also explore the creative discourses that are born as a response to brutality, complicity, opportunism, and psychic and social sclerosis.

For me, your works and artistic process stand out for all the right reasons: your absolute respect for the individuals you interview, resistance in the face of formally facile or narrative “solutions,” and painstaking manual labor. These all come together to form what I would call an ethical code.

Doris Salcedo: I would prefer not to talk in terms of an ethical code in relation to my work, for in attempting to confront inhumanity my position as an artist is precarious. Primo Levi teaches us that each extreme experience imposes extreme limits on the individuals who live through it—victims as well as victimizers. Absolute situations are very complex, and it is precisely within that complexity that we find what it is to be human. In bearing witness to inhumanity we learn to recognize humanity.

My work is based on the testimonies of victims of violence, on experiences that are alien to me. I am not a direct witness, I am witness to the witness, a secondary witness. I search for an intimate proximity with the victims of violence that will permit me to stand in for them as I actually make the work, but in such a way that their experience takes precedence over my own.

MF: In all my years of interviewing Argentine survivors of the Dirty War torture centers and relatives of desaparecidos, I was constantly haunted by the question: How can I justify my alien presence in the midst of so much intimate pain? 

DS: Exactly. You need to be there; the individual impelled to testify needs you for you to be there. Yet there is still this impossibility: I cannot speak for anyone I interview. My work is driven by this need to try and fail, over and over. Only during the actual process of creation, as I struggle against the panic engendered by the horror, does the overwhelming sensation of failure temporarily recede.

MF: Yet your installations are so powerfully articulate. They never give in to what might be called `the tyranny of narrative,’ but their sense is undeniable. For example, the piles of impaled starched white shirts you did in 1989-90. Carefully folded in columns of varying heights, the sheer number of shirts speaks to the great number of killings; the immaculate, ordered quality of this installation suggests bureaucracy, orders handed down from on high.

DS: The victims have been forced to the edge that separates what is human from is inhuman, they perceive the world differently [from the rest of us], they feel like strangers. [Franz] Rosenzweig says that the only language appropriate to the tragic hero is silence, and that every work that approaches tragedy must guard this silence.

I present an image that is loaded with experience yet silent, without anecdote, where the viewer, in an act of silent contemplation, may bring his own memory of pain into contact with that of the victim, and it is from this juxtaposition that the meaning of the work arises.

MF: Shoes are a dominant element in the series you call Atrabiliarios, an archaic Spanish word whose Latin roots, atra bilis, combine profound mourning with bile, or rage. You `buried’ the shoes, many of which lack their mate, in wall niches, which you then covered with translucent animal fiber and closed with surgical thread. The process itself, one of humble care and profound homage, calls up ancient customs; the effect on the viewer is one of searing loss. The shoes are at once homely and familiar, but because they are sealed off and their outlines are indistinct, they seem to be fading before our eyes into another realm.

 It is more and more difficult to find the diffuse boundary between the intimate and the political. The grief of the relatives of desaparecidos—like all grief—is of an intimate nature, but when the essence of these events is political, I believe the society must acknowledge it. I am interested in showing that social injury, its collective character.

The direct witness to forced disappearance is not here, cannot tell us his experience. My work is about the impossibility of seeing, of knowing, and of communicating.

So to return to your comment—yes, shoes are an important image of the Holocaust, as you must know. The history is different, but the resonance is similar.

MF: You’re referring to the shoes in Yad Vashem.

DS: Yes.

MF: In La casa viuda [The Widowed House, 1992-94] we see how pervasively intimate and domestic the violence has become. In La casa viuda I, a found door stands alone; pushed against it is a small, low, distressed wooden table, partially wrapped in fragments of lacey white cloth—doily? tablecloth? curtain? dress? nightgown? glove?. The piece calls up absence and wreckage and bandaging (even surgery, owing to prominent stitching), but it also makes a declaration: There was a whole gregarious family living here, they received their friends with style and elegance. The piece is extremely succint, yet it hits you with many associations all at once.

DS: This work refers to forced displacement. The displaced person is an extreme and paradigmatic figure for our epoch, the figure who has broken the connection to his birthplace and so lacks a place of his own. He is the immigrant no one wants to be close to, who is rejected by everyone.

Humans are spatial beings, we need a place to eat, a place to write, to think, etc. It is impossible to disassociate space from human experience. The Casa Viuda [The Widowed House] series refers to those millions of human beings who have no space.

I am also interested in the image of the artist as a displaced person. An artist does not occupy a central place in his work, the center is inhabited by the experience of another being.

MF: Furniture figures prominently in your oeuvre: wooden wardrobes with shirts and dresses embedded in concrete showing through the glass doors; the empty bedframe; dressers whose drawers are cemented shut. You arrange these pieces in different configurations depending on the exhibit space.

DS: It is only in the particular space that the viewer can establish a relationship with the image I present. Only in the viewer’s silent contemplation can some aspect of the victims’ experience emerge.

For this reason, I consider all of my pieces incomplete when they leave the studio. They are finished when they are placed in a particular site. Then the exhibit closes, and the pieces can be re-assembled in different spaces. There is no closure on this level.

MF: There is a remarkable tension in your work between the notion of shared public space and a strong sense of displacement. You have bunched these pieces together in cavernous sites (including a cathedral), strewn them around galleries in lonely formations, situated them to block doorways and passageways.

DS: My task is to articulate the different elements that have been given to me by the individuals who so generously tell me their stories. That is why I attempt to put myself in the victim’s place and to work with the materials that this person might have had within reach. I then elaborate those materials with gestures related to the extreme experience of the victim. The experience of these marginal individuals is invisible to the majority of the population, which prefers to ignore what is happening; for this reason the spatial location is directly related to the precarious position these individuals occupy in our society.

