Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Troubled Materiality": The Installations of Doris Salcedo

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Troubled Materiality": The Installations of Doris Salcedo

Article excerpt

In her early installations, contemporary Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo re-signifies damaged domestic objects in ways that trigger processes of memory and mourning. They thus acquire the potential to perform profanatory acts, which Giorgio Agamben understands as a way of returning things to human use and potentiality in our time.

We must always wrest from the apparatuses [...] the possibility of use they have captured. The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation.--Giorgio Agamben, Profanations

In Profanations, Giorgio Agamben asks whether today there are still effective ways of profaning, of returning things to human use and potentiality, in an era of late capitalism that "has its emblematic place in the museum" (85), a space where use has been withdrawn from things: "If to profane means to return to common use that which has been removed from the sphere of the sacred, the capitalist religion in its extreme phase aims at creating something absolutely unprofanable" (82), in the sense that it reduces everything to the value of consumption, which Agamben regards as "nothing but the impossibility or the negation of use" (82). In light of this question, I explore in what follows the extent to which the installations of contemporary Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo redefine the use of the altered domestic objects that make up her installations; challenge the space of the museum, understood as a sanctuary for no longer useful objects; and initiate, without claiming to complete, a process of mourning and healing needed to move beyond the paralysis resulting from ongoing violence. (1) Salcedo's work enacts a persistent struggle to re-signify everyday objects and resist the violent hindering of potential use that they display.

Salcedo's installations are politically informed, intimately engaged with the loss of human life and the erosion of both private and public spheres that have resulted from decades of violence in Colombia. Her work explores the relationship between objects and bodies; between objects, place, and duration; between representation and violence; between words and materiality; and between memory and forgetting, along with the gap between the witness offering testimony and the one who receives it. In particular, it addresses the aftermath of violence and raises the question of how one goes about living after an experience that irrevocably transforms the meaning of the ordinary, after which everything or anything--a simple chair, a kitchen table, a shoe--has been affected and becomes reminiscent of unbearable violence and loss.

Since her early work, Salcedo has used domestic objects that "bespeak the presence of human beings" (Basualdo, "In Conversation" 21), objects that bear traces of the human but that have been removed from the sphere of daily use and thus appear estranged, as a kind of coded language that calls attention to the fracturing or loss of human lives. Her work repeatedly stages the link between deactivation and reactivation of use that Agamben regards as characteristic of profanatory acts: "the creation of new use," associated with the profane, "is possible only by deactivating an old use, rendering it inoperative" (86).

Material remainders of real subjects are often inscribed within the objects in Salcedo's installations, particularly the ones from the 1980s and '90s--in the form of human hair, as in Unland: The Orphan's Tunic, or the bits of bone and cloth sticking out from the cemented surfaces of old furniture in Untitled. In more recent work such personal artifacts as "the ruffle, shoe or sleeve" found in Atrabiliarios, La casa viuda, and the Unland series, as Edlie L. Wong points out, "are no longer in evidence" (183), a significant absence that marks a move away from the domestic spaces of the earlier installations, "a progressive shift [...] from inside to outside spaces, private to public objects" (184). …

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