The world asks us with oppressive regularity to mourn for strangers. The plea is there in pictures from Aleppo and Brussels and in testimonies from Orlando, Nice, Sandy Hook, and Charleston. We hear it as we imagine the hundreds of souls slipping beneath the surface of the Mediterranean. What does this have to do with us? How do we feel or measure losses that occur across such a distance?
Shortly after dawn a few weeks ago, as Colombians were absorbing the surprising news that voters had rejected a deal to end five decades of civil war, an answer to similar questions started taking shape in the Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota’s main square. Some 10,000 volunteers began quietly stitching together large rectangles of white fabric, each with the name of a victim of the war inscribed in ash. By the afternoon, a tapestry of 1,900 shrouds blanketed the square.
Doris Salcedo, the Colombian artist behind the installation, called it an “act of mourning.” While it had some of the solemnity of a burial rite, the single sheets of fabric also resembled absentee ballots for the peace referendum — itself a contest over truth, memory, and justice.
Salcedo, the subject of a major exhibition opening Nov. 4 at the Harvard Art Museums, is a poet laureate of mourning. Her sculptures and public art have received international acclaim and challenged viewers. In Bogota, her recent installation stirred a mixed reaction. Some critics saw it as insensitive to the politics of the moment or too late to make a difference.
We carry in our minds powerful images of the costs of war and political violence from artists, photographers, and filmmakers. A single country, Spain, has supplied three iconic examples: Goya’s firing squad, Picasso’s “Guernica,” and Robert Capa’s falling soldier. As testimony about warfare, depictions like these once seemed unique or scarce. But that world is gone.
Today, a never-ending stream of violent images assaults us almost daily, like the millions of YouTube videos that have made the war in Syria the most documented humanitarian catastrophe in history. These images can be unforgettable in their own ways: unfiltered, inescapable, gruesome. They cause outrage, but also numbness. There are simply too many, showing too much, to make a difference.
Salcedo has gone in the opposite direction. Behind each piece is a long process of interviewing and collecting stories, about gang violence in Los Angeles and Chicago, torture in Colombia, mass migration. But there are no bodies, no pictures, no retelling of those stories in her work. Instead, she creates material objects that evoke the heavy burden of loss. Household furniture filled with cement. Simple metal and wooden chairs that bear traces of a departed loved one.
This intimate abstraction is one of the things that drew Mary Schneider Enriquez, the curator of the exhibit at Harvard, to Salcedo’s work 20 years ago. “She is so visceral without being explicit,” Schneider Enriquez says. Salcedo, she writes, builds “specter-like works that hover between form and shadow — elusive images, like the memories that fuel mourning.”
A central piece at the Harvard exhibit is “A Flor de Piel,” which Salcedo said she started after hearing the story of a kidnapped and murdered Colombian nurse. It is a composition of thousands of rose petals sutured together in a quilt spilling across the floor. The petals have been treated to remain in a suspended state, on the fragile border of life and death. In an essay last year, Salcedo described the technical obstacles to creating the piece as “the most difficult challenge I have ever faced.”
In a lecture at Harvard in 2013, Salcedo declared, “The only possible response I can give in the face of irreparable absence are images capable of conveying incompleteness, lack, emptiness.” Other artists have used similar language to address the ordeals of millions of migrants and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians in wars. Earlier this year, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei displayed thousands of life jackets discarded by refugees on landmark buildings in Berlin and Vienna.
Can artists be an alternative to the continuous cascade of media that drowns out individual suffering? Salcedo has recognized that a work of art “does not and cannot save a single life; nonetheless it gives us back the dignity and humanity we lose every time a violent death takes place.”
In an interview in Colombia in October, Salcedo explained the purpose of the shroud in the Plaza de Bolivar this way: “For us, those who are still here, it’s up to us to bring those who are missing into the present. Victims of violence only exist if we remember them.”
Philip Bennett is a journalist and professor of public policy at Duke. He recently coproduced the documentary “The Choice 2016” for the PBS series “Frontline.”