Noviembre 6 y 7, 2002. Lead and steel, dimensions variable.

Life Might Prevail: Doris Salcedo’s Plegaria Muda

Doris Salcedo’s Plegaria Muda is a passionate cry of denunciation against injustice, crime, and abuse and a mute prayer for a better world. A space to commemorate victims of murders perpetrated all over the world, it honors people whose only fault is to have no rights, or graves to mark their existence. It also offers “hope” because—as Salcedo says—“life might prevail.”

Though generated by acts of violence, Salcedo’s installation invites us into a contemplative stillness. It does not tell stories of individual victims, but gives voice to a collective trauma that has opened wounds across an entire social fabric. Plegaria Muda steps beyond private, anonymous invisibility and confronts us with the repressed, unfathomable grief unleashed when violent death is reduced to insignificance, part of a “strategy of war.” Salcedo explains how, for months, she “accompanied a group of mothers who were searching for their disappeared sons and identifying them in the graves revealed by the murderers.” Her hope is that “this work can, to some degree, evoke each death and restore its true dimension, thus allowing these profaned lives to be returned to the sphere of the human.”

At the threshold of Plegaria Muda, which was recently shown at Rome’s MAXXI, we refrain from thinking, breathing, or moving, aware that we are entering a different world. We feel compelled to adapt ourselves to the mystic atmosphere of the place, with its peculiar light, smell, and almost complete lack of noise. It doesn’t matter if we “believe” or are agnostic; it doesn’t matter what our eyes see, we still feel that we have to pay respect. We are in a cemetery, face to face with the mystery of death and perhaps resurrection.

Plegaria Muda is composed of more than 100 pairs of wooden tables. In each pairing, one table is turned upside down and placed over the other, separated by a block of earth from which thin blades of grass emerge. In its modular repetition, the work evokes a collective burial, and it serves as a metaphor for sacrificial lives led on the margins of society. Salcedo wants to pay homage to citizens massacred by the Colombian army, as well as to victims of violent death in the Los Angeles suburbs, where she conducted research and recognized the effects of the same gratuitous violence found in every corner of the globe. Plegaria Muda is a prayer for those people who, in situations of poverty, have no voice to speak of their existence and hence appear not to exist. However, it is also, and above all, a tribute to life: plants grow from the tables/coffins of this never-celebrated funeral, symbolizing resurrection and rebirth. The smell of damp earth and fresh grass makes Plegaria Muda a “living” work of art. The labyrinthine disposition of the tables/coffins, the silence, and the discreet lighting contribute to an intense and all-encompassing experience involving the mind, body, and senses. The emotional impact is strong and generates deep feelings of mercy, compassion, anger, and hope.

Installation for the 8th International Istanbul Biennial, 2003. 1600 chairs stacked in the space between two buildings.

Pieces of common furniture, like the tables in Plegaria Muda, play a key role in Salcedo’s vocabulary. Since the beginning of her career, she has made sculptures and installations using domestic materials charged with a significance accumulated over years of everyday use. Her early works were made with simple items such as wardrobes, tables, and chairs, as well as clothing, thread, and animal skins. By molding and reshaping these objects—embedding a chair within a doorframe, grafting two tables into an unstable hybrid—she created traumatized, dysfunctional objects, telling us of lost or destroyed previous lives. Each article of clothing, for instance, implied a nameless wearer.

In Atrabiliarios (1992–93), old shoes (in pairs and alone) are encased in a wall, covered by sheets of translucent, stitched animal skin. The shoes, which belonged to disappeared women, were donated by the families of the victims. Rendered almost invisible by the skin, the hazy vision of these relics arouses the memory of all those whose whereabouts are unknown, suspended between an anonymous present and past.

As Salcedo explained to Carlos Basualdo, “Atrabiliarios is not only a portrait of disappearance, but a portrait of the survivors’ mental condition of wracking uncertainty, longing, and mourning…I work with materials that are already charged with significance, with meaning they have acquired in the practice of everyday life…then, I work to the point where it becomes something else, where metamorphosis is reached.”

In La Casa Viuda (1992–95), Upland: Audible in the Mouth (1998), and a series of untitled sculptures (1989–2001), she took found doors, tables, armoires, chairs, bed frames, and other pieces of furniture—objects symbolic of the domestic sphere and its sustaining social bonds—and opened, flayed, dismembered, and grafted them together in brutal and disturbing juxtapositions. Cement filled the voids of drawers and shelves in order to negate any remaining original function and make way for the emergence of sculptures that testify to the destruction of the home.

Plegaria Muda, 2008–10. Wood, mineral compound, metal, and grass, dimensions variable.