As we were saying earlier, I call attention to the life that was destroyed, that is being destroyed as we speak. I do this in part by stripping objects of their function, by shifting their context.

MF: One of your most extraordinary—perhaps I should say extreme—pieces isThe Orphan’s Tunic, originally inspired by your interview with a six-year-old girl whose mother was murdered before her eyes. For days, according to your account, this child refused to change out of the dress she was wearing when it happened, a dress her mother had made for her. The work in question is, of all surprising things, a wooden table, whose surface glows, as though bathed in moonlight. On close inspection, we see that the surface is covered by a thin membrane of white silk that falls unevenly around the table’s legs. The wooden surface is punctured in many places; the strands of silk and human hair are literally sewn into this network of tiny wounds. You have taken the narrative of this event, which centers on the child’s dress, and expanded it with the table to encompass a whole spectrum of family togetherness. The workmanship is itself a ritual of grief. It is so painstaking, so difficult, that I can’t help but think of penitence. Is that an exaggeration?

DS: It goes back to what I was saying earlier. I work from a profound sense of my own limitations, and also from the limits imposed on the person who inhabits the center of the work.

The gesture on which that image is constructed is particularly difficult; it isn’t penitence in the religious or judicial sense, it is the most difficult and useless work that I could do on the surface of the tables. What interested me was the obsessive elaboration of these images, the exaggerated, limitless waste that this implies.

And yet, the image is insignificant in the face of the waste of human lives.

MF: Your process is marked by extensive reading—particularly in poetry, philosophy, and what is often called the Literature of Disaster. Among the authors you frequently mention are Bataille, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Emmanuel Levinas. Does this intense immersion in reading—which you seem to do after your interviews and before you actually begin to construct—provide you with a kind of distancing device? I’m fascinated that none of your interviewees has ever recognized him- or herself in your constructions.

DS: I am constantly citing. I believe it is essential to show the origins of some of the ideas in my work. For that reason, in my exhibition catalogues, there are always sections dedicated especially to quotations (for example, in the New Museum catalogue published by Phaidon).

The artist’s job, as I understand it, is quite humble. It isn’t that of creator, playing God, it means being a witness, not only to the events that surround us, but also to contemporary thought. The work of the artist is to assemble different elements—events, thought, other works of art—in order to create an image.

MF: Internationally you are by far the most promiment Colombian artist of your generation. Yet your working life is exceedingly private, even solitary (except for your studio collaborators).

DS: I have chosen to live in a state of displacement, as an outsider. This is essential to my work. It is the only way to maintain a critical distance from the society in which and for which I am working.

MF: But you did spearhead a landmark public art gesture to honor Jaime Garzón, a humorist and media figure who was slain by the paramilitaries in August 1999.

DS: Yes, though it’s important to say that this was a communal act, so I don’t consider it part of my oeuvre. And as artists we were responding, in part, to a spontaneous popular action: on the wall opposite Garzón’s house, people immediately started putting up notes and messages to express their rage and sorrow. On a 150-metre stretch of wall, we hung 5,000 roses blossoms down, and let them wither. A fragile, ephemeral site of memory.

There were three different events: the first took place a week after his death; the second a month later; and the third on the one-year anniversary. For the last event, we had 45,000 roses, and with Garzón’s brother and sister, we walked the exact route that he had driven on his final day. We made a line of roses that was four-and-a-half kilometres long, until we reached the spot where he was murdered.

Garzón, who was famous for his caricatures of Colombian social types, was emblematic. We registered the grief and loss that engulfs our entire country.

MF: The action became a model.

DS: Yes, a little later when a professor was killed at the national university, students covered a university wall with roses.

MF: Such pieces are clearly about remembrance, but on the whole I think that the theme of memory has been over-applied to your work.

DS: I think that may be right. A country like Colombia that has endured an armed conflict for more than forty years needs a strange mix of memory and oblivion. For this reason the kind of memory that most interests me is Forgetful Memory, by which I mean memory that be mediated, that can evolve, that is capable of establishing distance, and not getting locked in to a vicious circle of useless vengeance.

MF: When I stand in one of your installations, what I feel most strongly is the power of that particular space, and the issues (responsibilities) that arise from my own presence there. It is a very immediate rush of association, emotion, and physical sensation. Your installations force the viewer to engage in hard acts of translation—a process that makes us highly conscious of the present moment.

DS: I work with the notion of duration, which is not exactly the present. The situation in Colombia is one of constant fear, which destroys the normal flow of time.

The past presents itself as our imminent future. Any sense of the present is consumed by memories of past; constant dread obscures both present and future.

There is a more positive aspect to this notion of duration. Art is duration and so permits the experience of the other to perdure. It presents a past event as a present reality that resonates so eloquently for the viewer that his powers of observation—contemplation—are quickened, intensified. Art allows for encounter, for the creation of relations between individuals who never knew each other. Relations that last only for the instant of observation, but which in some way give continuity to the victim’s life.

MF: Is there any difference in your perception of the violence on the left and the violence on the right?

 One is the mirror image of the other. Brutality and irrationality are common to both armies. The different bands that fight in this war lack political goals, all they are fighting for is their own survival. The reality is complex and absurd—the leftist guerrillas are not only the oldest guerrilla movement on the continent, they are also the richest and most conservative; the paramilitaries, increasingly independent of the military, are psychopathic mercenaries who are completely out of control. They are all in the drug trade, there’s no such thing as limits. Anything can happen at any moment to anyone. It is total chaos and will get worse.

MF: Why do you stay?

DS: I am a witness. I must stay in order to testify. Otherwise, what is my reason for being?