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Getting to grips with grief, in powerful art exhibit

Chair-themed works in the exhibit “Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning.”Harvard Art Museums; © President and Fellows of Harvard College/Presidents and Fellows of Harvar

CAMBRIDGE — Mourning is so hard. When someone we love dies, wrote the essayist Adam Phillips, “something is communicated to us that we cannot communicate.”

Our need to know what that thing is can feel urgent, which accounts for the emotional anarchy inherent in mourning. But of course, another part of us is in no hurry.

Why is that? What slows us down? Why the dirge, the requiem, the ritual march?

The answer, surely, is that one of the things communicated by the death of a loved one — the Morse code message tapped out by eyes blinking away tears — is the fact of our own mortality. It takes a lot (although not as much as we might think) to make us want to rush toward that.


“Doris Salcedo: The Materiality of Mourning” is a small but important show at Harvard Art Museums that negotiates this very big subject. Salcedo is Colombian. She is one of the more critically acclaimed — and lately ubiquitous — artists of our time. She is a sculptor who lives and works in Bogota in a big studio with more than a dozen full-time assistants.

In 2007, Salcedo was commissioned to make a work for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London. “Shibboleth,” as it was called, was essentially a giant crack running the length of the museum, gradually widening from a very thin line into a kind of chasm.

For Salcedo, “Shibboleth” (which should be revived here on the National Mall; it would function as the perfect metaphor for civic life in America) symbolized the fracture at the heart of modernity itself: the “broken” legacy of colonialism (especially in Colombia), the divisiveness at the heart of the drive to modernize.

In 2002, Salcedo spent 53 hours suspending 120 chairs, by rope, from the roof of Bogota’s Palace of Justice. The work marked the anniversary of the 1985 seizure of Colombia’s Supreme Court by left-wing guerrillas, and the 53-hour siege that ensued. The chairs represented the lives lost in the battle, 12 of them Supreme Court judges.


Detail of the installation “Disremembered IV.”Harvard Art Museums/Presidents and Fellows of Harvar

So Salcedo’s works mourn not just loved ones, but fellow citizens, and civic life itself. They mourn an ideal — or perhaps it’s just a hope: that in a civil society one should be able to live in peace, without fear, defended against chaos and barbarism.

Colombians, for much of the past half century, have struggled with this ideal. Conflicts dating back to the late 1950s between left-wing guerillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, government forces, and drug lords have maimed the country. More than 5 million people have been displaced. More than 200,000 were killed, the majority civilians. More than 20,000 were abducted.

Salcedo is famous in part for finding a sculptural language that tries to get to grips with these realities. Her language is metaphorical, and it’s subtly poetic. But what makes it so successful as art is that it is also profoundly aware of its own limitations.

At Harvard, the first works you see are sculptures made from old wooden tables and cupboards. Some are overturned. They’re weirdly fused. Cavities are inexplicably filled with concrete.

Old furniture, broken, awkwardly fused, or otherwise rendered inoperable, is Salcedo’s signature motif. The next room contains an apparently random scattering of broken, fused, and overturned chairs. But in this case, they’re not actual chairs — they’re stainless steel sculptures cast from a wax model based on a wooden original. After casting them, Salcedo carved into the steel to reproduce the wood grain, cracks, and other signs of wear.


In these and similar works, Salcedo reminds me more than any artist of Rodin, the first modern sculptor who knew how to communicate stuckness, psychic blockage, the torment and solitude of our modern, mortal predicament.

Salcedo is a real artist, not just a maker of committee-approved public memorials. In trying to get to grips with specific historical traumas, she knows that metaphor is bound to fall short.

She lets it fall short. Her work is unusually mute, and even stupid — just like the furniture, which simply stands there, past function, its metaphorical possibilities whirring without purpose or traction, like the wheels of an overturned car.

And of course, that is what mourning does to us. Our love for the lost person falls short. It is not possible to retrieve them. Metaphors, which thread together disparate elements of life, enlarging its possibilities, unravel. In the face of death, there really is no available equivalence, no rhyme, no neat aesthetic “rounding off.” The thing is incommunicable. And so Salcedo’s sculptural language is, to an unusual degree, about this blockage and dissonance.

It is a language of forms that looks like it has already been abandoned. And even when it pulls people together, forcing communal remembering, it appears profoundly cognizant of the ultimate solitude of grief.


Salcedo’s works are not just responses to Colombia. The most recent pieces in the show came about after she conducted interviews with Chicago mothers who had lost children to gun violence.

Four transparent “shirts” woven from fine silk thread and thousands of very thin “needles” made from nickel-plated steel hang from the wall. Their empty folds fall naturally. They evoke absent bodies, and also unbearable pain for anyone who should do the impossible and put them on. If grief is communicable, they suggest, it is also untouchable. How long does it take the mother of the murdered child to empty out his cupboard?

Detail of “A Flor de Piel.” Joerg Lohse

The final work in the show, “A Flor de Piel,” is a sort of blanket, spread out on the floor, made from rose petals and thread. The petals, which are the color of drying blood, have been chemically treated to remain suspended in a state that is somewhere between fleshy life and decomposition.

We are in the territory of poetry and metaphor. What could be more poetic than rose petals? But here again, something matter-of-fact about the way the blanket has been spread out on the ground seems to upend the metaphor machine, leaving its wheels spinning.

We can say that the blanket evokes a shroud that might be draped over a beloved body. But whose body would that be? A Colombian nurse, we learn from the label, who was kidnapped. Tortured. Murdered.

“Because mourning can make fundamentalists of us all,” writes Phillips, “because grief (like sexuality) can seem like a cult that could kidnap us, there is always a great deal of social pressure on the grief-stricken to conform, to observe the protocols.” But the protocols can be so very hard to observe.


What I admire about Salcedo’s work is that, although it is concerned with community and repair, it powerfully registers what is not communicable. We try to tame grief with our rituals. And rightly so. But it remains socially divisive, maddening, isolating. When you meet that isolation — in the eyes of the father who has lost his son to heroin, or the wife whose husband was murdered during a break-in — it is very hard to approach.

DORIS SALCEDO: The Materiality of Mourning

At Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, through April 9. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.