Doris Salcedo is one of the true greats of the art world. The exhibition at the White Cube shows her characteristic gravitas, through its exploration of notions of vulnerability, death and commemoration. But her work, whilst directly referring to historic acts of violence, has a prevailing sense of universality. At first, the loss and grief referred to in her sculptures generates a distant awareness of political violence, but it quickly becomes understood on more personal and intimate terms. Salcedo treads softly through political, social and aesthetic concepts, and gently tips the viewer towards awareness of the sublime and the cyclical nature of existence.
The visceral aesthetic of her sculptures engages our imagination and creates an almost tangible tension between the viewer and the artwork. The awareness of our own physicality in relation to the sculpture causes us to project our own sensory memories onto the work, and experience a tenderness that relates to the wider political context of the work. We understand larger tragedies with a compassion and awareness of the human condition arising from deep within our own psyche.
The first gallery space features Flor de Piel (2012), a mass of delicate cloth consisting of thousands of rose petals threaded together. The rich folds of this floral shroud give weight to Salcedo's transient installation, and the time and care invested in its creation give it a quiet solemnity. Referring to the "simple but impossible task of making a flower offering to a victim of torture," the piece begins to measure the enormity of grief and the brittleness of the human spirit. Salcedo’s stoicism and the intricate physicality required in the formation of the work stretch to the fine edges of aesthetic potential.
Plegaria Muda (2008-2010) is a collection of sculptures resembling a memorial ground. There is a subtle echo of public memorials; it brings to mind The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin and its tomblike war memorials inscribed with the names of those dead in so many cities, towns and villages across the globe. But there are more delicate aesthetics at play here. The wooden tables in each monolithic unit have the dimensions of a standard-sized coffin. The matured wood tells of a functional history, now obsolete through the positioning of one table, up side down on top of the other. The thick, crumbling earth separating the two tables is compressed; a solid compact mass sandwiched between the wooden surfaces. However, the fragmenting of earth at the edges prophesies its eventual slippage and disintegration. It is a cycle within a cycle, poised within the gallery, but nevertheless awaiting a tipping of the balance. On each upturned table, grass sprouts from tiny fissures in the wood, reminding us of the repetitive nature of decay and creation.
A unique quality of Salcedo’s work is the aromatic nature of the materials she uses. The impression of each piece lingers hauntingly in our memory, conjured up by the understated natural scent of earth, petals and wood. This extra dimension to her art gives deeper awareness of its textural quality and makes us more aware of our humanness. The intensity of each installation can fluctuate and shift depending on whether we see it as a solitary viewer alongside others. Walking between the still horizontal forms, one is aware of their own vertical bearing and kinesis. Similarly the positioning of the rose petal cloth invites us to bend closer to the surface of the ground, reminding us of our strength and malleability but also of our own mortality. This awareness is also found in the hardness of the wooden surfaces of Plegaria Muda, which contrasts with the softness and vitality of the human form and is reflected in the supple shoots of grass.
Salcedo is often perceived as a political artist. However, her retrospective approach to politically charged events sheds a veil of uncertainty over the works’ potential as vessels of political thought. This in turn calls into question to extent to which her art is truly ‘political’ in the active and radical sense of the word. Alternatively, we could understand her artworks as ‘beyond-political’. She steps outside of specific political dialogues, refocusing on the literal and experiential comprehension of historical events.
Salcedo’s work is meditative, and demands introspection. We might see it as a new means of empathy and communication. It is politics on a personal level, and reminds us that the local and global are not separate, but folded in to each other. Her artistic expertise lies in the fact that she enables us to engage with this process of introspection naturally and instinctively. For this reason, the White Cube exhibition is a must-see, and a rewarding 30-minute meditation seconds away from the bustle of Oxford Street.