Go inside the worlds of art, fashion, design, and lifestyle.
On view at Fondation Beyeler through September 17 is a solo exhibition by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. The space marks the first museum in Switzerland to devote a comprehensive solo exhibition to the artist, presenting eight major series of works from different periods of her career. Spanning nearly 14,000 square feet of space, the presentation joins around 100 pieces—with some key works on loan from major international institutions, as well as other rarely-seen pieces from private collections.
Known to most for her artistic ability to communicate suffering and injustice—from political and sexual violence to war and death—Salcedo was born in the nation’s capital of Bogotá, where she is currently based. Previously described by the artist as the “epicenter of catastrophe,” the city created a sense of awareness within Salcedo that has fueled her work over several decades, tapping into the ideas and emotions triggered by human suffering.
“Being in Colombia makes you aware of the consequences of violence on a daily basis,” Salcedo shared with Whitewall over Zoom recently. “There’s no escaping what is happening around you, and the horror that takes place is so visible and so prevalent that it’s a catastrophe with no end. It taught me a lot, because in tragedy there are life experiences that are very intense. It’s a condensed capsule of experience. It forced me to be critical—always, always, always.”
To gain a keen understanding of her subjects, she has interviewed countless survivors of political, sexual, and psychological violence, aiming to express their stories through sculpture. “What I'm trying to get out of these pieces is that element that is common in all of us,” she said.
Works that lend form to these experiences have since been seen around the globe. Her installation Chairs at the 8th International Istanbul Biennial (2002) included around 1,550 wooden chairs contained between two buildings to address the history of migration and displacement in the Turkish city. Neither (2004) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago featured wire mesh fencing embedded into the wall of an empty room, depicting the isolating and imprisoning nature of detention centers. Shibboleth (2007) showcased a 167-meter-long crack in the floor of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall to communicate the severity of separation and borders, and the societal tendency to forget other people’s traumas. At the Guggenheim Museum, Salcedo’s “Disremembered” series (2014) featured sheer silk-like garments as a tribute to American parents who lost their children to gun violence. “Tabula Rasa” (2018), including a series of sculptures presented at White Cube in London, was inspired by her conversations with survivors of sexual violence at the hands of armed men.
Most recently, we experienced her installation, Uprooted, a part of the 15th Sharjah Biennial (February 7–June 11) in the United Arab Emirates. Made up of 804 dead trees and resembling a burned home, it was charred from back to front, emitting an eerie ambiance that posed questions about who was there and where they went.
Here at Fondation Beyeler, the large-scale installation Palimpsest (2013-2017), which has remained on view since October 2022, honors migrants and refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seas in search of a better life in Europe. For the installation, she spent five years researching the names of victims that appeared on sand-coloured slabs covering a floor of over 4,3000 square feet.
Another key work in the show, A Flor de Piel (2011–2014), is made of hundreds of rose petals stitched together, forming an ornamental shroud. Spread out in folds over a large area of the floor, its meaning is rooted in a crime committed against a Colombian nurse, whose body, after being tortured to death, was never found. The Spanish phrase “A Flor de Piel” roughly combines references to flowers and skin, commonly used to describe the act of intense emotions becoming visibly exposed to others—such as through a reddening of the skin when feeling overwhelmed. For Salcedo, sewing the petals together was also an important aspect of the work, which visualies and represents the fragility of life.
In the adjoining rooms, tables from the artist’s “Plegaria Muda” 2008–2010 series are seen. These works tie back to research Saledo conducted in Los Angeles on victims and perpetrators of gang violence who shared socioeconomic circumstances or similarly underprivileged backgrounds. The large-scale installation consisted of coffin-sized tables stacked upside down above others in pairs, separated by a layer of dirt. Sprouts of green grass grow from the soil, seen through the table tops. “Plegaria Muda,” translating to “Silent Prayer,” shines a light on the individual burials and the undeniable nature of life moving on, just as grass may grow over a grave.
Other not-miss installations and series in the show include “Atrabiliarios (1992–2004), “Unland,” (1995–1998), and “Untitled,” (1989–93)—all that pay respect and create validity for absent human life.
For all of her creations, material is arguably the most important aspect. “The material itself is essential. I am a sculptor, so I can only try to create an image with materials,” Salcedo added via Zoom. “It is an absolutely essential part of my work. Once I know which materials I’ll use, the piece is clear in my mind. But that’s the most difficult part, trying to find a material that is capable of addressing the experience I’m trying to work in a specific piece. It’s very difficult, and it’s the most challenging aspect of my practice.”