While Salcedo’s early sculptures and installations took their starting point from domestic objects directly linked to personal and political tragedy, her later work has replaced objects considered in themselves with more installation-oriented strategies. Tenebrae: Noviembre 7, 1985 (2000), which announced the transition, was inspired by events that Salcedo witnessed. In 1985, Colombia’s Palace of Justice, in the heart of Bogotá, was seized by leftist rebel forces who trapped more than 300 civilians inside. During the ensuing counter-offensive, the building was torched and 100 people died. The Colombian government never formally acknowledged its responsibility for those deaths. Tenebrae is a sculptural environment (installed at various locations) that denounces such acts and obstructions to commemoration. Entering the first of two galleries, the viewer confronts a physical obstacle: two chair forms cast in lead are positioned on the floor, and the extended legs of another 11 chairs pierce the walls, partially absorbed into the room’s physical structure.

In 2002, Salcedo returned to the same dramatic event for Noviembre 6 y 7, a site-specific performance in Bogotá. The performance lasted for the same duration as the siege of the Palace of Justice. To create “an act of memory,” wooden chairs were slowly lowered against the façade of the Palace of Justice from different points on its roof. At 11:35 a.m. (the time when the first victim of the siege died), the first chair was lowered, and at different speeds and intervals, another 280 chairs followed over the 53 hours of the performance.

Salcedo frequently takes specific historical events as inspiration. Many of her works are based on thorough investigations into human conflict in different parts of the world and at different times in history.

In a subtle and poetic—although equally powerful and authoritative—language, she explores the universal phenomenon of violence and the effects that it leaves behind.

Particularly with her later works, Salcedo has taught us to cultivate the memory of all victims of crime, violence, and abuse. As her work shifted from the “single” to the “community,” she abandoned the need to refer to particular events. Installation for the 8th International Istanbul Biennale (2003) commemorates anonymous victims without any reference to a specific incident. In the empty space between two buildings in central Istanbul, Salcedo piled up 1,600 wooden chairs to evoke untold personal stories filling a collective grave.

Abyss, 2005. Bricks, cement, steel, and resin epoxy, 441 x 1386 x 1624 cm. Installation at the Castello di Rivoli, Turin.

To create the site-specific Abyss (2005) at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, Salcedo reworked one of the castle’s grandest rooms by extending its vaulted brick ceiling. The installation transformed a luminous, welcoming space into an uncomfortable place of incarceration and entombment. Entering a low doorway partially bricked in at its top and sides, visitors immediately felt constricted, their bodies instinctively bending down and closing in. The walls of the room were encased in a curtain of brick and cement that hung from the dome. Since the curtain walls did not touch the ground, the space felt as if it were on the verge of collapsing, adding to the feeling of oppression and danger.

Neither Installation for the 8th International Istanbul Biennale nor Abyss can be tied to a specific instance of violence; instead, both installations evoke the constant, global presence of oppression, injustice, and inhumanity. While the Istanbul work produced a metaphorical image of chaos and violence, at the Castello di Rivoli, the sense of danger was much more direct—Abyss did more than allude, it instilled a feeling of oppression and constriction in the heart of each viewer, affecting his or her behavior and attitude.

These works prepared Salcedo for Shibboleth, her Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern. The first artist to intervene directly into the fabric of the building, Salcedo gave voice to victims of all the injustices that, through the centuries of “civilization,” have separated people and armed one against the other. Rather than fill Turbine Hall with an installation, she opened up a subterranean wound in the floor that stretched the entire length of the former power station. The concrete walls of the crevice were ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between elements that resisted yet depended on one another. The scar began as a thin, almost invisible line at the main entrance and gradually widened into a chasm at the far end. This fault line-like insertion evoked the brokenness and separateness of post-colonial cultures, a metonymy for an absence that negates the space of post-colonial peoples.

Salcedo dramatically shifted perceptions of Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth raised questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and its values, and about the ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built, about the racism and colonialism that underlie the modern world.

The word “shibboleth” acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. It is used to exclude those considered unsuitable. “The history of racism,” Salcedo wrote, “runs parallel to the history of modernity and is its untold dark side.” For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the denial of basic rights to others. With Shibboleth, Salcedo focused attention on the existence of a large, socially excluded underclass present in all societies.

Breaking open the floor of Turbine Hall symbolized the fracture in modernity itself, which we try to deny, and urged us to confront uncomfortable truths about history and about ourselves.

Salcedo’s sculptures and installations arise from a deep understanding of human conflict. She is aware that modern societal structures are “wrong,” and her works testify to our willfully blind way of living. With Plegaria Muda, Salcedo commemorates grief but also offers hope and a promise that “life might prevail.” She invites us to recognize our mistakes, take responsibility, and work together toward reform. As she says, “I hope that, in spite of everything, even in difficult conditions, life may win.”

Laura Tansini is a writer based in Rome. She is a frequent contributor to Sculpture and other publications.