Exhibition Review: Doris Salcedo Retrospective

21.02.2015 – 24.05.2015


220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611, United States


Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has several exciting exhibitions on display this spring, one of which is the Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo’s first-ever retrospective show. The exhibition takes place at the top floor of the building and is superbly laid out across eleven rooms following a rough timeline in the artist’s career. A Salcedo fan can find everything here, from her first untitled works to some of her most recent works such as ‘Dismembered’ and ‘A Flor de Piel’. ‘Plegaria Muda’, also, makes its first appearance in the US at the MCA.

First thing I encounter immediately as the lift doors open into the darkened entrance of the fourth floor, is something visually captivating, a field that resembles a graveyard or the remnants of a burnt out ancient city. Translating into English as “silent prayer”, ‘Plegaria Muda’, presents a vast and immersive installation consisting of repeated sculptural units, each created by inverting a wooden table on top of the other and trapping a soil-like material in between. Small blades of fresh grass come to life through the cracks of the wooden tables, which are made to resemble coffins. Due to the mixture of natural materials and everyday objects used in the making, it brings to mind many of Arte Povera sculptures. According the exhibition guide, this installation explores the ramifications of gang violence in Los Angeles and also inspired by Salcedo’s first hand witnessing of the mass graves and grieving mothers in Columbia. However, ‘Plegaria Muda’ goes further than merely making a social comment, it tries to provide comfort by virtue of visually manifesting the netherworld in the land of living where everyone has in common, is their grieving hearts beating inside their rib cage, whether in the artist’s native country Columbia or in the United States.

Plegaria Muda 2008-2010

The themes of loss and mourning carry on towards the rest of the exhibition and I feel that the sense of overwhelming poignancy is intensifying as I make my way into the next room through the narrow pathways of ‘Plegaria Muda’. The next couple rooms contains Salcedo’s ‘Untitled Works’ from 1986 to 1990’s in which she presents an array of hospital beds, garments made out of plaster and peculiar combinations of metal objects amalgamated into each other in the most bizarre ways.

Untitled Works 1989-1990

Possibly the most striking piece at the exhibition is ‘Atrabiliarios’ consisting of worn female shoes embedded into the walls of the gallery and hidden behind veils of preserved, semi-transparent animal skin held in place with medical sutures. People who have been lost or deceased being represented by the objects or clothing items they left behind is a reoccurring motif in Salcedo’s work. ‘Atrabiliarios’ is too a deeply moving and haunting installation where I can almost feel the eerie presence of the ones who have been perished.


Atrabiliarios 1992-2004

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Untitled Works 1989-2008

The exhibition also displays a documentary film in which the artist talks about her practice and explains how it is directly influenced by the violent Columbian history and politics, further illuminating the conceptual aspect of her art works, as well as giving insights into her methodologies through behind the scenes clips. “Being in a violent country”, she states, “you can not act as if the violence is not happening”. She, then adds that she wants to create works of art to find meaning outside this violence: lines, which beautifully sum up her artistic practice. A selection of books about the artist and some theoretical resources from her own library are also available to read in the video room, which is a great opportunity to be able to contextualise her work and open up new interpretations.

Salcedo’s retrospective exhibition, above all, is an homage to the victims of violent conflicts in her country and everywhere else around the world. Throughout the duration of my visit, I was constantly reminded of those who lost their lives under the ruling of relentless governments and that we are all prone to become victims of some form of institutionalised violence at some point in our lives. My mind kept on wandering back to the vision of green grass at the entrance of the exhibition as a symbol of hope in order to find relief from the crushing sense of gloom.

It is almost impossible to separate Salcedo’s highly political views and her socially conscious disposition from her identity as a sculptor. Her works are born out of the difficulties of living in a violent country and experiencing losses every single day, so, it is no surprise that her retrospective exhibition is filled with heavy poignancy. I first got to know Salcedo’s work through her public intervention in my hometown, Istanbul, during the 8thIstanbul Biennial in 2003 in which, she fitted more than a thousand chairs into the narrow space left between two houses after a demolition. Needles to say, she has been an inspiration to me since then. Upon visiting her retrospective at the MCA, I felt that her artistic career was represented in an incredibly thorough way and in its entirety. The exhibition is organised by Curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm and Pritzker Director Madeleine Grynsztejn and is available to view until 24thMay 2015.