The first thing that strikes me when I walk into the Harvard Art Museums' exhibit, “Doris Salcedo: Materiality of Mourning,” is the hush. The lights are dim. I wince whenever I walk because the walls throw back the echoes of my footsteps. 

Alone, in the center of the otherwise bare room are two pieces of “dysfunctional furniture” — reworked wooden cabinets that lie on their backs, piled one atop the other and fused together.  A long kitchen table stabs into the cabinets and juts out the side. The place where the cabinet shelves are supposed to go is filled with cement.

Mary Schneider Enriquez, the curator of the exhibit, says the sculptures convey a deeply unsettled feeling. 

“Why would there be cement inside of a bureau? And why would these pieces of furniture be spliced together in a way that’s not real?” she asks. “It conjures up the sense that something tragic has happened and violence has occurred.”

Artist Doris Salcedo is pictured here. 

David Heald

For me, Salcedo’s sculptures evoke how the home can transform from a safe space to a danger zone. But Angelica Maria Sanchez, a Colombian graduate student who meets me at the exhibit, sees something else: “How heavy pain can be. [Because] of the cement,” she says.

Sanchez’s family knows that pain. Violence drove her grandfather, mother and aunts from their home in the countryside to the outskirts of the city of Cali. Sanchez, like all of her friends in Colombia, grew up hearing stories of trauma. She says her mom and aunts saw “dead people floating down the river,” and also horses coming down the mountains carrying corpses. Sanchez says their stories “always involve violence and bodies being hurt.”

As she speaks, Sanchez stares at the dysfunctional furniture.

“When you have this table pushed through the cement,” she says, “the table has to continue working like a table anyway. So you can lose your mom, you can lose your dad, you can lose your family, but you have to continue living because you have kids. You need to keep pushing and going on.”

The artist, Doris Salcedo, didn’t lose a family member personally in Colombia’s long war. But she sits with survivors for days and hears their stories. 

"What I do," she says, "is I try to empty myself of everything that I could feel or desire," in order to put the strangers’ losses "in my center. And from there, I start the sculpture."

In the beginning of her career, Salcedo’s art was focused on the civil war in Colombia. But since the late '90s, her work has expanded to address violence in other parts of the world.

A couple of years ago, Salcedo proposed a tribute to young people killed by gunfire in Chicago. She wanted to erect a plaza on the grounds of a former housing project. Drops of water would come from the ground and gradually spell out the names of gun victims. When someone walks through the plaza or when the wind blows, the water would be swept away, but then the droplets would gradually form into names again.

“I wanted the sculpture to work the same way our memory works,” she says. “We are able to remember for a short period of time. When there is a massacre in the [United] States, you remember the victims for, I don’t know, a month or a year, until another massacre comes. And then we tend to forget the previous victims and remember the most recent ones.” 

Salcedo says if we no longer cry for the victims, she wants the earth to cry for them.

Ultimately, Salcedo didn’t get the funding or the community support to construct the water memorial in Chicago. So, she’s planning a similar project in Madrid, and instead of honoring gun victims, it will honor asylum seekers who have drowned in the Mediterranean.

But whether Salcedo’s gaze is on Europe or Chicago or Colombia, the aim of her work is constant. 

“I’m trying to articulate what violence has taken away from victims,” she says. “Violence takes away language, the possibility of telling a story. On the contrary, art is a language. It’s giving form, it’s giving meaning, it’s giving dignity back. So, it is doing the opposite of what violence does.”

From PRI's The World ©2016 PRI