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Colombian Protests Violence With Sculpture

Doris Salcedo evokes lives of the 'disappeared' and is credited with taking art in new directions

By Ken DermotaSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 1995



BOGOT, COLOMBIA

Doris Salcedo is a sculptor who fights violence with art. As a Colombian, she lives and works in what is considered the world's most violent society. She is not subtle about the goal of her work: to make her audiences sense the anguish of the ''disappeared'' and their families, so that they will act to end the terror.

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''Indifference is the big problem in our society,'' Ms. Salcedo says.

Colombia has a well-known history of human rights abuses, including the highest murder rate in the world. Apart from crimes tied to drug trafficking and antigovernment-guerrilla activity, some 2,000 Colombians are tortured, murdered, or forcibly ''disappeared'' every year by paramilitary death squads, as reported by the Center for Investigations and Popular Research.

As shocking as these statistics may be, Salcedo believes that no number can move people to act as can telling the story, through art, of one survivor of such violence, or of the absence of a loved one. ''Can you imagine the pain of the wife as she receives the body of her husband?'' she asks.

Salcedo tells her stories without resorting to the use of overt symbols like blood or skulls and crossbones. Instead, she includes objects that were used by the lost loved one. That object, she says, will forever tell its story of the person who is now gone.

'A shoe left lying around'

In one work, ''Atrabiliarios (Defiant),'' shoes have been ensconced in a line of holes in a wall. They are barely visible because each hole is covered with a delicate, translucent piece of a cow's bladder, which is sewn to the wall with what appear to be surgical stitches.

''I use a shoe, because whenever there is a death, or people buried in a mass grave, there is always a shoe left lying around.

''Whenever you see a shoe abandoned on the street, you ask yourself, 'What happened here?' A shoe is a very personal object; a shoe tells you about what kind of person wore it, and it bears the marks, the story of the person who no longer wears it.''

The object is transformed only to maximize its impact, so that the viewer in the museum cannot avoid being moved by the message.

Salcedo is not simply a propagandist. Her art receives the highest marks from gallery owners and critics around the world, and she is credited for taking art in new directions.

''Doris Salcedo is one of the several younger artists today who are redirecting sculpture, moving away from more formally oriented approaches toward social and emotional gestures and meanings,'' writes Dan Cameron in Artforum magazine.

She has shown in the Vienna and Sydney biennials, and her work is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

The quality and power of her art draw worldwide attention to the problems faced by her people. She is also a prophet against the rising tide of violence around the world.

''It is not enough for some liberals to wash their dishes in biodegradable detergent and think they are doing something for the world. That is not enough. We are all responsible for this pain because we do nothing,'' Salcedo says.

With increasing unemployment, ethnic conflict, and social injustice, the rest of the world is starting to look more like Colombia every day, Salcedo says. That makes her sculpture universal.

''Even before they know the work they are looking at is by Doris Salcedo from Colombia, and understand the direct social and political references contained in her sculpture, [viewers] have a strong emotional and aesthetic response,'' says New York gallery owner Carolyn Alexander. ''I believe the strength of the emotional reaction is directly linked to the power of the story behind each piece.''

Stories from abandoned towns

Salcedo collects her stories by traveling to areas of Colombia where entire towns have been abandoned by families fleeing military-sponsored violence. By most estimates, a million displaced Colombians have fled their homes after the murder of loved ones.

One of her works is a tricycle, which has garnered criticism because its wheels have been replaced by the ribs of a child found in a mass grave. This work speaks to the story of a childhood ruined by political strife.

''The story is about a boy whose father was a union man,'' Salcedo says. ''The little boy was told never to open the door. But when the death squad came for his father, he opened the door; and the soldiers took [his father] and killed him.... Now the boy says, 'I will always be sad. The only time I was happy was when my father took me to the park.'

''Now, this little boy wants to be a chemist so he can build a bomb to kill the men who murdered his father. But, his conflict - and he is only eight years old - is how to kill those men without creating more orphans.''

Salcedo's life's work is to forestall such a consequence.

* Salcedo will be showing her work at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh (November); Le Creux d'Enfers in Thiers, France (April); the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington (October); The Galeria Camargo Viaca Gallery in Sao Paulo, Brazil (April 1996); and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, Calif. (May 1997).