An installation so subtle that it barely appears to exist is a current highlight at the Fondation Beyeler. The museum’s largest gallery space looks empty at first glance—nothing hangs on the walls, and it isn’t immediately obvious what might class as an artwork in the room—until you cast your gaze downward and see slight upflows of water, bubbling into view from beneath the floor. The water slowly takes the form of letters that spell out names and then, just as slowly, disappears.
This installation, titled Palimpsest (2013–17), by Doris Salcedo, is an elegant and powerful tribute to the countless people who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they attempted to migrate to Europe. As Salcedo has pointed out, these lost souls are countless by design; the European Union does not keep records of their names, denying migrants their humanity.
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Salcedo has resisted such government callousness for nearly four decades, first in her native Colombia and more recently in work informed by an expanded global view. For five years, she undertook her own research to find the names that appear in Palimpsest, compiling a list of the drowned by way of interviews she conducted. Of the mourning mothers she talked to, Salcedo has said, “it was essential for them to make the names visible, because the pain they were feeling was attached to the specificity and splendor of an irreplaceable life.”
Palimpsest marks a departure for Salcedo, who has long preferred to veil the subjects of her work. Take, for example, an untitled installation that opens the exhibition: a line of nine stacks of white collared shirts of various sizes extends just off the center of the room. The shirts have been covered in white plaster, and steel rods have been driven through each stack. This work, made between 1989 and 2014, deals with a massacre of plantation workers in Colombia.
As with other works on view here—like pieces from her “Atrabiliarios” series (1992–2004), in which shoes are embedded in a museum wall and obscured by stretched swaths of yellowed animal skin—clothing is often the only evidence of a person who has been murdered or intentionally disappeared. That trace of them is all that remains. An exhibition text describes the shirts in the sculpture about the Colombian plantation workers as “stripped of their individuality, made uniform, anonymous and interchangeable.” That might read as cold and clinical, but systematic, state-sponsored violence is cold and clinical. For Salcedo, it is important to draw that out. But in her hands, the connection is never overly explicit or didactic. There is a sense of poetry innate to her work, likely drawn from the artist’s own love of writing by the likes of Paul Celan and Ocean Vuong.
Salcedo is careful never to replicate the violent atrocities that her work invokes. Instead, she offers a means for the families and communities affected by acts of violence to mourn and grieve, and ultimately process their profound sense of loss. That is best exemplified in two works that make use of flora. A Flor de Piel II (2013–14) consists of chemically preserved rose petals that have been sutured together using surgical thread, and installed like an undulating piece of fabric, covering nearly an entire room. Evocative of a funeral shroud, the grief here is palpable, an embodied pain that can never really be sewn back together and healed.
In the next room is the mazelike installation Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer, from 2008–10) in which mounds of dirt are sandwiched between a pair of stacked tables (the top one being inverted). Between the cracks in the wood, blades of grass poke through. There’s a tension in this work that runs through much of Salcedo’s oeuvre. The dirt rectangles can be read as mass graves: no matter how much we try to cover them up with other structures in order to forget about them, they refuse to be silenced and forgotten. They will sprout up and remind us, and perhaps even destroy the structures we create to destroy them.
There’s resonance between Plegaria Muda and the shoe-embedded “Atrabiliarios” pieces: whereas there is a refusal to be forgotten in Plegaria Muda, the “Atrabiliarios” works show how easy it is to forget. The animal skin in them points to how memory can be foggy and start to slip away with each day, month, year. We mustn’t allow that to happen, Salcedo says in her work.
This is a beautiful and impactful exhibition—Salcedo’s art is always elegant, commanding, and poignant. As her first museum show in Switzerland, it serves to introduce her to new audiences, especially in Europe. But while it certainly was moving to see many of the works included—most of them several years and even decades old—this is an exhibition also in search of a purpose. Neither a retrospective of the kind mounted by the Guggenheim Museum in 2015 nor a survey with new scholarship about Salcedo’s practice (though there is an exhibition catalogue), it left me wanting more. For an artist whose work makes the world look so different by uncovering the stories of those who could easily be forgotten, it would have been even more moving to see what is currently at the top of Salcedo’s mind and how she might translate that into new work.