“We have lost our ability to mourn,” artist Doris Salcedo said in The New York Times. Salcedo, a native of Bogota, Colombia, has spent much of her life researching the terrible crimes and mass murders committed in her own country and in others. Her work is meant to publicly mourn lives lost to these crimes. The largest American retrospective of Salcedo’s work to date opened in the Guggenheim Museum on June 26.
Her best-known work is what she calls “dysfunctional furniture.” Wardrobes, beds, and other pieces of furniture are fused together, their handles ripped off, their cavities filled with rebar and concrete. They physically evoke the weight of loss. Jason Farago writes for the Guardian, “Her furniture mash-ups bear the weight of history, so heavy they have been dumbstruck. They forcefully advertise their mass and their burden, but also their loss of functionality. They say nothing. They weigh a ton.”
Salcedo is not just addressing a shared grief, as public mourners do. She is addressing a loss that we don’t feel enough, that oftentimes we have forgotten to care about. The pieces attempt help us mourn better, and sometimes to help us mourn these deaths at all. Her art has changed over the years from the ambiguity of concrete furniture to something closer to heavy-handedness.
A Flor de Piel is a room-sized shroud of stitched together rose petals, a memorial to a Colombian nurse who was tortured to death. Her newest, not-yet-begun project, is a memorial for children killed in different shootings. She envisions water droplets spelling out the children’s names. Farago writes that if the massacres in Colombia or in Connecticut school classrooms are not enough to focus our attention, then “something blunter is going to be necessary if you want to get someone to care.”
Getting someone to care, and getting someone to care in the right way, is a main point of Salcedo’s work. Perhaps certain communities have lost their ability to appropriately mourn lost lives because of how they view violence, the fascination sometimes accorded to gore or to atrocities. Removed of particulars in their abstraction, her “dysfunctional furniture” presents without simplistic shock value the terrible sorrow of something dismembered, of something whose purpose has been violated. By evoking this feeling, she helps us to feel and maybe feel as we should about these deaths. Her work is a dirge, and invites us to join in its sorrow.
Watch Salcedo talk about her work.